The University Record, May 24 , 1999

Institute for the Study of Biological Complexity and Human Values

Editor‘s Note: The following message was including in a briefing book, “The University of Michigan Life Sciences Initiative and Institute for the Study of Biological Complexity and Human Values,” that was prepared for members of the Board of Regents. The introductory portion of the book is on the Web at The full book is on reserve at the Hatcher Graduate Library.

May 11, 1999

Dear Colleagues:

After two years of thoughtful study about the role of life sciences within the University, we are now ready to bring forward to the Regents a proposal to create a major institute devoted to enhancing our research and education in this burgeoning area of knowledge. What began as a series of informal conversations with various faculty led to the appointment of the Life Sciences Commission, which earlier this year issued its remarkable report and recommendations. Aided by the Commission‘s systematic and intelligent analysis of where we are and where we should be, Provost Nancy Cantor, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Gil Omenn, and I then met with faculties and deans throughout the campus to discuss our collective understandings of what should be done. We also invited, and received, comments from all parts of the University, which we reviewed carefully. Finally, at the April meeting, we presented to the Regents an overview of these two-year-long discussions. We now seek your approval of our recommendation that an institute be created, the outline of which is described in the accompanying documents.

I would like to emphasize that, while critically important to the development of life sciences at Michigan, the institute is not by any means our exclusive effort here, in the past or for the future. Much has already been done, plans to add support to related areas are under way, and hopes for the future thrive in this area as elsewhere. We refer to these cognate efforts as the “Life Sciences Initiative,” for which the institute should play a unifying as well as a catalytic role. Two fundamental premises underlie our proposal. One is that we appear to be in the midst of a sea change in our knowledge and understanding of the origins and development of life. We cannot, of course, be sure that our present methods of pursuit will uncover more of life‘s secrets; the risk of failure in the effort to increase human understanding is always substantial and this area is no exception. What appears through neuroimaging as the locus of a particular brain function may turn out to be nothing more than a transient locale in an organ characterized more by its plasticity than decentralization of function. Still, so much has already been discovered in modern life sciences and the tools for continuous discovery seem to be solidly in place, that the prospects for that profound change occurring seem unusually bright.

The other fundamental premise motivating our efforts is the belief that the University in all its responsibilities-basic research, education, and service to society-must strive to participate with others at the very highest levels of academic quality. And, while perhaps the University cannot do everything at that level, some areas of knowledge are so integral to what a university is and does that there is no other choice once the decision has been made to be a major “research university.” This seems true of the life sciences.

What we propose, therefore, is that an institute be created to help guide the University in pursuing this realm of knowledge. At its best, the institute should provide a centripetal force, intellectually and physically, for work under way. It would not be a research institute pure and simple, but part of the intellectual and educational fabric of the University. Faculty connected to the institute must have appointments in schools and departments with full membership and responsibilities. New faculty will be added over the next several years, but current faculty also will have opportunities for involvement with the institute, through, for example, appointments as fellows, or as a place to take sabbatical leave, or to attend seminars and related events. Students will benefit by expansion of the curriculum and by greater opportunities for participation in research.

Finally, the institute must do all it can to integrate the layering of intellectual activity that so fruitfully characterizes science, from reductionism to complexity, and, further, to break down the so-called two cultures problem. On this latter point, we can certainly see the important and obvious relationship between life sciences and the health sciences, social sciences, law, and business. And to speak of life sciences is to think of ethics, the domain of philosophy. Yet our aesthetic sensibilities may be altered too. Additionally, history and cultural studies will want to understand how this important area of our social and intellectual life is defined and pursued. One of our most distinguished humanists put it this way: . . . “Arguably, Śliving systems‘ are at their most complex when human volition, choice, and preference become involved.” Indeed, without wishing to be sophistic, I would suggest that the initiative is itself a preference that is conditioned by time and circumstances, by the kind of Śconjuncture‘ that from time to time historians have been interested in. Informed and critical awareness of this kind of conjuncture would enhance the initiative.” We agree. And it is even more important that we make available for all within the community to experience the sense of wonderment about what we are learning, for that is frequently at the root of our sensitivities to humanity and to the larger environmental world which we inhabit.

I am deeply grateful to all those individuals within the faculty and administration as well as the broader University who have brought us to this important moment. Universities are frequently criticized for their inability to address large intellectual developments. The common spirit and effort that underlies this initiative belies that criticism, and the University should be proud of itself.


Lee C. Bollinger