In the words of Robert A. Day, chairman and chief executive officer of the W. M. Keck Foundation, the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was designed to create a powerful, ongoing forum where the best and brightest minds from across the disciplines of science, technology, and medical research can come together to ask each other, “What if...?” More than that, they could then secure the funds necessary to pursue ideas and conduct follow-on research. Training individuals who are conversant in ideas and languages of other fields is central to the continued march of scientific progress in the 21st century (NRC, 2005).
Fifteen years of experience and feedback have culminated in impressive results—not only in terms of generating solutions to problems but also garnering follow-on funding, positively impacting careers, engaging the public, and creating a robust model that can be adapted by others. The model itself, and the future achievements of those who have been part of NAKFI, will be the Futures Initiative’s most powerful and lasting legacy. The lessons gleaned from the NAKFI experiment presented in this publication are grounded in theory and demonstrated in practice. They reflect the hallmarks of the model and have supported its ability to be an idea incubator, conversation starter, career changer, and creator of cascading impact.
It is difficult to capture a complete picture of NAKFI’s multi-faceted results and success this early in the trajectory of innovating at the frontiers of science, engineering, and medicine. This chapter explores what we know today about the program’s success by the numbers, components, and through representative examples of its impact on individual and systemic change.
NAKFI’s $14.6 million investment in Futures Grants to conference participants has resulted in more than $158 million in verified follow-on funding, 205 publications, and 6 patents. NAKFI funding also supported the work of 94 graduate students (master’s and PhD) and 42 postdoctoral fellows. These results will continue to accrue even as the program itself comes to an end. Beyond quantifiable outcomes of grantees are the lived experiences of the entire 2,000+ NAKFI alumni and volunteers who have been influenced by the program with or without receiving grant funding. This powerful network was supported through an experience that for 3 days
TABLE 4-1 NAKFI by the Numbers
|$40,000,000||Funding received by the W. M. Keck Foundation for NAKFI|
|11,489||Downloads of the Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research report from NAP|
|15||Years of NAKFI program and Futures Conferences|
|22,133||Downloads of the 13 Futures Conference summaries from NAP|
|2,019||NAKFI alumni thinking “big” at the frontiers of science, engineering, and medicine|
|202||Futures Grants awarded|
|$14,600,000||Funding awarded for Futures Grants to fuel innovation|
|$158,000,000||Verified follow-on funding secured by Futures Grantees|
|205||Publications produced by Futures Grantees|
|6,442||Times NAKFI-funded papers have been cited by others|
|6||Patents granted to Futures Grantees|
|94||Graduate students supported by Futures Grants|
|42||Postdoctoral fellows supported by Futures Grants|
|162||Students involved in NAKFI science writing and design activities|
|$1,500,000||For three NAKFI Challenge awards to further the NAKFI legacy|
|60||Awards given for excellence in science reporting to the public|
|$1,200,000||Funding provided to Communication Award winners|
|34,000||Average number of individual visits to NAKFI’s website each month|
|479||Stories or posts about NAKFI that appeared in media outlets in 2016|
reduced the systemic barriers of time and space and encouraged interdisciplinary collaboration. These individuals have and will continue to create results that are unknown and even unknowable but no less genuine. Generating these cascading effects was part of the NAKFI vision.
The NAKFI Challenge launched in 2017 to invest in projects that will carry forward NAKFI’s work beyond its 15 years as an activity of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Open only to NAKFI alumni who participated in the program’s annual interdisciplinary conferences, the call for proposals generated 78 applications. Directly or indirectly, the three winning proposals, each supported by $500,000, will continue the work outlined in the original goals of the Futures Initiative.
NAKFI’s support of science communication through the National Academies’ Communication Awards and science writing and design student program has honored excellence in science communication and cultivated science writing and design students of the future. The large cash prize and recognition connected with receiving a Communication Award has made a meaningful difference in the careers of award recipients. Winning the book award in 2006 helped author Charles Mann fund the research and travel necessary to write his next book. At least twice, winners have given their award money to the organizations where they work (a regional newspaper and a public radio station), providing crucial financial support. More recently, reporters at FiveThirtyEight, a site known for predicting election results, won in the online category for reporting on gun deaths in the United States. A member of that team donated his winnings to an organization dedicated to conducting research on gun violence.
