The University Record, February 22, 1999

Report of the Commission on Life Sciences

Click on the highlighted sections to view the Record's report sections.

Roush urges quick action
Akil emphasizes importance of cross-cutting aspect

The Commission’s report is online at Paper copies are available by sending an e-mail message to or be calling 764-6270.


 "The field of life sciences holds extraordinary promise for the next century as it continues to push the frontiers of knowledge about every aspect of biological life. The field is undergoing a revolution in research strategies and methodologies, which will transform it into a more quantitative science and substantially enhance its theoretical underpinnings. These remarkable advances will ultimately permit the fundamental organizing principles of biology to be enunciated. While biologists have come to understand many of the critical elements of life, they are far from understanding how these elements work together to produce growing, adapting, learning, living organisms. This progression from understanding the individual elements to elucidating the principles of interaction between them is the study of “complexity” and serves as the central theme of the Michigan Life Sciences Initiative. The theme of biological complexity is both timely and far-ranging. A focus on complexity will allow the University of Michigan to plan for short-term success in the life sciences, while at the same time positioning itself for significant advances in the longer term."

From the Executive Summary, “Challenges and Opportunities in Understanding the Complexity of Living Systems,” report of the University of Michigan Life Sciences Commission


By Jane R. Elgass

The proposals put forth in the report of the Life Sciences Commission, “Challenges and Opportunities in Understanding the Complexity of Living Systems,” offer an unusual opportunity for all members of the University community to discuss how the University can respond to the challenge of major intellectual advancement in a broad range of disciplines.

The report, released Feb. 12, details five specific initiatives and some general strategies for improving the life sciences at the U-M. The Commission was charged last May by President Lee C. Bollinger to assess the current state of the life sciences here and to recommend new directions and interdisciplinary collaborations.

“I want very much for the faculty to become engaged, to address the intellectual directions of the University,” Bollinger said last week. “This is not my field, but I do know that there are tremendous discoveries being made, that there are enormous advances in human understanding.

“This is an area where we have some outstanding work being done, so there’s a lot to build with. Furthermore, this is an area where the intellectual developments cross many different schools, departments, disciplines. That means it’s critical that the University, as a university, help in trying to focus, to concentrate our efforts.

“It is a very serious matter for the University to be able to think as collectively and democratically as we can about major intellectual directions.

“There also is a great deal of funding emerging for this type of work,” Bollinger added. “It would be a pity for the University to lose that.”

The Commission urged immediate attention to its proposals, and Bollinger is looking forward to discussions this spring. He, Provost Nancy Cantor and Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs, will be meeting with academic units and standing groups, such as the Academic Program Group. The president said there will be some open meetings as well.

“We’re open to comments, criticisms and suggestions. We’ll discuss the report in depth in March and April, then step back and assess where we are.”

Bollinger cautioned that the Commission’s report, which he characterized as “very sophisticated and deceptively simple in some ways,” is not one to be taken lightly and dismissed. “This is serious. Other institutions are moving in this direction. We will, one way or another, make decisions as an institution about these areas. It is better, in my view, if those decisions are well-informed.”

Cantor notes that the proposals contained in the Commission’s report “are very important for this campus as a whole. There are many opportunities for broad spill-overs into disciplines not traditionally considered linked to the life sciences in some way. In addition to permitting a focus on the life sciences, the discussions we will have with faculty and others over the next several months will, I think, energize us and allow us to look at a range of opportunities for other interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary activities.

While the University community’s attention has been drawn to the proposed initiatives, Cantor emphasizes that the University values all faculty. “There are lots of ways for them to participate in these initiatives, but we also must remember that these are not the only initiatives that the University will pursue,” she says. “We will continue to invest heavily and pursue initiatives in the humanities, social sciences, environmental studies, international programs and other areas. We will not allow investments in the life sciences to jeopardize or undermine activities in other parts of the University.

“It is important to note,” Cantor says, “that virtually all of the elements represented in the proposed initiatives have come from the faculty. In many areas, the initiatives simply provide a clearer focus for activities and programs that already exist, particularly those in cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, informatics, complex systems, computational chemistry, biomedical engineering, biophysics and structural biology.

“They are grounded in existing programs or in new areas that excited the faculty, who then brought forth proposals. These activities have been funded and faculty have been or will be recruited,” Cantor adds.

“We asked the Commission for an ambitious plan, and we now need to address their proposals piece by piece. Our discussions this spring must focus on the intellectual core of the proposals and over time we can flesh out the details.

Cantor notes also that while the proposals are directed in many instances to research activities, all hold promise to enhance “the most basic element of this University—teaching. We have major opportunities to broaden our teaching base at the undergraduate and graduate level. This will be an exciting time for the entire U-M community.

“Nothing of real value can happen on this campus without being owned by the faculty and the faculty putting their own mark on it,” Cantor emphasizes. “I’m looking forward to discussions of our intellectual values.”

Omenn says that the report and the commission process “demonstrate that faculty all across campus are willing to help build institutional thrusts in this exciting area.

“We want to be sure to elicit from a broad range of faculty serious comments about the report and the opportunities in this broad area of life sciences. The challenge is to determine where we begin so that we maintain the momentum from the Commission about the effort and launch something right away.

“The most compelling argument [for launching the initiatives],” Omenn notes, “is that the ideas and the techniques available are truly compelling and exciting. The challenge from President Bollinger is organized around intellectual frameworks, not filling buildings or bringing in dollars.

“The Commission has tried to build a theme, namely biocomplexity and understanding the complexity of living things. This is more than just an enumeration of the hot areas of science. It’s an opportunity for us to enhance our research and educational programs and at the same time put a sort of ‘Michigan’ stamp on a broader, more integrated way of thinking about and investigating complex functions across the full array of living things.

