Congress ponders “New Biology”

July 2, 2010

Drs. Yamamoto, Collins, Laubenbacher, Leonard and Sanford at the Congressional hearing on 21st Century Biology
SIAM's Vice President for Science Policy, Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, testified before the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Research and Science Education on Tuesday.

The hearing, titled "21st Century Biology," addressed the need for collaboration between the biological and physical sciences in light of new advancements made in the life sciences. It was based on a report published by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that recent biological research has the potential to successfully tackle issues of global concern, provided there is sufficient cross collaboration within and outside the field.

Witnesses from various specialties in the life sciences provided instances from their own experience as researchers and educators that interdisciplinary work among the sciences could help us solve the big challenges we face in our time.

The study, titled, "A New Biology for the 21st Century," called for greater interaction of biologists with scientists in other areas, such as physics, computational science, mathematics, engineering and the earth sciences. It also estimated that biological research would generate more dividends with a greater flow of knowledge among the federal, private, and academic sectors. The report proposed that a national, federally-funded, collaborative effort would allow us to find solutions in the four broad areas of food production, energy, environment, and human health.

Dr. Laubenbacher, professor at Virginia Tech's Bioinformatics Institute, spoke specifically on three main areas – addressing big challenges with existing knowledge and technology, encouraging inter-disciplinary and cross-agency collaboration, and tailoring our workforce's education and training to meet these needs. Dr. Laubenbacher began by stressing the importance of mathematical modeling in understanding and analyzing complex biological systems. Defining these systems in terms of mathematical equations allows us to predict the behavior of not only organisms but also the ecosystems they inhabit, he said.

The second important contribution of mathematics to biology was its ability to break down the vast amounts of data generated by the latter – from DNA sequence studies to satellite surveillance, he said. Dr. Laubenbacher urged the government to introduce federal programs that would allow for cross-interaction among various agencies so that proper analysis and understanding of such data can be made possible.

Citing his own department, the Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, Dr. Laubenbacher testified to the importance of interdisciplinary research. "I am trained as a mathematician, and at the institute, my office neighbors are a statistical geneticist and a biochemist," he said. "Co-location allows researchers to develop a common culture and allows multiple disciplines to merge and organically develop together."

Finally, Dr. Laubenbacher went on to talk about how such an approach could foster education and training of researchers. Inter-departmental Ph.D. programs and integration of curricula, in addition to close collaboration between research and education institutions, could help train students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, he said. Workshops bringing together faculty from various departments would also aid their abilities to train students in cross-disciplinary projects.

Concluding with an example of a nine year old asking a pertinent question about nanotechnology at one of Virginia Tech's outreach programs for kids, Dr. Laubenbacher attested to the importance of early introduction in helping shape students' decisions to make STEM career choices.

Other witnesses to testify at the hearing were Dr. Keith Yamamoto, Chair of the National Academy of Sciences and Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco; Dr. James Collins, Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University; Dr. Joshua Leonard of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University; and Dr. Karl Sanford of Genencor.

Congressman Vern Ehlers expressed his fascination with the field, and said he was enlightened by the testimonies. He said that this is what he would have liked to do if he were in the field of science.

Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski reiterated the vast potential of research and application offered by the biological sciences. He also stressed the need for collaborative and cross-interactive endeavors to tap into its full potential. "The potential successes that can be realized by having interdisciplinary teams working on biological problems mean that we need to ensure that these collaborations continue to grow," said Lipinski.

In its quest to promote applied mathematics research and its real-world applications, SIAM makes it a mission to keep policy makers abreast of advances made in the field, so that scientific progress can be matched with corresponding changes on the procedural side. To that end, members are encouraged to put forth issues of interest to them that can be addressed by policy makers to ensure a two way dialogue between scientists and policy makers.

A Web cast of the hearing and witness testimonies can be found here.

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