25th Anniversary Symposium on ‘Human Frontiers’

Background Information

HFSP's mission is to support frontier research in the life sciences, defined as research that enters new territory trying to answer significant questions and that has certain risks of failure associated with it. The word “frontier” may be associated with the exploration of the American West in the early 1800s (“Lewis and Clark”)1, the land beyond boundaries, the land of the unexpected and of unlimited opportunities. It takes enormous risks to step into the unknown and in this sense the “frontiers” are quite an appropriate goal for a research funding organization like HFSP.

Due to the rapid developments in modern biology, the task of recognizing frontier research is quite a challenge for a funding agency like HFSP. Twenty five years ago when HFSP was founded, the frontiers of biology could be defined as molecular biology that started to impact genetics. Later on it was realized that molecular biology alone does not guarantee the necessary depth of engagement. From discoveries in the past quarter century we know that the boundaries of modern biology have become so broad that they require the integration of many fields such as computer science, chemistry, physics, mathematics and even engineering. Modern systems biology approaches rely heavily on mathematical formulations when trying to analyze a system level response as can be seen by the work of the 2014 Nakasone Award recipient Uri Alon who provided the mathematical concept of network motifs to characterize genetic circuits. A reductionist approach may tell us the future is in the numbers. But will that be sufficient to solve fundamental problems of mankind?

The next generation challenges are linked to understanding complexity and they are beginning to penetrate fields like cognitive neuroscience, ecology and biodiversity, all of which have not found intensive support by HFSP in the past. Also the borderlines between epigenetics and the environment are becoming better defined, permitting clearer questions as to their respective relationships to be posed.

The purpose of this symposium is to draw on the panelists’ experience concerning the concept of funding frontier research. What is their view on the frontier? Are there common denominators between the life sciences and other fields of human endeavor, like architecture, space exploration and international relations? Is the research environment appropriately prepared for the new biology? Discussions and answers to these and related questions could help to prepare HFSP for the next 25 years.

1 Lewis and Clark expedition, 1804-1806. It laid much of the groundwork for the expansion of the American West (see wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_and_Clark_Expedition)