NSF Calls for Examinations of Emergent Networks as Part of Understanding the Rules of Life “Big Idea”

Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

The biological world is interconnected by complex networks. What are the rules that control these networks? How are the interactions altered by environments? Are the rules similar across all biological scales? How can an understanding of such roles be harnessed to benefit society?

The new Understanding the Rules of Life: Emergent Networks (URoL:EN) solicitation encourages convergent, cross-disciplinary research – including the biological sciences – to examine such rules, the outcomes of these interactions, and to aid in the prediction of emergent properties. The program also seeks to train STEM practitioners to contribute to this area of convergent research. Proposals under the solicitation should be submitted by May 10, 2021.

As part of the Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype, one of ten “Big Ideas” NSF-wide, this new solicitation builds on previous URoL programs to help increase knowledge and the ability to predict an organism’s observable characteristics—its phenotype—from its genotype.

Understanding the mechanisms at play in the interconnections between living organisms and their environments, across every biological scale, will provide vital insight into grand biological challenges, help advance biotechnology to spur the US bioeconomy, and aid in solving some of society’s issues, including the growing impacts of infectious disease and climate change.

Investigators from across the biological sciences are encouraged to submit proposals in concert with researchers in other disciplines, including the mathematical and physical sciences, geosciences, computer and information sciences, engineering, and behavioral and social sciences.

Directorates from across NSF will be holding a virtual office hour on March 11 beginning at 2:00pm Eastern to answer questions on the solicitation. Register in advance for this webinar: https://nsf.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_kP23L5ymTFKw5EVCqBFcCQ.

For full details and guidance on award types, amounts and other questions, see Understanding the Rules of Life: Emergent Networks (URoL:EN).

New DCL Seeks to Discover the Rules of Life

Care Of New Life - Baby Plant
Image: Romolo Tavan

In 2016, NSF Director France Córdova unveiled ten “Big Ideas” to shape NSF’s priorities for investment at the frontiers of science and engineering, and drive American science into the future. One in particular – “Understanding the Rules of Life” – has reshaped how we at the BIO Directorate think about scientific inquiry in the biological sciences. The Rules of Life Big Idea seeks discoveries that will allow us to accurately predict change and outcomes in biological systems, and to develop infrastructure and innovative tools to help us ask more complex questions than ever before.

NSF has now published a Dear Colleague Letter (“DCL”; NSF 18-031) catalyzed by this Big Idea, titled, “Rules of Life: Forecasting and Emergence in Living Systems.” This DCL solicits research proposals to develop a better understanding of complex interactions within biological systems, and identify causal, predictive relationships across scales, levels of organization and layers of complexity – so-called “rules” for how life functions.

This DCL describes an initial opportunity to identify areas where such rules may exist, to drive progress toward their discovery, and to focus efforts on using these rules for prediction and design of biological systems. Activities supported through this DCL include conferences, EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGERs) and Research Advanced by Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (RAISE) grants to create opportunities for enabling predictive capability.

The knowledge, infrastructure and human capital that will be needed to successfully address such complex questions and identify Rules of Life will require convergence of research across many disciplines. As a result, Directorates across NSF are participating in this DCL, including BIO, Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), Education and Human Resources (EHR), Engineering (ENG), Geosciences (GEO), Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE). Interdisciplinary and collaborative research proposals are welcomed under this DCL.

Be sure to read the DCL and Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide to find complete details about the Rules of Life, instructions for submission and all deadlines.

Questions? Comments? Feedback? Email RoLBIO@nsf.gov.