Current funding pattern for Math, Physics threatens Biomedicine

By Wallace Ravven

Biomedical research and the development of powerful new diagnostic tools will be hobbled in the U.S. if the government fails to adequately fund mathematics, physics and engineering research - “major drivers” of progress in biology, according to the executive director of the Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, headquartered at UCSF.

Physics underlies powerful medical imaging diagnostics such as MRI and CAT capabilities, while mathematical tools are essential to tease apart complex signaling networks active in nearly all essential cell processes, said Marvin Cassman, PhD.

“If we don’t adequately support physics, engineering and mathematics, we put the brakes on medically-related progress as surely as we slow advances in math and physics,” he said.

Now head of the new multi-disciplinary California institute, Cassman is former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 

He spoke today (February 14) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

Between 1970 and 1999, federal funding for basic research in the medical sciences increasingly outstripped basic research funding in physics, Cassman said. Aside from the National Science Foundation, support for math and physics has historically come from “mission-oriented” agencies, such as the Department of Energy, Department of Defense and NASA. As Cold War tensions eased in the 1990s, the rate of growth in science for the mission agencies slowed relative to growth in biomedical research.

The ratio of funding for medical sciences to that for physics went from 0.59 to 2.335 during this period, Cassman said. Most of this boost in biomedical funding actually preceded the recent “doubling regime,” he said - the period since 1997 in which federal support for the National Institutes of Health has doubled.
“Electron microscopy, CAT scans, MRI diagnostics, the ability to manipulate and analyze single molecules - these all were built on and sustained by math and physics,” Cassman said. “Now, we are trying to understand the signaling pathways in cells through which hormones turn on genes. This is not linear. There are multiple inputs, outputs, loops, chains. You can’t intuitively understand it. We need to model the system so we can learn how to target specific links in the pathway for human health. And this requires mathematics.” 

Many leaders in these efforts come from physics, mathematics and engineering, he pointed out.
Cassman is the first executive director of the new California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, dubbed QB3, a partnership between UCSF, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, which will be headquartered at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.

QB3 brings together the tools of the mathematical sciences, physics and engineering to help attack complex biological problems that have been unapproachable before.
The effort is expected to catalyze new discoveries, new technologies and new products for human health.