Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

For Science and Engineering, New Life

March-April 2007

In January, the Harvard Corporation authorized the establishment of the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee (HUSEC), allocating $50 million in start-up funds to support the group’s work until it can develop a detailed budget. The Corporation also asked President Derek Bok and Provost Steven E. Hyman to set up a new University-wide department—the first at Harvard—of developmental and regenerative biology.

Photographs by Jim Harrison; Justin Ide / Harvard News Office; Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard News Office
Sweeping changes to science and engineering at Harvard, recommended by a committee chaired by (at left) Christopher T. Walsh (head of the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences Program and Kuhn professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology), Andrew Murray (Smith professor of molecular genetics and chair of the department of molecular and cell biology), and Christopher Stubbs (professor of physics and astronomy), are now in process.

Both actions by the University’s highest governing body flowed from recommendations laid out by the University Planning Committee for Science and Engineering (UPCSE) in a preliminary report in July 2006 (see “Sweeping Change for Science,” September-October 2006, page 71). The UPCSE’s final recommendations, quietly released in mid December, largely reinforce its earlier findings that Harvard needs to support science better: through improved administration, commitment to diversity, shared infrastructure, hands-on pedagogy, and especially the elimination of barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Some changes in the revised draft reflect advice from an external review committee convened by Bok and led by Richard N. Zare ’61, Ph.D. ’67, chair of the chemistry department at Stanford. The Zare committee, for example, suggested that HUSEC’s role should be advisory rather than executive, that two cross-school departments should be established immediately, and that “deans should take the lead in executing [the report’s] recommendations and reducing current impediments to interactions between disciplines and schools.”

HUSEC has, in fact, been recast in the final report as a standing advisory committee to the president, rather than as an executive body with direct control of faculty appointments and allocation of space. The committee, which will coordinate science efforts across the University, will be chaired by the provost and will include the deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard Medical School (HMS), and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and representatives nomi­nated by and from among the faculty for appointment by the president, including one faculty member from a nonscience discipline. HUSEC will also include the CEO of one of Harvard’s affil­iated hospitals: the final UPCSE report notes that roughly two-thirds of the space, funding, and faculty members in the sciences at Harvard reside in the hospitals, rather than in HMS, HSPH, and FAS.

The report provides an intriguing glimpse of Harvard’s future in the sciences, not only laying out a draft set of criteria for evaluating new ideas (scientific import; maturity of idea; benefits to the University; concrete implementation plan; compelling educational vision; and practicality) but also identifying the most promising areas of future scientific inquiry. The report also recommends establishment of systems biology as a second University-wide department and the formation of five interdepartmental committees with the power to make appointments in the following fields: biologically inspired engineering; microbial sciences; energy and the environment; human genetics; and quantitative analysis. Other science and technology initiatives endorsed by the report include: evolutionary biology, biodiversity, and conservation; origins of life; fundamental physical laws; quantum science and engineering; innovative computing; computation and society; global health; and translational research.

Plans for the University-wide department of developmental and regenerative biology are expected to be ready for Corporation review by April. Although many of the faculty in the new department will also have appointments in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the two organizations have distinct roles. The department will focus on teaching and making faculty appointments; the institute will set, and raise money for, a research agenda.

Both will have a significant faculty presence in the first science building in Allston. And the further scientific initiatives identified in the report, as well as the central institutional oversight exercised by HUSEC to synchronize them, are likely to play a major role in shaping the research campus that rises alongside the Charles River in the next 50 years.