When the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee (HUSEC) gathered for its first meeting late last April, it was charged by not one, but two Harvard presidents.
Then president-designate and now president Drew Faust told the 18 members of the new committee that theirs is both a unique and “historic” body, created to forge meaningful scientific collaborations across the individual disciplines and schools of a University long-known for the independence of its departments and Schools.
And then acting president Derek Bok told the provost, science deans, and scientific leaders who comprise the committee that “unlike most committees of this sort, you do not have the luxury of months to get to know each other — your work is too important for that.”
The 18 members of HUSEC have taken their charge to heart. During monthly meetings, and a daylong September retreat at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, they have been examining the present and future of Harvard’s efforts in interdisciplinary collaborative science, inter-School science efforts, and science education.
In the 10 months since receiving their presidential charges, the committee, chaired by Provost Steven E. Hyman and including the deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard Medical School (HMS), Harvard School of Public Health, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and 13 scientific leaders from across the University’s Schools and affiliated hospitals, has, among other things:
• Earmarked approximately $7 million in FY 09 funding for first-year science graduate students, freeing them — and departments — from the need to depend upon NIH training grants, making it easier for graduate students to change disciplines and easing financial burdens caused by faculty expansion;
• Been conducting programmatic reviews of the already-established science collaborations;
• Established a procedure by which faculty members can apply for seed money to initiate new interdisciplinary science search programs;
• Provided support for the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences Program (HILS), which makes it possible for graduate students to move within the life sciences rather than make an ironclad early commitment to a particular discipline;
• Established a committee to consider what Harvard needs to do to become a leader in bioengineering and to report its findings to HUSEC this spring;
• Provided academic planning for the Allston Science Complex;
• Approved $30 million in funding over the next five years to support a Clinical Translational Research Center that will bring together basic and clinical researchers at Harvard Medical School, the affiliated hospitals, and other Schools of the University.
At a recent HUSEC meeting, Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard Center for the Environment, asked the committee to support a wide-ranging University initiative on “Energy and Its Consequences” that will bring together researchers from across the University, “engaging the best scholars, including many who have never worked on energy and the environment before.”
In the discussion of the proposal, Hyman told the group, “Efforts such as these require engaged faculty participation. It is important to have a forum such as HUSEC in which to have this discussion.”
“What we have to consider,” said Christopher Stubbs, HUSEC member and professor of physics and of astronomy, “is how we would focus the natural intellectual capacity of Harvard toward solving this problem.”
Education on both the undergraduate and graduate level has been a part of almost every HUSEC discussion, with committee members continually urging that already-established interdisciplinary initiatives and proposed new collaborative efforts contain major educational components.
FAS Dean and HUSEC member Michael Smith said he sees HUSEC as a driving force for the development of innovative, cross-disciplinary science education.
“We have a duty to ensure that as we expand into new areas of scientific research — particularly those areas of research that cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines — we are developing educational components as an integral part of that effort,” Smith said.
Hyman has, from the beginning, stressed the need for transparency in HUSEC’s operations. The committee’s agendas are posted on its Web site (http://harvardscience.harvard.edu/directory/programs/husec), and in the near future meeting minutes will be posted. The committee has also posted an invitation for requests for seed grant funding for new pilot initiatives (http://harvardscience.harvard.edu/directory/programs/husec/husec-seed-fund-interdisciplinary-science). “HUSEC is an important experiment for Harvard,” Hyman said. “We have accomplished a great deal in a short time, but we must keep asking ourselves if we are finding the best ways to facilitate collaboration across all the Schools and affiliated hospitals of the University.”
Asked how HUSEC’s work is impacting his role as dean of HMS, Jeffrey Flier, who is a member of the committee, said, “If HUSEC didn’t exist, I’d work to have it created.”