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Chemical & Engineering News:
"Broadening Research Collaborations"
October 6, 2003

Interdisciplinary work is heart of NSF's Biocomplexity in the Environment initiative


One hundred and fifty-five scientists gathered at the National Science Foundation late last month to present their latest results and experiences from the agency's Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE) initiative.

The group, mainly composed of principal investigators, but including some postdoctoral and graduate students, provided important feedback to the agency on the merits of the program. A significant theme in their comments was the value of communication and the increased cooperation that derives from the research.

NSF initially established BE as a five-year priority area in 1999, but because of its success--both in drawing grant applicants and in yielding important research results--the initiative has been extended until 2007. With a funding level in fiscal 2003 of just under $80 million, the BE priority area has made approximately 225 awards to interdisciplinary teams of at least three principal investigators since its inception. The awards can be either one-year exploratory grants on the order of $100,000 or larger grants of $1 million to $4 million for a period of up to five years.

On hand to address the meeting was NSF Director Rita R. Colwell. Colwell's remarks focused on the theme of holistic science and understanding how important it is to future discoveries.

Colwell, Anex, and Graedel group picture
Colwell Anex Graedel

"Holistic science is in the ascendancy now," she told the audience. "Seminal insights from one discipline generate discoveries in otherwise unrelated fields." It's these dynamic influences that give "us the means to begin charting a systemic and comprehensive view of life, matter, and the environment at all scales of time and place," she explained.

"Today--given the power of emerging collaborative insights, extraordinary tools, and global access to information--we are gaining the capability to represent our universe from the nanoscale to the astronomical in a specificity of detail that is breathtaking," she said.

But for this scientific progress to occur, scientists from different fields must understand and overcome the differences in language and style--or culture--between their disciplines. Tackling this communication issue is an essential element of the BE initiative and is something that each attendee continually addresses, as many attendees pointed out to C&EN.

"The BE program pushes us outside our comfort zone," said Thomas E. Graedel, professor of chemical engineering at Yale University. Graedel is in the early stage of a BE grant to study the anthropogenic cycles of steel and its associated elements. He has recently completed similar studies on the cycles of copper and of zinc.

Graedel said that the BE program forced him and his research colleagues, a geologist and a social scientist, to add an economist to their team in order to provide a more complete picture of all the factors at play in the system.

While the BE program has helped to establish broader collaborative teams, Graedel sees another level of potential bridges the program could foster. "I'm starting to appreciate the complementary nature of BE projects" that were displayed at the poster sessions of the meeting, he said. This complementarity is something he believes NSF should try to harness.

For example, he noticed several groups were looking at copper uses in different ways and under different conditions. Finding a way to bridge the data sets from these studies--including his previous work on copper--would provide a more complete picture of the copper system. Similarly, this could be done for other data sets from other systems under investigation in this initiative to move science forward.

"This meeting has made us aware of what types of research are being funded by this program," said Robert P. Anex, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University. He agrees with Graedel that forming connections between projects would be a great benefit to science, adding that he would like to see the initiative evolve to include cross-linking between the projects.

Anex and his colleagues are using BE funding to look at developing the people, skills, and tools needed for understanding the systemwide sustainability of biobased products. He credits NSF for pulling him into this work, noting that: "I wouldn't be doing this without NSF."

Sun (left) and Rucker
The BE program has also encouraged Anex, a systems engineer, to include team members with whom he wouldn't otherwise work. For example, in addition to himself, a chemical engineer, and an industrial ecologist, the team includes a sociologist and an economist--researchers not usually included among a team of physical scientists.

Working with a diverse team is nothing new for professor Margaret H. Rucker and associate professor Gang Sun of the University of California, Davis, textiles and clothing department. As with the BE initiative, they note that their department expects multidisciplinary collaborations.

"We are delighted with NSF's program because it is in keeping with the approach of our department," Rucker said. Rucker is an economist studying consumer information processing and decision-making towards clothing, and Sun is a chemist working on the synthesis of functional textiles and functional polymeric materials. The two are working with fellow department member Susan Kaiser, a social scientist, to evaluate disposable and reusable fabrics used in medical textiles.

"It's good that NSF started this program," Sun said. "It shows that our department is not alone" in its pursuit of collaborative research, he added.

As collaborative research continues to make strides, researchers must take care to prepare the next generation. "Even with the bounty we now enjoy--of new technologies and powerful collaboration--we won't be able to explore the further frontiers of science without developing the talent of our young people," Colwell pointed out in her speech. "We can only reach those heights by teaching the excitement of holistic science and inspiring the next generation to commit to doing the hard work that lies ahead."


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society


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