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By Mitch Ambrose
This spring, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a blueprint for cementing biological physics as a discrete field of physics, on par with disciplines such as astrophysics and condensed matter physics, rather than merely an application of physics techniques to biology. The report, assembled by a 13-member committee chaired by Princeton University physicist William Bialek, argues that the field now warrants more focused attention from funders and educators.
The report is the first-ever “decadal survey” of biological physics, an influential exercise the National Academies uses to recommend ten-year strategies for major fields of science.
Biological physics is a deeply diverse field. New technologies and scientific advances have made it possible to “find the physics” in ever-more complex living systems, “ranging from the folding of proteins to the flocking of birds, from the internal mechanics of cells to the collective dynamics of neurons in the brain,” the report says.
This breadth is a strength of biological physics, but also a challenge: The field’s funding sources are scattered across federal agencies, and the field sometimes lacks a clear home within them, the committee concluded.
For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocated about $60 million annually for biophysics research over the past decade, but the grants came from 75 of the roughly 200 study sections the agency uses to review applications—a big number, according to the committee. This fragmentation has forced researchers to define their work “in relation to the communities represented by the study sections, thus working against the emergence of biological physics as a field of physics,” the committee found. To remedy this, it recommends that NIH form study sections devoted to the full breadth of biological physics.
The Department of Energy (DOE) could also do more to embrace the field, the committee argues. The DOE currently supports a broad portfolio of research and facilities that are directly relevant to biological physics, such as X-ray and neutron sources used to characterize protein structure. However, DOE is constrained by its formal mission, sometimes making it difficult for the agency to justify facility investments based on their relevance to biological physics, the committee wrote. Accordingly, the report calls for Congress to expand the agency’s mission to explicitly include partnering with the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to construct research infrastructure for biological physics.
The NSF was the only agency the committee found to have a program dedicated to the full breadth of biological physics. For two decades, the NSF has had a “Physics of Living Systems” program that funds diverse research, from single-cell dynamics to the collective behavior of animal populations. But the program is still relatively small, spending only a fifth of what the NIH does on biological physics, the report notes.
And no matter the agency, budgets for biological physics are tight, the committee argued, hovering “dangerously close to the minimum needed for the health of the field.”
Funding isn’t the only challenge: Many physics degree programs lack biophysics education. The committee noted that many physics undergraduates never encounter the subject, despite its value in demonstrating physics’ relevance to present-day problems.
“Typical core physics curricula today hardly require undergraduates to learn anything that happened after 1950, while modern biology and computer science focus on ideas and results from after 1950,” the committee writes. “Should we be surprised, then, to hear people speak of physics as the science of the past, while biology and computing are the sciences of the future?”
Mitch Ambrose is the director of FYI. Published by the American Institute of Physics since 1989, FYI is a trusted source of science policy news that is read by congressional staff, federal agency heads, and leading figures in the scientific community. Sign up for free FYI emails at aip.org/fyi.
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