Letters

Funding dreams

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Science  02 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6256, pp. 30-31
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6256.30

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  • NextGen VOICES: Results

    We asked young scientists to answer this question:

    Imagine that there is unlimited funding available for one currently unexplored scientific endeavor. Describe the project you would propose to get the funding. How would your project revolutionize your field or the scientific system as a whole?

    In the 2 October 2015 issue, we ran excerpts from eight of the many interesting responses we received. Below, you will find the full versions of those eight essays (in the order they were printed) as well as a selection of the other submissions we received (ordered alphabetically by author name).

    Would you like to participate in the next NextGen VOICES survey? To make your voice heard, go to http://scim.ag/NG_17.

    (Can't get enough NextGen? See the results of previous surveys at Future of a Generation, Definition of Success, Experiences that Changed Us, Big Ideas, Experiments in Governing, Science Communication's Future, Science Time Travel, Work-Life Balance, Enduring Ideas, Science Advocacy, Science Ethics, Global Collaboration, Missing Classes, Tools for the Future, and Postdocs Reimagined)

    Follow the NextGen VOICES survey on Twitter with the hashtag #NextGenSci.

    Essays in print

    If I had unlimited funding, I would put it all toward funding the human resource needs of science. The days of applying for contracts to cover salary would be over. Postdocs would have job security and benefits, and students would not pay tuition. Adjuncts would be compensated for their work at fair market rates. Childcare would be provided, free of charge, to parents in scientific careers. In short, the basic economic needs of scientists would be met. There is a well-established diversity problem in science, and it partially stems from the fact that, much of the time, only the well-off can afford to pursue this career. Universal funding would completely change the scientific system, as people from all over the world and from all backgrounds would be empowered to take on science careers. Those of us privileged enough to have jobs in the field would take on riskier questions if we knew that a failed experiment would not threaten our ability to feed our families, and more scientists would tackle questions that people in power do not want asked.  The most worthy global science project is a project that opens science to all. Nothing would be more revolutionary.
    Brett Favaro
    School of Fisheries, Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL, A1C 5R3, Canada and Department of Ocean Sciences, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Marine Lab Road, Logy Bay, NL, A1K 3E6, Canada.
    E-mail: brett.favaro{at}mi.mun.ca

    If I had unlimited funding, I would build a state-of-the-art, free, open-source case-management system for law enforcement. Along with a case-management system I would provide free computer equipment, support, and training to every country. With this type of system in place, law enforcement in every country could better understand the crimes they work on—and ignore—while at the same time helping to reduce certain types of corruption and improve police auditing.  The global community would benefit from more accurate, more standardized crime data being made available from every participating country. I would use this global crime data to better understand trends and motivations for human trafficking and child exploitation. I would explore why countries favor the investigation of certain crimes while essentially ignoring others. I would also investigate what police strategies are most effective in fighting trafficking and exploitation, and the relation between the reduction of crime in one country and the increase of the same crime in other countries. This would let us create an organized global strategy.
    Joshua I. James
    Digital Forensic Investigation Research (DFIRE) Laboratory, College of International Studies, Hallym University, Chuncheon, Gangwon-do, 200-702, South Korea.
    E-mail: Joshua{at}cybercrimetech.com

    I would like to explore the limits between living and non-living systems. With unlimited funding (and supposing that this could also acquire an unlimited powerful computational tool) I would like to start simulations with very simple collections of molecules needed for life and continuously increase the complexity of the system until the "living" behavior (such as self-replication or metabolism) arise from the non-living parts. This could give us new information about the origin of the life in the universe and in our planet, as well tell us the limits of free-will in a chain of biochemical reactions.
    Wagner E. Richter
    Institute of Chemistry, University of Campinas, Campinas, São Paulo, 13.083-970, Brazil.
    E-mail: wagner.richter{at}iqm.unicamp.br

    In recent years, there has been dramatic shrinkage of the world's glaciers. With the glaciers melting, the polar bears will lose their home and sea level will rise, destroying habitats and affecting social and economic sustainable development. There are many factors that lead to glacier melting, such as increasing temperature, green-house gas, and aerosols. However, it is difficult to estimate the effect of each factor on the huge glaciers. I want to build a glacier chamber in which to study huge artificial glaciers. The environment in the chamber would be similar to a real glacier's surroundings. The difference is that we could control the factors influencing the glaciers and install sensors detecting variation in the chamber. This would help us to learn about the contribution from different factors affecting glacier melting and develop some control measures to slow down or stop the melting of the glaciers.
    Xin Wan
    Key Laboratory of Tibetan Environment Changes and Land Surface Processes, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100101,  China.
    E-mail: xin.wan{at}itpcas.ac.cn