The program for science writing and design students was a mini-residency that nurtured important skills and provided practical experience working with researchers and other creative practitioners. Many of the science writing students now have careers with high-profile publications such as Science and National Geographic, or as freelancers working with multiple organizations. The program’s impact on the anticipated career pathways of the design students toward a focus on issues with a scientific component is equally exciting. One student was accepted to the joint Caltech/NASA/ArtCenter Data Visualization program and will be working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and another interned with the Wellbeing Index, a data-driven community engagement initiative in Santa Monica, California. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the presence of science writing and design students was mutually beneficial to research participants. In some
cases, the exchanges led to new scientific insights and in others it refocused careers, as described by NAKFI alumna Kiryn Haslinger, who was a scientist that participated in two conferences as a science writing student. “My experience as a student science writer was integral in my decision to pursue a career in science writing at the expense of my career as a scientist. The integration of the student writers during the meeting—networking and sharing meals with the research participants and contributing to the [task] groups was wonderful,” she said.
One way to illustrate NAKFI’s generative aspects is through its media coverage throughout the year. NAKFI’s media exposure climbed steadily during the course of the program, with a significant increase in 2015 when NAKFI engaged in social media for the first time. In 2016, the last complete program year with Futures Conferences and Grants, NAKFI reached more than 254 million people with 479 publications or posts. This is up from 135 million people and nearly 260 publications or posts in 2015. By the program’s end, the average number of individual visitors to NAKFI’s website was 34,000 per month.
NAKFI has inspired its diverse network of alumni to “think big” at all frontiers of science, engineering, and medicine. This is just the first step in its role as a conversation starter, idea incubator, career transformer, venture science supporter, and public engager. The generative ideas that NAKFI has inspired and nurtured are an important component of the pursuit of discovery and innovation that is necessary to fuel our prosperity and success as a nation for the next 50 years. We invite you to explore NAKFI’s impact
on individual and systemic change through the representative examples shared in this section. For every story told here, there are others that will have relevance and significance beyond NAKFI’s tenure.
Futures Grantees and participants from 2015–2016 (e.g., Brandon Ballengée, Jonathan Berger/Timothy Weaver, Alyson Santoro/Andrew
Quitmeyer, and Madhvi Venkatesh/Lisa-ann Gershwin) are bringing important issues related to the health of oceans, biodiversity, and ecosystems to the public through traveling museum exhibits, dance, interactive portals, and museum apps. These projects highlight how art–science collaborations can engage the public and other scientists and encourage discourse in important issues. They also represent concrete projects that have transcended the Futures Conferences and led to not only scientific impact but also educational, cultural, and social influence.
The Futures Model supported venture science by providing an experience that eliminated systemic barriers to interdisciplinary collaborations and, in select cases, a monetary incentive for attendees to pursue ideas
generated during Futures Conferences. The following emerging stories were identified as “the ones to watch” during an expert review to document and understand how encouraging NAKFI participants to dream big, learn as they go, pivot, and fail forward contributes to scientific innovation.
The late George Bernard Shaw said, “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery—it’s the sincerest form of learning.” Many individuals and organizations have learned from NAKFI’s inventive role as a conversation starter, idea incubator, career transformer, venture science supporter, and public engager. NAKFI has generated a legacy that will be better understood in the decades to come, and the cascading effects are already starting to be revealed through those who have leveraged what NAKFI has proved possible. These examples show that cascading effects beyond intended impact of the program are possible in part because individuals can have powerful impact on the scientific endeavor.
