Public Release: 

Conference offers new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration

$1 Million in grants to be awarded to researchers

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

More than 150 people gathered last weekend at the National Academies' Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for the third annual National Academies Keck FUTURES INITIATIVE conference. This year's conference, "The Genomic Revolution: Implications for Treatment and Control of Infectious Disease," attracted scientists, engineers, and medical researchers to work on new interdisciplinary responses using genomics to treat and control infectious diseases.

To encourage further interdisciplinary work on genomics and infectious disease, the Academies announced the availability of $1 million in seed grants - up to $75,000 each - which will be awarded competitively to conference participants to speed the new lines of research identified at the sessions. Grant recipients will be announced in April 2006.

"Genomics research stands at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine," said Wm. A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. "With the possibility of a future avian flu pandemic in the headlines, there couldn't be a better time to bring together top researchers to work as interdisciplinary teams, ask new questions, and identify novel directions for inquiry."

To help bridge the communication gaps between experts in genomics and researchers from different fields, the organizers developed "tutorial" sessions in which speakers provided an overview of their fields in a way that scientists, engineers, or medical researchers from other disciplines could understand. Topics included vaccine design, host/pathogen interaction, bioinformatics, microsystems, and sequencing technology, as well as the nature of team science and the special challenges of doing this work in developing countries.

Eleven conference breakout sessions gave the participants eight hours to develop new research approaches to problems in infectious disease using genomics. Among the challenges were designing a new device to detect viral and bacterial pathogens; how best to use $100 million to prevent a future pandemic flu outbreak; how to improve rapid response to an outbreak of disease and reduce the cost of diagnostic tests; and how to sequence an individual's genome for under $1,000. Representatives from public and private funding organizations, government, industry, and the science media also participated in these focus groups.

"Putting researchers from diverse fields in a room and asking them to address a compelling problem together was a remarkable experience," said Robert Waterston, William H. Gates III Endowed Chair and professor of the department of genome sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and this year's conference steering committee chair. "Watching them share their expertise and experiences with others working toward a common goal was inspiring."

Participants also presented posters describing their latest research, covering topics such as detecting microbes using genomic sequences, the genomic basis of heart attacks, the rapid classification of unknown toxins, toxicity assessment of nanosized materials, and microarray biochips.

Encouraging better communication among scientists in various fields and between scientists and the public are key components of the FUTURES INITIATIVE. During the conference, the National Academies presented their 2005 Communication Awards to John M. Barry, writer of THE GREAT INFLUENZA; to the Boston Globe's Gareth Cook, for his series on stem cell research; and to Thomas Levenson, producer of NOVA's "ORIGINS: BACK TO THE BEGINNING." The awards recognize excellence in communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the public. Each winner received a $20,000 cash prize and spoke to conference attendees about their views on the value of communicating science well.

Launched in 2003 by the National Academies and the W.M. Keck Foundation, the National Academies Keck FUTURES INITIATIVE is a 15-year effort to stimulate interdisciplinary inquiry and to enhance communication among researchers, funding agencies, universities, and the general public. The FUTURES INITIATIVE builds on three pillars of vital and sustained research: interdisciplinary encounters that counterbalance specialization and isolation; exploration of new questions; and communication bridging languages, cultures, habits of thought, and institutions. For more information on the FUTURES INITIATIVE, visit .


The National Academies comprise the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. For more information, visit

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