    I would identify a global patient cohort with familial Alzheimer's disease (AD) mutations but no dementia over 5-year periods.  I would set the age group at 70 to 100 years, when they have maximum risk of developing dementia. I would collect biomarkers from this set to identify potential neuroprotective molecules. Neuronal iPS cells from this group would be generated and analyzed at proteomic as well as transcriptomic levels, to be compared with an age-matched, gender-matched, ethnicity-matched control set. The iPS cell study would yield mRNA and protein molecular drug targets that provide neuroprotection to the donor individuals of these cells in spite of their genetic background which makes them susceptible to developing AD. Functional overexpression or inhibition studies of these molecular targets with animal models of AD would follow to give more mechanistic insights. Co-relation studies of these molecular factors with biomarkers (from blood, CSF, and brain imaging) of this cohort will help in diagnosis, risk prediction, and personalized therapeutic intervention of AD. This project will push the frontiers in disease research by identification of novel AD neuroprotective factors and establishing a novel iPS-based drug-discovery methodology for identification of protection factors in complex diseases using resistant individuals.
    Sachin S. Tiwari
    Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences, Kyoto University, Kyoto, 606-8501, Japan.
    E-mail: sactiw{at}gmail.com

    A common solution to understanding a complex system is to simply step away and view the system through the lens of a nonparticipant. Biology has been entirely based on what life could be on Earth simply because this is the only environment where we know life exists. In retrospect, this can vastly and unnecessarily hinder our imaginations when we hypothesize all the possible ways by which life operates. In an unprecedented era where synthetic biology is becoming increasingly practical to implement and we are becoming more aware of the environments of our solar system and beyond, I would propose a project to engineer unicellular life forms that can withstand various environments that would likely never occur on Earth. Human-driven evolution would unveil a host of surprising processes that may lead us to completely redefine what life itself means.
    Tommy Vo
    Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA.
    E-mail: tvv3{at}cornell.edu

    With unlimited funding, I would endeavor to close the knowledge gap on biodiversity by discovering, cataloging, and describing all life on Earth. Current estimations on the number of species on Earth carry great uncertainty. This is a major issue for conservation as we cannot conserve what we don't know and a potentially significant number of species may go extinct before we even know of their existence. To complete the species list, I would organize extensive biodiversity sampling in yet-unexplored or difficult-to-reach areas and in environments that require expensive specialized equipment. These include ocean floors, forest canopy, soils, and underground caves and streams. The complete list of species on Earth will reveal the true scale of biodiversity loss. It will also help to detect all endangered species and allow the establishment of adapted conservation programs. New species discovery will also greatly benefit pharmacological research. Finally, taxonomic description of all species on Earth will provide an invaluable resource for the field of evolutionary biology and would help reconstructing the complete tree of life.
    Marie-Caroline Lefort
    Department of Natural Sciences, Unitec Institute of Technology, Mt. Albert, Auckland, 1025, New Zealand and Bio-Protection Research Centre, Lincoln University, Christchurch, 7647, New Zealand.
    E-mail: Marie-Caroline.Lefort{at}lincolnuni.ac.nz

    A currently unexplored avenue in the field of stem cell biology is the clinical relevance of niche biology. Ever since Schofield coined the term "niche" in 1978, great strides have been made to discover molecular signals and cellular support systems that maintain stem cell functionality in flies, worms, and mammals. The practical implication of this voluminous information would be to create "stem cell niche biobanks," wherein data that has been rigorously tested and verified in the requirements for specific factors for the maintenance of stem cells of all tissue types can be consolidated. These banks would have little pockets of tissue-specific niches that allow for the maintenance of an individual's stem cells from his brain, muscle, blood, or kidney that can be harvested on demand and continue to be maintained even after repeated usage. This endeavor would not only serve as a personalized repository of all types of stem cells, but would represent the next level in implementing the studies being conducted in niche biology. Allied to this approach of recreating external niche systems would be to manufacture niches de novo and address whether one can allow such artificial niches to "bloom" within tissues with limited or questionable stem cell activity.  
    Suchitra D. Gopinath
    Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, NCR Biotech Science Cluster, Faridabad, 121001, India.
    E-mail: sgopinath{at}thsti.res.in

    Online Essays

    The combined effects of overpopulation, urbanization, climate change, and diminishing fresh water supplies across the world are a major force leading to food shortages and thereby threatening the peaceful existence of humanity. One approach that could limit the dependency of agriculture on the above factors is the use of seawater for farming. Such attempts have been successful in Australia, Netherlands, and Qatar. Widespread adoption of such practices will benefit from an understanding of the nature of crops grown in high/reduced salt conditions. I propose to use the unlimited funding to understand nutritional content of plant products grown in seawater, long-term nutritional benefits on consumers, and adaptation of plant varieties to regional conditions of coastal sand, temperature, humidity, rainfall, and seawater composition. If undertaken now, these efforts can secure food supplies and avert global disaster before humanity irreparably contaminates the world's saltwater supplies.
    Mangaiarkarasi Asokan
    Vaccine Research Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.
    E-mail: mangai.asokan{at}gmail.com

