The latest step in scientific matchmaking has been taken by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to bring biologists and mathematicians together. The Foundation has proffered $16,000,000 for the new National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), to be located at the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville.
Founded to support and nurture the growing field of mathematical biology, it will focus on encouraging researchers to take a more global and systematic approach in finding better solutions to pressing practical problems, as well as in addressing questions in basic research. On the applied end, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and its Twin Creeks Science Center will serve as a testing ground for many of the ideas (presumably in the ecology area) developed at the Institute.
As a long time advocate of mathematics in biology and increasing the level of instruction for biologists in mathematics — and especially statistics — it was heartening to hear James Collins say that “At the start of the twenty-first century, biologists will become increasingly quantitative and interdisciplinary.1” As this is now where much of the money is, I tend to believe him! The “-omics” revolution that now sweeps through the biological sciences was driven by several solid advances — and much hype — and continues its forward march on the momentum of huge data generation and directed grants. Due to the necessity of analyzing all of this data, the need for mathematical skill and programming facility quickly became apparent. Unfortunately, the majority of practicing biologists rely on the proliferation of bioinformatics units where theses skills come ready-made. Rather than learning how to do much of this for themselves, too many rely upon others and acquire a bare minimum of knowledge to understand the processes. This is slowly changing as more and more life scientists gather up some statistical knowledge and look upon a single, useful programming language as an interesting challenge to expand their repertoire.
For the time being, this NIH effort “…complements previous and current efforts to stimulate quantitative thinking in biology while fostering interdisciplinary research and education.” As the idea is to place small groups of biologists, computer scientists and mathematicians in close proximity to address important practical problems, this approach may bear some fruit … in cross-disciplinary thinking if not solutions to these pressing problems. To complement this effort, the Institute will host larger audiences and introduce them to specific topics in biology and applications of computational tools. Luckily, this is looked upon as an important strategic investment by the funding agency. Hopefully, that thought will continue. The big problem with trying this in industry is the need for timelines and demonstrated results. Thus, many companies have embraced new technologies and work strategies, only to abandon the efforts when the returns were either non-existent or untimely. In this regard, it is heartening to hear that NIMBioS partners include IBM and ESRI (as well as the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Homeland Security).
The grant for the Institute is not the first attempt at bulking up quantitative and computational abilities at UT. Previously, a $65 million award was given to the Knoxville campus to create the National Institute for Computational Sciences, which built and operates a supercomputer available to U.S. scientists.
It is hoped that, with all this monetary and academic firepower, the concentration on applications of use to society will generate some basic knowledge along the way. Usually, we expect it to be the other way around, i.e., basic research assisting in solving practical problems. However, efforts like these can set the stage for new and exciting outcomes, previously neither suspected nor recognized.
1. “NSF Funds New Center to Bring Together Biologists, Mathematicians.” NSF Press Release, 08-152. www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp
John Wass is a statistician based in Chicago, IL. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.