Center for Biological Futures: New interdisciplinary think tank

Led by Basic Sciences Division’s Roger Brent, CBF will address challenges posed by massive gains in biological knowledge
Dr. Roger Brent
Basic Sciences Division's Dr. Roger Brent established the Center for Biological Futures to foster sophisticated thinking about the present and future impacts of major advances in biological research. Photo by Dean Forbes

Enormous growth in biological knowledge during the past 100 years or so—and increasing worldwide use of that information to manipulate and build living systems—poses unique opportunities and challenges for the scientific community and humanity at large. These include potential risks associated with expanded public access to engineered biological organisms, responses to infectious disease, the impact of human manipulation of the biosphere for food and fuel, and implications of advances in understanding the human genome sequence and reproductive technology.

To help foster more sophisticated thinking about such big-picture issues, Dr. Roger Brent of the Hutchinson Center's Basic Sciences Division, has established an interdisciplinary group of scholars and scientists called the Center for Biological Futures. The initiative is supported via primary funding from the Innovation Fund of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Brent, a molecular biologist, leads the CBF. Dr. Alison Wylie, a University of Washington professor of philosophy and anthropology, leads related UW work via a vigorous network of faculty research activities in the humanities and social sciences. That effort, called "Biological Futures in a Globalized World," is hosted by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

"Continued advances in biological research in the 20th century and the start of the 21st are having a global impact on our conceptions of human identity and on human relationships with the rest of the living world," Brent said. "The mission of the Center for Biological Futures is to foster better thinking about the present and future impacts of these continuing developments on human events."

During the next two years, the CBF will conduct a number of activities, including:

  • A public lecture series
  • Faculty research consortia and workshops
  • Graduate seminars on biological futures topics

At the Center and the UW, the CBF also will spearhead a research ethics and integrity initiative to develop an integrated education and training program for biological and nonmedical scientists that cultivates an appreciation of the human dimensions and impacts of their work.

"Our goals are to establish an interdisciplinary network of scholars and scientists who have the expertise to enhance our understanding of complex issues surrounding biological futures, and to lay the foundations for a sustained program of substantial research and education that puts us in a position to address them effectively," Wylie said.

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