“The National Academies share with the W. M. Keck Foundation a commitment to advancing science, engineering, and medical research to improve the human condition. We share the conviction that opportunities for researchers to cross disciplinary boundaries are of paramount importance in making scientific progress today. We believe that catalyzing successful communication between people who otherwise live in different worlds is the key to making rapid strides in advancing these common goals.”
—The NAKFI: A Proposal to the Keck Foundation (National Academies, 2002)
Open only to individuals who had previously participated in the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI), the final conference held in November 2017 was organized around the broad themes of health and medicine; human–technology interfaces, environments and systems, and education and outreach. It was an occasion for participants in previous conferences to explore the unexpected intersections that exist within the NAKFI community. The meeting included the opportunity to:
- Meet colleagues from across all 14 previous Futures Conferences;
- Freely explore scientific topics identified by attendees;
- Exchange insights about the strands of research beginning to flourish; and
- Share strategies for supporting interdisciplinary and team-based science.
Leading up to the meeting, participants were encouraged to peruse NAKFI’s library of pre-conference tutorials and podcasts. Participants were asked to consider how the issues of their previous NAKFI conference had changed. Those who had not participated in a conference involving artists and designers were pointed to content from 2015 and 2016. Staff introduced the teams to each other by email in order to begin conversations before everyone arrived.
Rather than a keynote address by a single speaker, the conference opened with a “Kinetic Keynote” featuring nine short talks by NAKFI alumni from different conferences. The stories they shared were professional, personal, humorous, and hopeful. Unprompted, many talked about the role NAKFI played in their professional development and direction.
The meeting maintained the small group structure, but finding questions of shared interest was left to participants, not the committee. Participants were assigned to a group based on the topic they most wanted to explore. The first day of the meeting was focused on the group members becoming familiar with each other and revealing overlapping concerns and curiosities.
By the end of 2018 NAKFI will have fulfilled its mission and completed its life cycle. The program launched with big aspirations to create individual and systemic change. During its tenure, NAKFI challenged the boundaries between disciplinary silos by providing opportunities, support, and tools for the best researchers to move fluidly across disciplines, fields, and sectors. Through these strategies, the program achieved the National Academies’ vision to advance research across the scientific spectrum while developing a model for innovation that occupies a unique space in the landscape of efforts to support innovative, cross-disciplinary research.
By describing the numerous tangible and intangible results of the NAKFI 15-year experiment and the lessons gleaned during the life of the program, this publication shares NAKFI with the world. The feedback from NAKFI alumni confirms that scientists and non-scientists alike are eager for opportunities to work collaboratively through a NAKFI-style experience. The gap NAKFI was created to fill still exists because the gap is vast and building bridges to span it is often difficult and fraught with challenges. If NAKFI alumni are any indication, those who want to work in this way will remain undaunted. They will forge novel partnerships and conduct experi-
ments in the absence of traditional funding and reward systems. This gap also represents an opportunity for individuals, institutions, and funders to continue to close the gap by launching, supporting, and participating in NAKFI-style conferences and investing in venture science by creating access to seed grant funding. Given the results of NAKFI’s 15 years of creating and delivering such opportunities, a wealth of benefits can be gained if leaders today embrace that legacy and take action to drive change:
- Challenge colleagues, departments, institutions, disciplines, and professional societies to embrace a pluralism of perspectives and a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach.
- Advocate for organizational missions and programs that support science and the arts and create opportunities for venture science.
- Expect, support, and reward collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to research.
- Embrace venture science by funding grants for innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary research, regardless of risk.
- Rethink how science innovation can be achieved by hosting NAKFI-style experiences, adding art and design to program goals, and incorporating interdisciplinary thinking into programs.
Individuals and organizations looking to engage in the interdisciplinary, collaborative research needed to tackle the most pressing problems are encouraged to imagine how the legacy of NAKFI can support their efforts to act as innovators, conversation starters, idea incubators, providers of venture science support, career transformers, and creators of unexpected outcomes.
The final NAKFI conference held in 2017 was organized around the idea of NAKFI Beyond Boundaries and explored intersections across all of the previous conference themes. During the closing session a participant urged the audience to continue the momentum begun at the meeting: “Again, you’ve been invited. Use the power of the invitation to engage with EVERYONE who has a reason to care.”
This publication invites anyone who has a reason to care to carry the NAKFI legacy forward in ways that cannot yet be imagined.
“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”