Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Welcoming Remarks to the NSF/NIH Conference
"Research at the Interface of the Life and Physical Sciences: Bridging the Sciences"
Holiday Inn Select
November 9, 2004
Good morning, and welcome. You have an exciting day of discussion ahead of you, and we look forward to hearing the new ideas that will arise.
As you know, today's conference developed from recommendations made during a multi-agency workshop held in May this year, organized at the behest of the House of Representatives, and attended by sixty representatives from ten Federal agencies. In its FY 2004 Appropriation Report, the House had directed NIH and NSF to coordinate an interagency meeting on research at the interface of the life and physical sciences. This mandate formalized the House's interest in the interconnections between the life and physical sciences, as evidenced, among other things, by the increase of boundary-crossing proposals from the research and education community and growing applications in the marketplace.
The theme of this conference is "Bridging the Sciences." When we think of bridges, we often picture shimmering suspension bridges, spanning huge gulfs of land or water, ferrying people and goods between previously inaccessible lands. Bridges are complicated – an amalgamation of steel, concrete and, today, polymers, sensors and smart materials, all meticulously integrated to tolerate dynamic stresses and to endure for decades. These integrated border-crossing societal tools provide new opportunities for society, commerce and industry; bridges open up new frontiers. Their ultimate design manifests our intent for societal interaction. In the end, a good bridge integrates as well as connects; it enables a fresh and holistic view of the parts it joins.
Likewise, the bridges that you help design today will open up new realms of interaction and partnerships in pursuing discovery at and across the very frontier of knowledge. While the implication is to foster an interdisciplinary focus, such activity will also invigorate the disciplines.
One example, fresh from the President's FY 2005 NSF budget request, is the Molecular Basis of Life Processes, or MBLP. This proposed investment seeks to understand biological processes like circadian rhythms by examining, at the molecular level, the underlying chemical reactions that cause these phenomena – an illustration of integrative life and physical sciences.
IGERT, NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, is another kind of example of the contemporary focus on bridging, this one being an integrative workforce development investment through boundary-crossing discovery. IGERT has a strong, though still nascent, foundation on which to build. The program's intent is the integration of research and education through boundary-crossing doctoral level investigation. Among the 126 awards made over the past seven years, examples of life/physical sciences integrative bridging include multi-disciplinary investigations in areas such as cellular engineering, optical biomolecular devices and biologically inspired materials.
Large scale integrative intellectual partnerships in frontier life/physical science research are increasingly evident in most agencies centers and initiatives investments. Examples at NSF include the Science and Technology Center for Biophotonics at the University of California, Davis; and the Engineering Research Center for the Engineering of Living Tissue, a partnership between Georgia Tech and Emory University.
Integrative cross-boundary research and education is driving discovery in unforeseen directions and into new frontiers. For example, discoveries about the complexity of RNA – the template for protein synthesis – have led mathematicians to apply statistical analysis to model protein formation. Mathematicians, working with microbiologists, have developed algorithms to locate RNA base strings and correlate between genes and base sequences.1
Similarly, computer imaging and simulation in astronomy and microbiology are driving research into faster communication networks2 and more powerful, high-end computing systems.3 Improved imaging produces huge amounts of data to be transported, analyzed and stored. We're finding that today's networks and computer systems need cyberinfrastructure enhancement to enable real-time collaboration across distances as well as disciplines.
From another perspective, the natural evolution of boundary-crossing research leads to new kinds of partnerships among agencies, the Bioengineering and Bioinformatics Summer Institutes (BBSI) program being one notable example. BBSI provides undergraduate education and research experience in the developing fields of bioengineering and bioinformatics, seeking to attract people who can work at the juncture between disciplines. The BBSI program has sponsored institutes across the country, from Clemson University in South Carolina, to the University of Minnesota, to California State University. These kinds of interagency partnerships are particularly fruitful because they blend the strengths of each agency, bringing to the fore what each agency does best.
In that vein, this conference brings together people from different backgrounds, with different expertise, different ideas and, importantly, different intellectual and experiential perspectives. All of you are here to reach a common goal – building bridges between the physical and life sciences. The underpinnings are already in place. As Einstein would say, imagination is now the imperative for creating a research venue that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
As you conduct your discussions today, look for the grand opportunities ahead of us. Think about the best ways to capitalize on them. As with any discovery, these opportunities may arise in unlikely places, from systemic, philosophical, technological or even attitudinal areas, as well as scientific. Wherever you see these opportunities, make every effort to identify them and suggest the best ways to use them. Your observations today will help refine the bridges we're working on together and create new ones as yet unimagined.
I close by offering you my best wishes for a successful conference. Thank you again for your participation and for lending your design expertise to this ambitious building project.
1 MPS/DMR award # 0129848, "Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics"
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2 CISE/SCI award # 0228937; "HPNC: High-Performance Science Education and Research Project"
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3 CISE/SCI award # 0225642, "ITR: The OptiPuter"
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