Report: Workshop on Quantitative Environmental Biology

by Alan Hastings

On Sept.7 through 9 there was an NSF sponsored workshop on Quantitative Environmental Biology, organized by Alan Hastings, Peter Arzberger and Shandelle Henson, held at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Attendees were a mix of mathematical biologists and biologists who considered themselves quantitative, but not necessarily mathematical, and statisticians. The goals of the workshop were

  1. to identify truly exciting problem areas in environmental and integrative biology that require an integrated approach utilizing mathematics and statistics and
  2. to determine how best to achieve the goal of accomplishing these research agendas.

The identification of specific biological problems was actually quite difficult, since virtually all areas of environmental and integrative biology require the infusion of quantitative methods. Several themes did emerge that were mathematical in nature - with stochastic dynamics, particularly as applied to spatial systems, and issues of scaling, both spatial and organizational as two of the most important. A third theme that was also prevalent was the importance of quantitatively linking models with data, and therefore there was an emphasis on dealing with uncertainty and variability.

Of perhaps more interest were issues related to achieving the goal of fostering truly integrated research in quantitative biology. It was recognized that opportunities for training are still limited, and that there is still a need for mathematical training to be integrated in the biological curriculum. Additionally, the efforts required to start up and continue collaborations among biologists and mathematicians may require special support. Finally, systems of rewards (within institutions) and recognition for work at the interface between biology and mathematics need to be in place. The importance of mathematics for biological work still needs to be emphasized.

It was heartening to see many of the issues that are central to our society receive such attention, but the discussions also pointed to the work that remains to be done so the interdisciplinary work of many of our society members can be rewarded in the context of disciplinary departments.