Volume 86 Issue 12 | pp. 34-37
Issue Date: March 24, 2008

Multidisciplinary Research Funding

Foundations, government agencies respond to research trend, but experts say more support is called for
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
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Cross Boundaries
Wolynes is cochair of a National Academies panel that is studying the cultural and funding issues surrounding multidisciplinary research.
Credit: Ann Tamura
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Cross Boundaries
Wolynes is cochair of a National Academies panel that is studying the cultural and funding issues surrounding multidisciplinary research.
Credit: Ann Tamura

MULTIDISCIPLINARY research is viewed by many scientists as one of today's best routes to innovation—sometimes, perhaps, the only route. But putting together funding for multidisciplinary research can be a daunting task. Funding agencies and foundations—like academic departments and even industrial research centers—are traditionally divided up according to discipline, and the money they dole out flows along those boundaries. This structure has meant that only the most creative and determined researchers have been able to stitch together funding for multidisciplinary research efforts.

But the climate for multidisciplinary research funding is changing. As rank-and-file chemists, chemical engineers, and other researchers have increasingly pursued boundary-crossing lines of investigation, the money has started to follow. Foundations and government agencies have opened new programs and opportunities for multidisciplinary research, a funding paradigm that has some history but has had only intermittent success. And more is yet to come. Already some influential studies have cited the need for better multidisciplinary research funding, and ongoing studies are taking the pulse of this undisputed research trend.

Funding agencies need to be aware of the opportunities afforded by multidisciplinary research, particularly research at the interface of the life and physical sciences, says Peter Wolynes, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. He says the agencies have begun to respond to the move toward multidisciplinary research in some ways, but more needs to be done.

Wolynes is cochair of a study under way at the National Academies called Research at the Intersection of the Physical & Life Sciences (RIPLS). He says the panel is taking a broad look at this intersection, from the molecular level to broad ecosystem questions. "We want to try to delineate the research opportunities," he says. "We will deal with cultural and funding issues."

Recently, the RIPLS study panel hosted a symposium at the National Academies in Washington, D.C., wherein a number of investigators made presentations concerning interdisciplinary research challenges and opportunities in such areas as national security, biomaterials and biomimetics, origin of life, and fluorescence imaging. "People who work at the interface feel they haven't been able to tell their story," says Wolynes, who notes that tackling biological problems "can inspire new thinking in physics and chemistry." He says the panel will likely issue its report this summer.

Gentile
Credit: Research Corporation
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Gentile
Credit: Research Corporation

"This kind of funding is going to really be necessary," says RIPLS symposium participant James Gentile, president of Research Corporation, a foundation for the advancement of science based in Tucson, Ariz. "We are going to see teams of faculty working across boundaries, and this will require a whole different paradigm for funding science." And, he says, multidisciplinary research will have "profound implications" for the way students and postdocs are trained.

Gentile says Research Corporation is making important changes to its own funding programs to address the rise of interdisciplinary research. He explains that the foundation plans to support faculty working at the interfaces of chemistry, physics, and astronomy, as well as the interfaces of those disciplines with the life sciences. The foundation, he points out, sees long-term value in supporting interdisciplinary research within institutions. "Funding through departmental letterhead is really out of date," he notes.

A NEW Research Corporation program that will begin in 2009, Gentile says, is envisioned as a series of institutes focused at various interfaces of the physical and biological sciences. The institutes will take place in successive three-year intervals. Each one will include funding and the convening of teams of scientists to complete pilot studies, each based on a transformative idea that addresses a fundamental need in science. Promising collaborative ventures resulting from the institutes may be funded beyond the three-year limits, he notes.

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES is also partnering with the W. M. Keck Foundation to go beyond studying just how to fund research at the intersection of traditional scientific disciplines. The joint 15-year, $40 million effort—known as the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI)—consists of conferences, grants, and awards for innovative research.

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Credit: Jessie Willis
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Suda-Blake
Credit: Jessie Willis

"The objective of NAKFI grants is to position researchers to compete for larger awards from other public or private sources for ideas that are generated at NAKFI conferences," Program Director Kimberly Suda-Blake says. "We aim to accomplish this by providing seed funding to NAKFI conference participants on a competitive basis to enable them to pursue important new ideas and connections stimulated by the conferences. These grants fill a critical missing link between bold new ideas and major federal funding programs, which do not currently offer seed grants in new areas that are considered risky or exotic."

One NAKFI grant recipient is Sarah Heilshorn, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University. She attended a program conference on prosthetics and subsequently received funding for multidisciplinary research on tissue prosthetics. "The money can be used flexibly to pay for equipment and supplies and to pay graduate students," Heilshorn says. "It's allowed me to do a project that was a little riskier."

Heilshorn says attending a NAKFI symposium on prosthetics led to her participation in another multidisciplinary project involving several scientists. "There was a discussion group," she says, "and one of the questions that emerged was how would you design a prosthetic device that would grow with the child?" The discussion group decided to apply together for NAKFI funding to explore the idea, she explains, adding that she is also interested in such multidisciplinary topics as smart prosthetics and internal power sources for prosthetics. "There are lots of technical hurdles that any one scientist alone might not be able to overcome," she says.

