Researchers are fostering another revolution in the life sciences, driven by the convergence between those sciences and the physical and engineering sciences, Susan Hockfield, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the recent AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.
That convergence is producing new discoveries that hold promise in the fight against cancer, the search for new, more efficient batteries, the quest to better understand microbial life, and other challenges that can benefit from the collaboration of sharp minds from multiple disciplines.
"What began as a relationship of proximity and convenience has evolved into a strong, fruitful new synthesis," Hockfield said during a 30 April luncheon address at the Forum in Washington, D.C. "The seeds of a third revolution in the life sciences have certainly been sown, and in leading labs across the country, they already are beginning to bear fruit."
Nearly 600 leaders from U.S. and foreign governments, businesses, research centers and universities attended the opening day of the 34th annual AAAS Policy Forum, a two-day immersion in the issues and sometimes gritty political realities that dominate the nation's science and technology agenda. Meeting just blocks from the White House, the Forum is regarded as the largest and most important annual science and technology policy conference in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. It is organized by AAAS Science & Policy Programs.
Hockfield noted that the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA laid the foundation for two previous revolutions in biology: the development of molecular biology (which revealed how information encoded in DNA is translated) and the explosion of information in genomics (which has revealed the genetic blueprint for many organisms, including humans).
The Human Genome Project drew on mathematics and computational science as much as on powerful new gene-sequencing technologies, Hockfield said, and the interplay between the life sciences and the physical sciences is expected to become even more productive in the coming years. She cited several examples of that convergence on her campus and noted that comparable approaches are evolving at research institutions around the globe.
"At MIT, we are capitalizing on the vast potential of this third revolution in the fight against cancer by designing both a new organization and a new building," Hockfield said. At MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and elsewhere on the frontiers of cancer research, she said, "increasingly you see biologists and engineers, computational experts and chemists." At the MIT center, researchers are looking at the use of engineered nanoparticles as "smart bombs" for transporting anti-cancer drugs directly to malignant cells.
"Our biologists and engineers anticipate that nano-smart bombs could become clinical tools against cancer within a decade," Hockfield said.
On the energy front, MIT specialists are working with benign viruses that are genetically engineered to incorporate battery materials and then self-assemble into both the positive and negative sides of a lithium-ion battery. The resulting sheets look like plastic, Hockfield said, and have the same energy capacity and power performance as the state-of-the-art rechargeable batteries being designed for use in plug-in hybrid cars." The materials can be used to make clear, non-toxic, lightweight batteries. The team leading the research on "bio-fab" batteries consists of two materials scientists and two chemical engineers, Hockfield said.
MIT scientists also are collaborating on the use of genomics to analyze gene expression in complex and dynamic populations of ocean microbes. The microbes can be monitored for their responses to climate change. The research "also makes it possible to consider using the indigenous microbes much more broadly as in situ biosensors," Hockfield said.
While such research holds great promise for the future, Hockfield said, there is nothing inevitable about it. Society must find ways to encourage and accelerate the third revolution in the life sciences, Hockfield said, and she offered some suggestions.
Young people must be encouraged to be "bilingual" across disciplines, she said. Biologists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians should have a broad education, touching on common ground in disparate disciplines, so they are equipped "to talk and work fluently together." In her talks with incoming classes at MIT, Hockfield said, it is clear that the current generation of students is very comfortable with the idea of pursuing research that crosses the disciplinary boundaries of the sciences and engineering.
Hockfield called for the cultivation of new academic organizations (such as MIT's department of biological engineering) that make it easier for faculty and students to work across disciplines. Funding mechanisms also must be tuned toward boundary-crossing work, she said, and must provide more opportunities for young researchers. In 1990, she noted, the average age of first-time applicants for National Institutes of Health research project grants was 39. By 2007, it had climbed to 43. Perhaps more troubling, she said, the success rate for first-time grant applicants dropped from 29 % in 1999 to just 12% in 2007.
Hockfield also urged more connections across federal funding agencies. "Our system of decentralized science agencies, each pursuing particular mission areas, has great advantages," she said. But research that crosses disciplinary boundaries also must be funded in ways that cut across the specialized missions of individual agencies. She cited the National Nanotechnology Initiative, established at the end of the Clinton administration to coordinate federal nanotechnology research and development, as an example of such fruitful cooperation across agencies.
"In the early part of the 20th century, no one could have named the industries that would spring from the convergence of the physical sciences and engineering, yet the industries fueled by that convergence—the electronics, computer and information industries—have transformed life on earth," Hockfield said. "Today, we do not yet know the names of the industries that will grow from this century's convergence of the life sciences with the engineering and physical sciences, but those new industries will certainly transform our lives as powerfully."
Economists now generally agree that more than half of America's economic growth in the decades following World War II came from technology, Hockfield said. It is not the United States alone that appreciates the impact that research and development can have on innovation and growth.
"Countries all over the world have built the foundation for their own innovation economies," Hockfield said. "I like competition; it makes everyone better. But we need to play if we want to compete." She added: "It is now up to those of us who know the science, who know the engineering and who appreciate the nature of the challenges and their solutions to give policymakers and the public a picture of the results that sit only just beyond our reach today."