“We are not the first to expand our capability in this area,” Omenn adds, “but I don’t think we should just be trying to play catch-up. We should define an approach that would catapult us into a leadership role in at least some areas.”

The five initiatives proposed by the Commission depend heavily on a collaborative environment, both physically and intellectually, and the group includes in the report recommendations to enhance that environment at the University.

Taken collectively, the proposed efforts are designed to place the University at the leading edge of intellectual advancement in the life sciences.

Two of the initiatives are termed “cross-cutting”—Biocomplexity, and Biotechnology and Translational Research. The others are targeted to specific areas—Genomics and Complex Genetics, Chemical and Structural Biology, and Cognitive Neuroscience.

The Commission recommends establishing centers and institutes to provide a flexible administrative framework to support the researchers while simultaneously providing links to and respecting disciplines, recommends immediate launching of a vigorous recruiting campaign to attract center and institute directors as well as initiatives researchers, and creation of a Center for Bioinformatics, which would support life sciences research and education across the campus.

The Commission also recommended the construction of new facilities to house all of the institutes and centers, designed to facilitate interactions among the researchers and located so as to link the Central Campus, Medical Campus and North Campus.

Site suggestions, developed in concert with the campus planning effort, include a spot on Palmer Drive, south of Washtenaw Avenue and the “Hill” residence halls; one bounded by Zina Pitcher, Ann and East Huron; and a third on North Campus, south of the Art and Architecture Building. The group also proposed an Undergraduate Life Sciences Center, located possibly on Central Campus or the Palmer Drive site.

To facilitate implementation of the initiatives, and to better support life sciences activity across campus, the report recommends expansion and enhancement of core facilities, to ensure that they can fully serve the life sciences community as research in this area increases, and to develop them into units that not only provide services but also are at the leading edge of technological development in life sciences research.

While the University’s cores are relatively strong, a number of issues will need to be addressed in order to meet these goals, including providing salaries competitive with industry in order to recruit and retain skilled core scientists, ensuring timely replacement and updating of equipment, developing mechanisms for rapidly capitalizing on technological advances by introducing new cores as needed, and establishing mechanisms to ensure consistency in quality and responsiveness to those who use the facilities.

The report says that special attention also must be paid to sustaining the quality of the museums of Zoology and Paleontology, the Herbarium, the Exhibit Museum, Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Biological Station, as their holdings will be crucial to researchers involved in exploring issues of biodiversity, ecology and evolution.

The group also recommended development of “Michigan Workshops,” which would draw life sciences experts nationwide to Ann Arbor to discuss emerging issues in the field with both faculty and students; creation of a Technology Transfer Council; finding new ways to support first-year graduate students; and appointment of a Bioethics Scholarship Council.

Standing on their own and as a group, the initiatives offer a number of direct educational benefits to both undergraduate and graduate students. Overall, they provide new opportunities for cross-disciplinary work, activities between distinct disciplines, and interdisciplinary work, representing a blending of approaches from multiple disciplines, resulting in a new, integrated and novel approach to an issue.

The appointment of researchers for the initiatives would signal a significant broadening of the teaching base, as each would hold a 50 percent appointment in an academic unit.

New courses or concentrations may evolve from some of the initiatives, particularly timely as organizations and institutions today are seeking students trained in modeling and quantitative aspects of the life sciences and those who have experience in interdisciplinary research in large- and small-group settings.

In the undergraduate arena, there are several opportunities as well as existing programs that would be enhanced by involvement with the initiatives:

• A biochemistry concentration is in place.

• Establishment of the Bioinformatics Center might logically lead to a major in this area. The School of Information is eager to work on large-scale collaborative projects.

• Interest in cognitive neuroscience among students is growing—psychology as a social science and as a natural science. The Cognitive Neuroscience Initiative, coupled with the creation of an interdisciplinary undergraduate major in molecular, integrative and cognitive neuroscience, would find widespread participation.

• The initiatives would make possible the creation of an interdisciplinary life sciences curriculum that would interact with other degree programs.

The report cites the new Program in Biomedical Science as a good first step toward opportunities for graduate students in the life sciences. There also is a Certificate Program in Cognitive Science and Cognitive Neuroscience in place. A chemical and structural biology program is being discussed, as is a new model for the biomedical engineering program.

The Commission recommended a fellowship program open to students after they have gained candidacy and a program modeled after the successful Michigan Society of Fellows.

The University has a number of strategic advantages to bolster its efforts in the life sciences, including strengths in a number of academic units, among them LS&A, the Medical School with its associated hospitals and health care centers, a strong array of health sciences schools, the College of Engineering, School of Natural Resources and Environment, School of Information and various research centers and institutes.

Other advantages include faculty members outside the life sciences who are eager to participate in such programs, strong pharmaceutical and chemical industries in the state and Ann Arbor, and the proximity of two other research universities—Michigan State and Wayne State.

The University does have to contend with what the Commission termed “cultural variables.”

To be successful in launching and sustaining the initiatives, the University needs to develop a more collaborative culture, to “build a research environment no one wants to leave,” the report stated. This means overcoming existing barriers to inter- and cross-disciplinary work, including overcoming “territorialism” among the schools and colleges.

In order to recruit visionary institute and center directors, outstanding junior and senior faculty, as well as retain these individuals and outstanding current faculty, the report advises that the University must be more aggressive than it has been in the past. Start-up and retention packages must contain sufficient flexible resources. Approaches to teaching, clinical and research loads for exceptional scientists must be flexible, within reasonable bounds, and the University must be proactive about retention, recognizing and rewarding quality before efforts are made to recruit individuals.