Laurencin
Credit: University of Virginia
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Laurencin
Credit: University of Virginia

Cato T. Laurencin, University Professor and chair of the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia, is another NAKFI grant recipient and multidisciplinary research advocate. "We have certainly come a long way in this area of supporting multidisciplinary research," he says. "Individuals involved in interdisciplinary research are now seen as being mainstream, but we need real programs that harness it."

Sung
Credit: Burroughs Wellcome Fund
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Sung
Credit: Burroughs Wellcome Fund

At the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF), Program Director Nancy Sung says foundation board members recognized in the mid-1990s that the future of biology would be much more quantitative and computational and that government funding agencies were probably not providing adequate support for this type of cross-disciplinary research.

In 2001, Sung says, BWF started the Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI) program. The grants are intended to foster the early career development of researchers with backgrounds in the physical and computational sciences whose work addresses biological questions and who are dedicated to pursuing a career in academic research. The awards provide $500,000 over five years to support up to two years of advanced postdoctoral training and the first three years of a faculty appointment, usually at a different institution. Thus far, the program has granted 63 awards.

Funding of higher risk research is "what foundations are supposed to do," Sung says. She says BWF is keen to support younger scientists and help them gain a foothold in traditional academic departments.

One of the scientists BWF is supporting is Mary L. Kraft, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She received her CASI award in 2007 while still a postdoc at Stanford University, and now she is in a tenure-track position. Research in her lab includes imaging mass spectrometry of biomaterials and composition analysis of the influenza virus preenvelope domain.

Kraft says BWF "completely understood" how much work is required to get equipment and to begin working in multiple research areas. She points out that the university has been supportive of her efforts, but there are challenges, among them securing funding and attracting students to work on projects that cross disciplinary lines. "You need to demonstrate that you're capable of doing research in a number of different areas," she adds.

According to Sung, BWF tracks CASI awardees closely and pays particular attention to their transition into their first faculty position. Many of them move into physical sciences departments where they become the first faculty member to focus on biological questions, she explains. For these scientists, she says, several questions loom: Will these awardees be able to compete for research funding from the National Institutes of Health? Will they succeed in developing experimental research programs to complement their theoretical or computational backgrounds? Will they attract students and win tenure? She says BWF believes the answer to these questions will be "yes."

SCIENTIFIC SOCIETIES are also coming together in support of interdisciplinary research. A coalition of 16 research societies, including the American Chemical Society, have formed the Bridging the Sciences Coalition to push for substantial federal funding for research at the intersection of biological sciences and physical and computational sciences. The coalition is run by the Biophysical Society.

A coalition white paper states that, "Although chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics underpin modern medicine and biological research, these fields are poised to offer a much wider contribution to the basic understanding of biological processes." It also claims that "limited federal research funding in the enabling sciences threatens to limit progress, but additional support would accelerate advancements toward solving some of the most intractable problems in the biomedical sciences. This in turn would broadly benefit society, not only by enhancing the development of effective new drugs and therapies, but also by fueling economic expansion."

Ken A. Dill, a professor of biophysics and associate dean for research at UC San Francisco, says the coalition is committed to helping develop the interface between the physical and life sciences and developing programs for deep innovation at the funding agencies, particularly at NIH.

"The issue is not that the agencies don't fund the area between physics and biology," he says, "it's that they're not funding deep innovations at these boundaries. It's just a huge, gaping hole."

And work at this interface is important. "Depending on how the boundaries are counted, between 10 and 20 Nobel Prizes have been given for work at this interface," the white paper states, adding that much of this work has occurred outside the U.S. For example, the paper points to developments in England of X-ray crystallography to determine protein structures and of electron microscopy for large biological complexes, and in Switzerland of scanning tunneling microscopy for a range of problems in chemistry and biology.

These discoveries are among many examples illustrating the opportunities that U.S. research is missing because of funding silos, the white paper claims. "To sustain scientific and economic competitiveness, the United States must address scientific challenges for which one field of research pays off for another," the paper concludes.

The coalition outreach has already effected change by contributing to the shaping of a new NIH award program called Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA). This program will provide up to $800,000 in funding over four years for projects that have the potential to advance the frontiers of science. The program is supported by four NIH institutes: National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke.

Berg
Credit: Ernie Branson/NIH
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Berg
Credit: Ernie Branson/NIH

"The goal is to fund research of potential high impact," NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg says. "Multidisciplinary research may fill the bill in many cases."

The application for a EUREKA grant, Berg says, is different from that for other NIH programs. Instead of the usual 25 pages, it is eight, Berg points out. The idea, according to him, is to focus applicants and reviewers more on the ideas contained in the proposals. The first round of proposals was recently submitted, and he says the response was "very robust—we received hundreds of applications." Awards will be announced later this year.

In addition to the EUREKA program, NIH has a number of programs that address the rise of multidisciplinary or "team" research. NIH also has in place the option for multiple investigators to submit a single NIH grant application, which makes it easier for interdisciplinary teams of scientists to secure funds for group projects.

NAFKI grantee Laurencin applauds efforts at federal agencies to support multidisciplinary research. He cites programs such as the National Science Foundation's Emerging Frontiers in Research & Innovation program for engineering research and portions of the NIH Roadmap—which charts interdisciplinary research as part of the NIH funding paradigm—as examples of programs that are effective.

"Clearly, much more funding needs to occur," Laurencin says, "but the funding agencies are sensitized to the need for interdisciplinary research."

 
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