Futures Grantee Dr. John Cumbers incorporated the small group portion of NAKFI’s Synthetic Biology conference into the agenda for a workshop exploring the potential role for synthetic biology in NASA missions. During the meeting, participants broke into five working groups addressing different applications of synthetic biology to NASA missions: biological in situ resource utilization, biosensors, biomaterials and self-building habitats, human health, and life support for long-term space travel and habitation. A multi-author summary on the workshop reported, “[T]his workshop identified many ways where synthetic biology could revolutionize NASA’s science and exploration missions.” Another workshop participant “hope[s] that NAKFI sponsorship of the workshop played a role in the new program in synthetic biology that was initiated at NASA headquarters.” Organizing the workshop also inspired Cumbers to start his own company,
SynBioBeta, that works to connect investors with scientists and emerging research in the field of synthetic biology. The company organizes international conferences and workshops that bring “thought leaders, entrepreneurs and the academia together to discuss the latest topics and advancements in the synthetic biology industry.” Cumbers said that he thinks he was already heading in this professional direction before he won support from NAKFI. However, the seed grant offered him the distinction that comes with NAKFI support and drew more high-profile people like Craig Venter and Elon Musk to the first conference than he probably could have without it, he said. “That prestige allowed us to invite Craig Venter and that kind of draw (of his talk) allowed us to build up the workshop. NAKFI really accelerated everything we were working on,” he said. “It’s called the Keck Futures Initiative; in this case it just depends on how far in the future we are talking.”
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of vision loss in America today. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Initiative for Macular Research was launched in 2009 and in 2016 became the Stephen J. Ryan Initiative for Macular Research (RIMR) to honor the memory of its founder. Participants in RIMR conferences are improving AMD diagnostics and expanding the prospect of new treatments for the number one cause of visual impairment and blindness in older Americans. The RIMR program was inspired by NAKFI. RIMR adapted the NAKFI model, which addresses a single topic at each of a series of annual conferences, to a multi-year effort on atrophic age-related macular degeneration. RIMR brings together outstanding basic scientists, engineers, medical researchers, and clinicians to develop a better understanding of age-related atrophic macular degeneration (AMD). At annual RIMR conferences, these accomplished leaders
from very different backgrounds and disciplines explore technologies, discoveries, and ideas.
The Minnesota Futures grant program supports extraordinary research by nurturing interdisciplinary ideas. The Minnesota Futures grant program advances new, collaborative research by fostering opportunities for researchers to cross disciplinary and professional boundaries and respond to emerging interdisciplinary research and scholarship. According to the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research, “Minnesota Futures Grants [are] modeled after the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative.” The goal is to develop new ideas to a point where they are competitive for external funding. More than $6 million has been awarded since 2008 to encourage innovation along the scientific spectrum from “nanoparticles for cancer diagnosis and therapy” to “the art and science of nesting bees.” Many grantees receive substantial follow-on funding for their innovative research that has the potential to improve the lives of millions.
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. This had serious impacts on the environment and people of the Gulf of Mexico region. As part of the settlements in the criminal cases with the companies involved, the federal government requested that a new program be established at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine dedicated to funding and conducting activities to enhance offshore energy system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico region and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions that support offshore energy production. Settlement funds totaling $500 million were designated toward a 30-year endowment for what became the Gulf Research Program (GRP). The GRP is an independent, science-based program that funds grants, fellowships, and other activities in the areas of research and development, education and capacity building, and monitoring and synthesis.
“Involvement in NAKFI informed strategic planning for the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program,” said Stephen R. Carpenter, NAKFI Steering Committee on Ecosystem Services chair, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Stephen Alfred Forbes Professor of Limnology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Limnology. Carpenter served on the Advisory Group that helped establish the GRP in 2013 and 2014, and this connection led to collaboration between the two programs with the GRP looking to the NAKFI model as one example of how to bring together experts from a range of disciplines to address critical societal challenges. The GRP’s interest in community engagement also stimulated financial support of the Futures Grants awarded following the 2016 conference Discovering the Deep Blue Sea: Research, Innovation, Social Engagement, as well as a mechanism to assess the impact of the grants following NAKFI’s conclusion.
These stories represent only a small sample of NAKFI’s impact in action. This impact will continue to expand and evolve over time as alumni ask new questions and make new discoveries.
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