Next month, the National Academies will be distributing up to $1 million in seed grants of up to $75,000 each to speed infectious disease research involving genomics. The winners will have one thing in common: they attended the third annual National Academies Keck Futures Initiative conference held this past November.
These conferences, which are aimed at stimulating interdisciplinary research, were first launched in 2003. They are made possible by a $40 million grant good for 15 years from the W.M. Keck Foundation. “It is an attempt to really make a dent in interdisciplinary research,” says Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering.
More than 150 people gathered at this year’s conference, which focused on the implications of genomics for the treatment and control of infectious disease. Attendees were treated to tutorial sessions, which provided overviews of particular fields, and then participated in one of 11 breakout sessions. These sessions gave participants eight hours to develop new research approaches to infectious disease problems, such as how best to use $100 million to prevent a future pandemic flu outbreak, or how to design a new device to detect viral and bacterial pathogens.
Bob Waterston, professor of genomic sciences at the University of Washington and chair of the conference’s steering committee, says he floated among breakout sessions, where he was impressed by the group dynamics. “Deliberately, in every group there was an assortment of different interests, so people had a first-hand experience of trying to incorporate information from different disciplines to attack a problem,” he says. “It was fun to see it all come together.”
Attendees of the conference were then encouraged to apply for seed grants to attack a problem identified at the sessions. “Genomics research stands at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine,” explains Wulf. “With the possibility of a future avian flu pandemic in the headlines, there couldn’t be a better time to bring together researchers to work as interdisciplinary teams, ask new questions, and identify novel directions for inquiry.”
At press time, Waterston said he couldn’t provide insight on how many grant applications they were going to get, but he had high expectations. “In the past conferences, the ideas have been pretty good,” he comments. “Some have gone on to get NIH grants, fostering continuing collaboration. Part of it we’ll watch for a few years yet.” — Kate O’Rourke