New Programs Reflect Emphasis on Science

Six initiatives approved since last spring

University President Lawrence H. Summers forged ahead this year in his efforts to bolster science at Harvard.

He recommended that the University create a third science campus, while he oversaw the creation of a half-dozen new science initiatives and embraced sweeping proposals to reinvigorate undergraduate science education.

The Allston science and technology task force, whose report was released last month, urged the University to invest significantly in expanding engineering, applied science and emerging areas like stem cell research as part of Harvard’s campus of the future south of the Charles River. The one-million-square-foot science hub that will serve as the campus’ academic heart will feature cutting-edge laboratories intended to encourage cross-disciplinary research.

Last June, the University entered into a historic partnership with MIT and the Cambridge-based Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research to create the $300-million Broad Institute, charged with finding clinical applications for the recently mapped human genome.

A spate of other ambitious initiatives were rolled out this year, including the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. And more—mostly intended for the Allston campus—remain in the works.

The College’s curricular review report, released in May, encourages more emphasis on the sciences, including offering more comprehensive survey courses for non-concentrators and a renewed emphasis on hands-on research.

“The present report suggests that we enhance significantly the opportunities for our students in international studies and in the sciences, two areas in which our world has arguably changed most dramatically since our last general review,” Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby wrote in a letter introducing the report.

And to fund much of this science expansion, the University plans to begin a sweeping capital campaign—with a likely goal of over $4 billion, the largest in higher education history, and with a primary goal of expanding the sciences.

Summers insisted in September that Harvard take advantage of emerging fields in science.

“We must not miss the tremendous opportunity that is inherent in this moment—excellence has its cost,” Summers said. He added that the University must ensure “that the limits of what we can accomplish are the limits on the imaginations of our scientists.”

Professors say the new initiatives, in addition to at least 15 new science faculty appointments, are likely to reshape the curriculum and make steps toward a resurgence in Harvard’s sciences.

BRANCHING OUT

Since the end of the last academic year, Summers has unveiled a plethora of new University-wide science initiatives.

The Broad Institute, which officially began operating last month, will work to bring together math and biology to apply the genome to clinical ends.

Its formation marks a major step in implementing so-called “big science” at Harvard.

“[There is] also a sociological goal—which is to allow larger collaborative efforts in both teaching hospitals, Harvard and MIT, to bring people together to take on challenges that can’t be taken on by individuals,” said Broad Director Eric S. Lander.

Lander said the institute will also have an impact on undergraduate education by increasing research opportunities and eventually by offering seminars and workshops through its faculty.

And the Broad Institute was just the beginning of the University’s scientific expansion.

In February, The Boston Globe reported the formation of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which was not officially launched or announced until April.

The center was formed partially in response to the Bush administration’s more restrictive policy on federal funding for stem cell research, in the hopes that Harvard could solicit private support instead.

News of the new institute came not long after Harvard took a hit in February, when two South Korean researchers announced that they had taken therapeutic cloning to a whole new level by extracting a line of stem cells from a cloned human embryo.

“This is a field which was started in the U.S., and we are currently in the position of falling behind amongst international competitors,” said David T. Scadden, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Regenerative Medicine and Technology and co-director of the institute. “Partly what has driven the U.S. research machine is U.S. government funding. Because scientists’ engagement in [stem cell research] is highly restricted, there has been a chill in this field, and we hope this effort will partly compensate for that by providing monetary resources for scientists.”

The Stem Cell Institute intends to unite a wide range of professional fields within the University, such as lab science, business and medicine, to develop ethically responsible stem cell therapies with a focus on degenerative diseases.

“We think that Harvard can offer particularly unique contributions to this field both because of its depth and...extraordinary people,” Scadden said. “Because this spans a wide range of disciplines, this can create new types of courses and also engage students in independent research projects.”

In September, Harvard’s Bauer Center for Genomics Research (CGR) received a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Institutes of Health endowing a Center of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research, aiming to investigate organisms’ molecular structure.

CGR Director and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Andrew W. Murray said the money will help fund the study of “modular design” in various lifeforms.

The center is unique in seeking to combine biological theory with empirical results, Murray said.

The University’s commitment to biological research was reinforced two weeks later, as Harvard Medical School (HMS) unveiled the $260-million New Research Building. The massive new research facility stands as the University’s largest structure ever—spanning over half a million square feet.

Associate Dean for Public Affairs Donald L. Gibbons said that the building will “work to foster a closer relationship between basic science research and translational research occurring at hospitals,” thereby speeding the creation of clinical applications for lab discoveries.

In October, Summers announced an interdisciplinary Center for Systems Neuroscience, another burgeoning initiative which will integrate the study of neurons, nervous systems and cognition with other fields such as psychology, biology, physics and engineering.

“The center will have a big role to play in changing the curriculum,” said Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Markus Meister. “You can imagine that with 10 additional faculty to teach neuroscience, the curriculum will look very different from the way it looks now.”

Alumni Endowed Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology Joshua R. Sanes at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, who will become director of the Center for Systems Neuroscience in July, said the new focus on neuroscience will provide a healthy balance to the current broad study track of Mind, Brain and Behavior (MBB) at Harvard, which incorporates such fields as linguistics, psychology and sociology in studying the brain.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in neuroscience. The MBB program is quite broad, and neurosciences is only one of its components,” said Sanes, as he explained that neuroscience is a way of studying the brain that’s based purely in biology. “So I think there is a huge need for education opportunities in neuroscience for undergraduates, both in terms of course work, seminars and lab opportunities.”

Sanes said one of the key aspects of the neuroscience center will be to attempt to combine studies of neuroscience and behavior and that new courses designed in the field of neurobiology will reflect this focus.

In addition, Sanes said the neuroscience program in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will work closely with HMS and other graduate programs.

“Larry Summers is quite interested in having the university together, and FAS and HMS have not worked together well in the past,” he said. “We are in the vanguard of increasing interactions between FAS and the med school.”

This February, in a significant boost to an existing initiative, the School of Public Health was granted $107 million over the next five years from President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. This funding for the Treatment Care and Prevention Initiative in Botswana, Nigeria and Tanzania will allow doctors to better treat patients, according to Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease Phyllis Kanki, one of the leaders of the initiative.

“It’s really wonderful,” she said. “We have programs in these countries, and we’ve been able to do research, but we’ve had our hands tied behind our back in terms of being able to provide treatments.”

Summers has said global health—an interdisciplinary field that merges science and social science—should be a more regular part of the Harvard undergraduate education.

He has stressed “that we have an obligation to use what we know to address AIDS, malaria” and other global health crises.

In mid-April, the Microbial Science Initiative was finally announced publicly after two years of planning, initiating what will be a massive collaboration of five departments—biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and earth and planetary sciences—to research bacteria at a microscopic level.

Daniel P. Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences, said in April that he hoped the initiative would allow students to experience research in a new light, taking the “bacteria out of the test tube.”

And Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Roberto G. Kolter hinted at the time that new microbial courses will be available to students by next spring and possibly even for non-concentrators by the following fall.

RUFFLED FEATHERS

Despite the year’s rapid push toward a new science program, not everyone agrees that the changes made are good ones, or that they were achieved fairly.

Several faculty are critical and wary of Summers’ Allston science plan.

At the year’s first Faculty meeting, professors broadly criticized aspects of the plan, ranging from the process behind it to the fear that moving some science across the river would splinter FAS.

Professor of Physics and Applied Physics Daniel S. Fisher—one of Summers’ most outspoken critics—opposed the plan on the grounds that it would divide FAS science departments.

“For many years, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and applied sciences have been close together in Cambridge, but their interactions have been limited,” Fisher said at the time. “[While] the interactions between them have grown extensively, and the potential for taking advantage of those interactions is now enormous, the energy to do so is in danger of being dissipated.”

Some professor have also said they are worried that Summers and University administrators are taking hasty steps without sufficient consultation.

Fisher said efforts by faculty over the past year to suggest ideas for the short-term future of science in Cambridge had been “denigrated” by Summers and University Provost Steven E. Hyman.

With the establishment of the Broad Institute, some biology faculty complained that they should have been included in planning for a major new center in their area of expertise.

“The overall sense in my department [Molecular and Cellular Biology] is that very little opinion was recruited from the people whose expertise is in this area,” Meister said at the time of Broad’s announcement last June. “It seemed like a lot of secret negotiations were going on before anything scientific was discussed with the Faculty.”

LOOKING FORWARD

The formation of divisional deans at FAS last September meant—at least in theory—new advocates for the life sciences and physical sciences as well as a single administrator tasked with the responsibility of planning for physical growth and appointments.

While Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti was named dean of the physical sciences, a nationwide search was announced for the life science dean.

In the interim, a nine-person executive committee—chaired by Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton—oversaw the life sciences.

During the year, two candidates considered for the post—Randy Schekman from the University of California at Berkeley and Gerald F. Joyce, from the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California—would neither confirm nor deny that they were offered the position.

But last week, Melton—who in a November interview said he had only agreed to chair the executive committee for one year, as an interim measure—was named chair of the life sciences council, which will function as a life sciences dean by committee.

Melton’s appointment and the committee’s formation resolves the major outstanding issue facing FAS sciences.

And the University’s new focus on science seems likely to continue.

“I am convinced that the choices we make in the life sciences are as essential as any choices we make in the decades ahead,” Summers said in September. “There is a pervasiveness and ubiquity to what is happening in the life sciences that touches every school in this University and almost every department.”

—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at xu4@fas.harvard.edu.