    I would launch a massive sequencing project to obtain high-quality genome data from all organisms on Earth, including archaea, bacteria, viruses, and unicellular eukaryotes. The project would aim to sequence not only every existing plant, animal, and fungus on the planet, but also to catalog the entire biodiversity of microorganisms, from every environment, the so-called "microbial-dark matter," which surpasses many times over the known diversity of microbes. The second part of the project would launch an enormous molecular biology and biochemical effort to identify the role of all hypothetical genes and families of proteins with unknown function found in this huge data set. In addition, a characterization of every single metabolic pathway on Earth should be attempted. Analyzing this data would require incredible computing power in order to generate a complete tree/map/network of life. It will change the way we understand the evolution of life. We will know the function of every gene and protein; the biotechnological potential would be limitless.
    Tanai Cardona
    Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London, London, SW7 2AZ, UK.
    E-mail: t.cardona{at}imperial.ac.uk

    Given unlimited funding, we should certainly focus scientific efforts on colonization of other planets. The project would revolve aspects such as human survival on other planets, using planetary resources, and developing systematic methodologies for inhabiting diverse ecosystems.
    Ryan Alexander Coots
    Department of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA.
    E-mail: rac359@cornell.edu
    rac359{at}cornell.edu

    Water is essential for life, yet hundreds of millions of people around the world still lack access to fresh water supplies. Moreover, at current rates of consumption, two-thirds of the world's growing population may face severe fresh water shortages by 2025. Accordingly, if unlimited funding were available for one unexplored or unsolved scientific problem, I would propose a multifaceted and global fresh water science project to discover new sources of clean potable water, reduce water waste, and propose new institutions for allocating existing supplies of fresh water. My project would start with the premise that access to water is a global human right. At the same time, since commercial agriculture and food production consume most of our scarce supplies of fresh water, my project would also explore more efficient irrigation and water management practices and propose new methods of allocating the legal rights to irrigation water, such as auctions or other market mechanisms. By unearthing new sources of fresh water and proposing new methods of allocating the rights to existing supplies of water, my research project would revolutionize our world by solving the tragedy of the fresh water commons.
    Enrique Guerra-Pujol
    University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816, USA.
    E-mail: Enrique.Guerra-Pujol{at}ucf.edu

    Air pollution is responsible for one out of eight deaths in the world, more than malaria and HIV/AIDS, combined. For public health research, interpreting air quality information from satellites, or testing low-cost sensors for citizen science, access to real-time global air quality data sets would be transformational. Yet, although there are more than 10,000 stations throughout the world publicly publishing air quality data, the public and researchers do not have easy access to this information because often it is on obscure Web sites showing only current values, is programmatically inaccessible, or is in inconsistent data formats. A provocative, yet simple solution to this problem: Take existing publicly available air quality data and make it dramatically more transparent and useful to the public by aggregating it and providing transparent, programmatic, and historical access. This doesn't take a ton of funding, but what it does take is for an organization to have the vision to see the power of this type of unconventional, open-source scientific platform, built by crowd-sourcing data.
    Christa Ann Hasenkopf
    OpenAQ, Washington, DC 20009, USA.
    E-mail: christa{at}openaq.org

    What if the best way to fight cancer wasn't to treat it, but to prevent it entirely? Recent advances in immune-oncology demonstrate that immune responses can be unleashed to destroy tumors presenting proteins malformed by genetic mutation. Even though most of these anti-mutation immune responses are against patient-specific "passenger" mutations, there are a number of mutational "hotspots" that are commonly shared and could form the basis for a preventative mutation-specific cancer vaccine. Publically available data from The Cancer Genome Atlas demonstrates that many oncogenes mutate in a conserved pattern that may make these mutations vulnerable to preventative vaccination. For example, there are only 17 TP53 amino acid changes responsible for about 10% of breast cancers and only 8 KRAS amino acid changes are responsible for about 30% of lung adenocarcinomas. It therefore may be possible to create a vaccine cocktail of a few dozen "hotspot" mutation-specific peptides that could prevent a large percentage of cancers from ever occurring.
    Tyler Hulett
    Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR 97213, USA.
    E-mail: hulett{at}ohsu.edu

    While 99% of biomass on Earth consists of microbes, fewer than 1% have been identified, sequenced, or characterized. The diversity and range of biological chemistry and ecological function microbes drive are immense and largely unknown. They exist in all places, all temperatures, and all conditions, even space and nuclear facilities. Microbes are a wonderful source of discovery, starting with penicillin and most recently CRISPR/Cas. The potential is immense. However, most microbes simply cannot be grown in the lab to a suitable extent severely limiting research efforts. Developing the methods and understanding necessary to culture these diverse organisms would unlock an immense untapped reservoir of discovery that could potentially reshape our understanding of Earth history, uncover new technologies and therapeutics we cannot imagine, push the boundaries of evolution and ecology, and expand our understanding of life itself.
    Timothy Michael Kernan
    Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA.
    E-mail: tk2354{at}columbia.edu

    We have come a long way in our hopeful fight against cancer and we have learned a great deal about this devastating disease at multiple levels. Yet, the outcome of this long journey is far from being complete and this can be attributed to our naïve approach of using few chemicals to treat molecular chaos. Diagnosing cancer early, especially before metastasis, significantly improves therapeutic outcome, but we still lack effective early detection methods for many cancer types. As a one step further, a giant one, I would envision that we can kill early cancer cells before the chaos and even without any diagnosis! I would use the unlimited funding to explore the ways to genetically engineer cells so that the cell can sense molecular abnormality (such as loss of an important tumor-suppressor gene) and commits suicide before things get messy. We know that healthy cells have such mechanisms, but apparently we can improve that to a greater level. Excelling such cellular engineering ideas on in vivo models, we may achieve an unparalleled victory, which would defeat doubts and hesitations before the next step, and eventually eradicate cancer.
    Gurkan Mollaoglu
    Department of Oncological Sciences, University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.
    E-mail: gurkan.mollaoglu{at}hci.utah.edu

    The reason we don't have a cure for cancer is that we don't know enough! Tumors are a complex heterogeneous ecosystem; therefore understanding cancer in its context and at single-cell resolution is the most important challenge. Recently scientists have developed tools such as "single-cell omics" that will help in understanding cancer. However these techniques are still very expansive. If given unlimited funding, I would like to do single-cell integrated DNA-RNA sequencing on 1000 patients of head and neck cancer from 10,000 single cells from normal tissue, primary tumor, and metastatic sites. I will use this "training-set" data to develop machine-learning algorithms. This will allow me to find cells in normal tissue which have tumor-like (primary and/or metastatic) characteristics. This will allow us to build a tumor-like signature from normal tissue. This data will be validated at 10,000 single-cell level in 10,000 high risk-patients such as tobacco consumers. Production of machine-learning algorithms and development of cancer in tobacco consumers will test the power of this algorithm. If it works, this can be used for prognostic screening of head and neck (and maybe other cancers) in the future. I believe if we have to treat cancer, we need to catch it before it emerges!        
    Ankur Sharma
    Department of Cancer Therapeutics and Stratified Oncology, A-Genome Institute of Singapore, Singapore, 138672, Singapore.
    E-mail: asharmatelome{at}gmail.com

    I would propose a comprehensive collaborative project to understand the physiological, biochemical, and evolutionary basis of life of unexplored archaea and bacteria residing in extreme environments on Earth, such as those that are hyperacidic, hyperalkaline, hypersaline, high pressure, high radiation, extremely hot or cold, lacking in water and oxygen, or altered by humans. This project would particularly emphasize the contextual analysis of their genome, transcriptome, proteome, and metabolome using state-of-the-art experimental and computational methods to understand their adaptation to these extreme environmental conditions. The detailed understanding of the principles of adaptation of life forms from these extreme environments may harbor solutions to many current and future problems of human society. Particularly, the knowledge and understanding gained from this collaborative project could be exploited to develop methane and hydrogen production solutions, carbon dioxide capturing solutions, molecular motors and nano-machines (using electron eating bacteria), enzymes for extreme industrial processes, solutions for metals and oil recovery from soil and water, biofuel production, antibiotics and developing natural electrodes.
    Bipin Singh
    Center for Computational Natural Sciences and Bioinformatics (CCNSB), International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, Hyderabad, Telangana, 500032, India.
    E-mail: bipin.singh{at}research.iiit.ac.in

    Titanium is a quiet expensive and wonderful metal. This cost is due not to its rarity in nature, as titanium is nearly as abundant in the universe as potassium. Rather, the high cost of titanium is due to the lengthy and costly refining process that starts with the mineral rutile (TiO2) and produces elemental titanium. If I had a dump truck full of flaming grant money, I would screen facultative anaerobic microbes that thrive in titanium-polluted environments for enzymes that reduce titanium oxides. Imagine a world where steel is no longer used because it is too heavy and flimsy. If titanium were made more accessible by a new refining process, the greatest advances for industry would be in aerospace, medicine, and automotive. Planes and shuttles could be made of new lighter stronger alloys. Medical implants would become small and much less expensive. Cars would be both lighter and more durable. But most exciting, an entirely new field of chemistry would be accessible—a field that before was too expensive to even think about exploring.
    Clayton Speed
    College of Natural Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.
    E-mail: cspeed{at}rams.colostate.edu

     

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