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Summer 2003 Vol. 3 No. 2

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New Initiative Strives to Advance the Potential of Interdisciplinary Research

NAS President Bruce Alberts and Richard N. Foster, member of the W.M. Keck Foundation board of directors and chair of the foundation's medical research committee, at May 2003 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the National Academies' new Keck Center, photo by Robert Turtil.' Leaders at the National Academies have long believed that extraordinary societal challenges call for reaching beyond the established patterns and organization of the research community. While the need for and impulse toward interdisciplinary research is growing, there are still persistent barriers to communication that result from disciplinary specialization and vastly different cultures in science, engineering, and medical research. These barriers inhibit leaps forward in discovery and obstruct the application of new knowledge. Successful communication among individuals who work in different professional worlds is key to advancing science, engineering, and medicine for the improvement of the human condition.

Recognizing this opportunity, the W.M. Keck Foundation has provided the Academies with $40 million for a program to stimulate and support exciting new collaborative research. Called the "National Academies Keck Futures Initiative," this ambitious project is designed to foster and fund innovative interdisciplinary research that could yield significant benefits to society.

The Academies' new building in Washington,
'The Keck Center of the National Academies.'

The inauguration of the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative was celebrated in May at the Academies' new building in downtown Washington, D.C. The building was officially named 'The Keck Center of the National Academies.' The centerpiece of the initiative is a series of Futures Conferences where outstanding researchers from diverse disciplines can meet to share new ideas. The annual theme for the conferences will be selected based on assessments of where the intersection of science, engineering, and medical research has the greatest potential to spark new discovery. The research theme of the first year's conference, to take place this November in Irvine, Calif., is "Signals, Decisions, and Meaning in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering." The researchers who are invited to and attend the conference may apply for "seed" grants to begin collaborative research inspired by ideas and relationships developed during the conferences.

The National Academies are also conducting a study on facilitating interdisciplinary research to identify current obstacles that stifle cross-disciplinary collaborations, and make recommendations on how to incite and support such research.

Another important component of the Futures Initiative is the creation of the National Academies Communication Awards. Three $20,000 prizes annually will be awarded to an author, journalist, and television or radio reporter/producer who have made significant contributions to the public understanding of science, engineering, and medicine. The first awards will be presented at the November Futures Conference.

For more information about the Keck Futures Initiative, visit <>.   -- Maureen O'Leary

The California-based W.M. Keck Foundation funds grants that are focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science, and engineering. For more information, visit <>.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences