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November 3, 2017
NSF Director Describes Potential of Biotech Innovations

When doing such everyday tasks as searching the web or using a touch screen or navigating with GPS, we almost forget what life was like before these revolutionary technologies existed. We’ve come to rely on these inventions, each of which originated with a novel idea and a National Science Foundation grant to develop it.

Dr. France Córdova
Dr. France Córdova

Today, NSF-funded scientists continue to work across disciplines and partner with other federal agencies, including NIH, and the private sector to design new technologies, with exciting prospects for biomedical research, said NSF director Dr. France Anne-Dominic Córdova. She spoke at NLM’s Lindberg & King Lecture Series recently in Lister Hill Auditorium, Bldg. 38A.

“Every day, the NSF and NIH prove the importance of federal funding in research,” said Córdova. Through a longstanding partnership, NSF and NIH are sharing data, ideas and technology, collaborating on a range of neuroscience initiatives and such programs as NSF-NIH Smart and Connected Health, which supports cutting-edge research in areas including sensor technology, machine learning and cognitive modeling.

Through small business grants to fund start-ups and I-Corps, a public-private network of scientists and entrepreneurs, NSF and NIH are fostering innovations in tissue engineering, including touch-sensitive prosthetics and bioengineered organs for transplant. And the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene editor, funded jointly by NSF and NIH, holds the potential to combat and prevent genetic disorders and infectious diseases.

“The results of our shared commitment to basic research have brought us to a time of unprecedented capacity for innovation,” said Córdova.

NSF funding has launched such life-saving diagnostic tools as magnetic resonance imaging. More recently, advances in soft robotics produced a flexible polymer-based material that can be used to make artificial muscle, a life-changing invention for those with disabilities. And more discoveries are on the horizon.

NSF recently unveiled its 10 Big Ideas for future investment that span the sciences, from astrophysics to Earth science to life sciences. One of them, “Harnessing the Data Revolution,” seeks to further enable data-driven discovery by integrating growing volumes of data with advances in data mining and machine learning, data cyberinfrastructure and new approaches to education and learning for a 21st-century workforce.

“Bioinformatics has substantially increased in importance to medicine,” said Córdova. “Combining the science of medicine and the collection and mining of relevant data with the intuition of the best doctors, we’ve revolutionized what medicine can accomplish.”

Advances in machine learning are helping researchers better understand, diagnose and personalize medical treatments. Scientists at the University of Illinois recently used the NSF-supported Blue Waters supercomputer to model and analyze atomic-level detail of the HIV capsid, including how it functions, with implications for defeating the virus.

Dr. Thomas Quinn
Córdova says, “Tomorrow’s scientists and physicians will count on our discoveries to cross the next frontiers of science.”


“Intelligence systems can change medicine, but algorithms are unlikely to completely replace humans,” said Córdova. “Physicians and scientists will have to learn to work in collaboration with intelligence systems.”

The “Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier,” another NSF Big Idea, is already having an effect. For example, by integrating human and machine intelligence, researchers have been able to reduce pathology errors that in turn could lead to more precise prognoses. A recent study in lymph node biopsies found an 85 percent reduction in error when combining the machine’s results with those of a human pathologist in detecting breast cancer.

“Using machine learning to process the volumes of big data and the latest information will aid in diagnostics and prognosis accuracy,” said Córdova, “and this will allow doctors to focus on quality time with patients.”

Another NSF Big Idea is “Growing Convergence Research,” or pulling together different disciplines in new and emergent ways to stimulate innovation. When astronomers and cancer researchers faced a common problem in scrutinizing images, NSF-funded scientists from both disciplines collaborated on software that helps radiologists pinpoint calcifications to detect breast cancer. Thus digital mammography was born. In another convergent innovation, NSF-funded economist Dr. Alvin Roth came up with a matching-markets model to pair transplant patients with potential kidney donors.

“When convergence truly works, seemingly unrelated disciplines make unconventional partners come together to produce new applications,” said Córdova.

And who knows where the next breakthrough will come from?

“How we do research is just as important as what we research,” said Córdova, “and we must work together to strengthen and diversify the composition of the science and engineering workforce that will depend upon our future innovations.”

That’s the thinking behind NSF’s Big Idea called INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering & Science). By placing attention on approaches that foster broadened participation in training and STEM education, NSF hopes to encourage scientists of all ages and backgrounds to enter and stay in the field.

“Having fresh ideas and original processes and investing in state-of-the-art facilities, tools and software will go a long way toward the health research breakthroughs that we’re all eagerly seeking,” said Córdova. “Tomorrow’s scientists and physicians will count on our discoveries to cross the next frontiers of science.”

The Lindberg & King Lecture Series is cosponsored by NLM, Friends of the NLM and the American Medical Informatics Association.

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