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Realizing the Promise of Biological Physics Requires a Multipronged Approach to Education, Funding, and Workforce, Says New Report

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Biological physics – also known as the physics of living systems – has emerged fully as a field of physics alongside other recognized fields such as astrophysics and nuclear physics, says the first decadal survey of biological physics from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report outlines how federal agencies, policymakers, and universities can strengthen the field’s future and offers recommendations on research directions, funding, workforce, and education.

The field of biological physics holds the promise of uncovering common physical principles at work in disparate biological systems, said the committee that wrote the report, which identified key conceptual questions to help orient a wide breadth of research in the coming decade. These questions touch processes on all scales, from the folding of single protein molecules to the organized movements in flocks of birds. Progress in biological physics has produced new tools for scientific discoveries, new instruments for medical diagnosis, new ideas for systems biology with applications in synthetic biology, new methods and theories for exploring the brain, and new algorithms for artificial intelligence. Findings and methods from biological physicists have been central in the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report says, including efforts to model aerosol transmission, understand the evolutionary dynamics of the virus, and to detect community spread as early as January 2020.

“The emergence of biological physics as a field of physics has been a decades-long process, and the work of biological physicists already has had an enormous impact on the world,” said William Bialek, John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics at Princeton University and chair of the committee. “Biological physics will continue developing and influencing our understanding of the phenomena of life, and realizing the full potential of the field requires that we rethink how to teach physics, biology, and science in general, revise fragmented funding structures, and welcome and nurture diverse aspiring scientists.”

While the field of biological physics is growing and has seen significant successes, the report cautions that building out a scientific field is a multigenerational process with many challenges to overcome, and that there are many actions that federal agencies and universities should take to strengthen the future of the field.

Supporting the Field

The report’s survey of the field’s funding environment finds that support for biological physics is at a level close to the minimum needed for the health of the field. While the field is supported by multiple agencies, federal support for research is fragmented into narrowly defined funding structures, which obscure the breadth and coherence of the field. The report makes a number of recommendations for the government, including:

  • The federal government should provide the National Science Foundation (NSF) with more resources in order to increase grant sizes while maintaining a range of research.
  • Congress should expand the U.S. Department of Energy’s mission to partner with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF to construct and manage user facilities and infrastructure that advance the field of biological physics more broadly.
  • NIH should explore the formation of study sections devoted to biological physics.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense should support research in biological physics that aims to discover broad principles that can be emulated in engineered systems of relevance to its mission.
  • Federal funding agencies should establish grant programs for the direct institutional support of graduate education in biological physics, and establish programs for the support of international students in U.S. Ph.D. programs in biological physics.

Educating the Next Generation

Making progress in biological physics will also depend on recruiting, welcoming, and nurturing a continuous flow of new and diverse talent. The report notes that physics education has a layered structure, with each layer building on those below, so any inequalities of educational opportunity or resources are compounded. It recommends that federal agencies make new resources available to support core undergraduate physics education and the integration of research into the educational experience for underrepresented and historically excluded groups. And recognizing the significant impact of historically Black colleges and universities, minority serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities, faculty from these institutions should play a central role in shaping and implementing new federal programs in this area.

With women receiving fewer than 25% of physics degrees awarded at the undergraduate and doctorate levels, and 75% of female physics students having reported experiencing harassment, the report recommends that special attention be paid to the experiences of female students. The scientific community should continue supporting more concrete policies creating accountability, such as channels for anonymous reporting of harassment and measures for enforcement.

The committee found that biological physics is poorly represented in the core undergraduate physics curriculum and that few students at this level have opportunities to take specialized courses. However, at the graduate level, rapid growth in the number of Ph.D. students pursuing biological physics has put it on par with other fields of physics. Continued growth in biological physics requires recognition that it is distinct from, but synergistic with, related fields. The report recommends that physics departments at research universities build identifiable efforts in biological physics.

Universities should also work to expose all physics students to biological physics throughout their education, and ground any specialized biological physics courses firmly in the intellectual framework and principles of physics. The report explains how examples from biological physics can be used to illustrate core physics concepts throughout the curriculum, and identifies opportunities to modernize the teaching of both laboratory and lecture courses in ways that respond to both the emergence of biological physics and to developments in physics more broadly. Research and teaching should be more fully integrated, the report recommends, and this will require institutional support, including school funding for undergraduate research in the field.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on Biological Physics/Physics of Living Systems: A Decadal Survey — was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

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