The University Record, May 24 , 1999

Regents approve Institute for the Study of Biological Complexity and Human Values, Life Sciences Initiative

By Jane R. Elgass

The University took a key step last Friday (May 21) in positioning itself to be a national leader in research and education in the life sciences when the Board of Regents approved the creation of an Institute for the Study of Biological Complexity and Human Values.

Creation of the Institute and an accompanying cross-disciplinary and collaborative Life Sciences Initiative follows recommendations made in February by the Life Sciences Commission. The 20-member group was charged in May 1998 with assessing the state of life sciences at the U-M and recommending new directions and collaborations.

President Lee C. Bollinger noted that the Institute will be “a distinct academic unit with reporting and governance structures that ensure academic excellence and academic integration with the University community.”

In moving ahead with the project, estimated to cost $200 million over the next several years, the University joins a number of other research universities and institutes nationwide that have recognized the importance of this emerging area of research and scholarship.

Bollinger plans within a year to recruit and appoint an Institute director, define the organizational structure of the Institute, develop plans for new physical facilities and launch some Institute-related activities.

“We appear to be in the midst of a sea change in our knowledge and understanding of the origins and development of life,” Bollinger said. “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. Still, so much has already been discovered in modern life sciences and, with the tools for continuous discovery solidly in place, the prospects for that profound change occurring seem unusually bright.”

Bollinger cited three primary reasons for launching the Initiative:

  • “The University should strive to be among the very best universities in all areas of education and scholarship.” To fail to do so would have a negative impact on the education of students, service to the state and nation and the quality of the faculty.

  • “The life sciences are undergoing an intellectual revolution that will potentially transform our understanding of biological life—its structures and functions, its care and well-being. This potential revolution . . . promises to enhance our ability to promote human health and to care for our environment, and has tremendous economic development implications.”

  • “The new challenges posed by the transformation of the life sciences will be met by research and education that crosses traditional boundaries between colleges and disciplines. Understanding the mysteries of life will be furthered by the collaborations of scientists who study the complexity and functionality of living beings and will be achieved by combinations of scientists from a wide range of disciplines.”

    Work at the Institute, which will serve as both an intellectual and physical focal point for Initiative activities, will have a strong educational component and draw on a number of strengths at the University identified by the Commission—in genomics and complex genetics, structural and chemical biology, cognitive neuroscience, and complex biological systems (biocomplexity)—as well as present the opportunity for work in areas only imagined today.

    Bollinger noted that the Institute also “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. . . . We can see the important and obvious relationship between the 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.”

    It is important, the president added, “that we make available for all within the community the opportunity 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.”

    The University will commit an estimated $200 million to the Institute, allocating funds from non-tuition sources within the central administration and the Health System.

    Of the $200 million, $90 million will be targeted for construction of a new laboratory facility and related costs. The remaining $110 million would support programs and staffing, probably taking the form of an endowment.

    A preliminary model of the Institute‘s operations projects an annual base operating budget of $9.6 million. It is expected that indirect cost recoveries from externally funded research by Institute faculty would provide income of approximately $4 million per year. The balance of the base operating budget would be provided by income from the endowment.

    Research within the Institute would primarily be funded by external grants over and above the $9.6 million base. In addition, the University expects to mount an aggressive fund-raising effort to support the Institute and Life Sciences Initiative.

    A location for the Institute facility has been identified by the University, with the assistance of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, who are developing a master plan for the University. The site, at the northeast corner of Central Campus and adjacent to the Medical Campus at the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and Huron Street, will provide a physical and intellectual link between many of the health science schools and Central Campus.

    Related Articles in this issue:

  • Introductory Statement from President Bollinger
  • Deans cite benefits of Life Sciences Initiatives to their units
  • Regents briefed on building sites, plans to house Institute

    Guiding principles of the Institute

    The creation and development of the Institute and recruitment of its director will be guided by the following operating principles:

  • The mission of the Institute is to enhance education, basic research and translational research in the life sciences at the University.

  • All decisions regarding the Institute will adhere to the highest standards of quality.

  • The Institute will have four distinguishing intellectual features:

  • It will pursue research in cognitive neuroscience, genomics and complex genetics, and structural and chemical biology.

  • It will emphasize theoretical and empirical approaches to the study of complex biological systems.

  • It will link to research and teaching in biotechnology, biomedical engineering, evolution and human behavior, and organogenesis.

  • It will seek to understand the relationship of developments in the life sciences to human values and person-environment relationships.

  • The Institute will have two primary operational mandates:

  • It is to be closely linked to existing departments and programs at the University, ranging from the sciences to the social sciences, humanities and arts. Pursuit of such linkages will be seen as an essential goal for the Institute. Two primary mechanisms for linkage will be:

  • Faculty appointed in the Institute will have their primary appointments, and tenure lines, in existing departments and schools.

  • Qualified existing University faculty will have ample opportunity to participate in the life of the Institute through appointment as Institute fellows and through research and teaching sabbaticals within the Institute.

    Other mechanisms for linkage will be developed.

  • It is to build links to the world outside the University, via partnerships with relevant industry, collaborations with other universities, and public educational outreach.

    Reprinted from “The University of Michigan Life Sciences Initiative and Institute for the Study of Biological Complexity and Human Values,” a briefing book prepared for the Board of Regents, May 1999.

    The introductory portion of the book is on the Web at The complete book is on reserve at the Hatcher Graduate Librasry.