Public Affairs

Public Affairs

Chris Kaiser Named NIGMS Director

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins announced on October 18 that Chris A. Kaiser will be the new director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). Kaiser, professor and head of the Department of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will begin his new position in the spring of 2012.

“Dr. Kaiser has tremendous energy and enthusiasm for research and training—two key components of the NIGMS mission—that make him ideal for this position,” said Collins. “His scientific vision, leadership skills, and collaborative spirit are essential assets that will help him guide the Institute during this era of great opportunity.”

As NIGMS director, Kaiser will oversee the institute’s $2 billion budget, which primarily funds basic research in the areas of cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biological chemistry, bioinformatics, and computational biology. NIGMS supports more than 4,500 research grants, about 10% of those funded by NIH as a whole, as well as a substantial amount of research training and programs designed to increase the diversity of the biomedical and behavioral research workforce.

“In taking this position, I feel a compelling call to duty for national service and to be an advocate for the basic research enterprise,” said Kaiser. “For 50 years, NIGMS has laid the foundation for important medical advances, and I’m excited to build on these efforts.” Kaiser’s research uses genetic, biochemical, and structural biology methods to understand the basic mechanisms of protein folding and intracellular transport, molecular processes essential to normal cell function. His efforts have led to the identification of numerous genes and related mutations involved in these processes. Kaiser is particularly interested in determining how secreted and other proteins form disulfide bonds, which are important for protein folding and stability. To study these questions, Kaiser uses yeast, a model organism for investigating mammalian genetics.

An initiative Kaiser said he’s particularly eager to join is the institute’s effort to build and sustain a strong and diverse scientific workforce, as outlined in the recent NIGMS strategic plan for research training. “Fostering scientific careers and improving workforce diversity are critical to research progress, and NIGMS has really taken a lead in this arena,” said Kaiser, who oversaw an effort that increased graduate student diversity within the MIT biology department from 5% to 18% over six years.

Kaiser joined the MIT faculty in 1991 and became a full professor in 2002. He has chaired the biology department since 2004. He received an AB in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1980 and a PhD in biology from MIT in 1987, then did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-author of a widely used textbook, Molecular Cell Biology (5th and 6th Editions).

Kaiser will replace Judith H. Greenberg, who became acting director of NIGMS in July 2011 after the departure of Jeremy M. Berg, who had served as director since 2003.

Public Affairs Committee Members Attend NRC/NAS Convocation

Two members of the BPS Public Affairs Committee, Dorothy Beckett and Ed Egelman, represented the Biophysical Society at a convocation sponsored by the National Research Council’s Board on Life Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. The event was held at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, on October 25–26, and was aimed at launching a national initiative to infuse evolutionary science into introductory college courses in the life sciences and upper-level biology courses in high schools across the United States. However, the discussion suggested that many efforts need to be aimed at students even earlier.

The convocation featured invited speakers and panelists, and participant discussion sessions. Representatives from various scientific organizations, such as the Biophysical Society, were invited to join this convocation and ongoing discussion about what can be done to address a fundamental problem that affects the US population at many levels: most Americans do not accept evolution. One survey has shown that the US ranks 33rd out of 34 countries surveyed in public acceptance of evolution (Turkey was ranked 34th). The major cause of this lack of acceptance is a lack of understanding. Numerous strategies and approaches for teaching evolution were discussed, but the key point was that scientists must take some responsibility for the failure to communicate the overwhelming evidence for evolution to the general public.

While scientists do not know what approaches will work best in the future, there is an extensive amount of empirical evidence showing that past approaches do not work. Past approaches have included the notion that “this has nothing to do with my research,” “this debate is too silly for me to be involved,” or “I cannot replace existing beliefs with scientific evidence.”

The Public Affairs Committee will work as part of this coalition to develop programs for biophysicists to use in public outreach efforts. A full report summarizing the event is being prepared, and a link will be available in a future issue of the Newsletter. More details about the convocation can be found at: http://nas-sites.org/thinkingevolutionarily.

BPS Signs Deficit Reduction Letter

On October 27, the Biophysical Society joined more than 40 institutions and organizations in signing a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction as it faces the challenge of low-ering the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The intersociety letter urges the Committee to remember that making drastic cuts to defense and non-defense research spending in the discretionary accounts will set a dangerous precedent that, in the end, will not only inhibit scientific progress but will threaten the international competitiveness of the US long into the future.

The letter refers to the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission last year, which identified federal research and development (R&D) as an area of US investment too critical to be cut. It cites nationwide examples of the partnerships and collaborations between science and society, the federal government and universities, and academia and industry that yielded new knowledge, new innovators, new products, new businesses, and jobs since World War II. Strong support for the federal R&D budget and its mission to advance scientific and technological discovery and innovation across a broad-spectrum of disciplines is urged in the letter, expressing that as representatives of US science, engineering, and higher education organizations, the Committee must support research that has fueled American economic growth for decades.

December 2011 Table of Contents