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Conference on complexity offers new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration

IRVINE, Calif. -- More than 160 participants gathered this week for the sixth annual National Academies Keck FUTURES INITIATIVE conference. This year's topic, "Complex Systems," drew scientists, engineers, medical researchers, economists, and philosophers to discuss new interdisciplinary approaches to researching complex systems such as ecosystems, financial markets, communication networks, and biology.

H. Eugene Stanley Ph.D., director, Center for Polymer Studies, Boston University, and this year's conference chair told participants, "We have an opportunity to catalyze new collaborations among individuals from different disciplines, formulate new questions that haven't even been asked before, and devise possible ways to address them."

To encourage further interdisciplinary work, the National Academies announced the availability of $1 million in seed grants up to $100,000 each to speed new lines of research identified at the conference. Recipients of the competitive grants will be announced in April 2009.

As one way to bridge communication gaps among researchers from different fields, the organizers held pre-conference webcast "tutorials" in which speakers provided an overview of their fields in language that scientists, engineers, or researchers from other disciplines could understand. These tutorials are available online at

During the conference, researchers participated in one of twelve task groups to develop possible to approaches to particular challenges. Among the challenges were how to achieve a sustainable quality of life; how can we use engineering systems to address complexity in other fields; how to control flow and transport in complex systems; and how can we develop effective strategies for treatment and/or prevention for common complex disorders of the central nervous system. Representatives from public and private funding organizations, government, industry, graduate writing students, and the media also participated in these working groups.

Participants also presented posters describing their latest research.


Encouraging better communication among scientists in various fields and between scientists and the public is a key component of the FUTURES INITIATIVE. During the conference, the National Academies presented their 2008 Communication Awards to:

  • Walter Isaacson for his book EINSTEIN: HIS LIFE AND UNIVERSE, a comprehensive and scholarly ambitious look at the life and mind of the pre-eminent scientific figure of the 20th century

  • Bob Marshall, Mark Schleifstein, Dan Swenson, and Ted Jackson for LAST CHANCE: THE FIGHT TO SAVE A DISAPPEARING COAST (The Times-Picayune, New Orleans), an outstanding newspaper series that combined superb storytelling with the latest science in its call to action to save Louisiana's wetlands

  • George Butler (director), White Mountain Films, Kennedy-Marshall Films, and Walt Disney Company, for ROVING MARS, a spectacular film that chronicled the science and engineering behind the Mars rovers and followed their breathtaking search for water on the red planet. ROVING MARS was made with the cooperation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA and was presented as a public service by Lockheed Martin

  • Alan Boyle, science editor, for selected works from COSMIC.LOG and his pioneering efforts to bring daily coverage of the physical sciences, technological innovation and space sciences to broad new audiences on a popular news Web site.

The awards recognize excellence in communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the public. The winners of the four $20,000 cash prizes spoke to conference attendees about their experiences communicating science.


Contact: William Skane
National Academy of Sciences

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