Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Institute of Positive Biology: Outline of a Bold Vision

Imagine you work in fundraising for the Research Office of a university. After calling dozens of eminent alumni, in the hopes of convincing them to make a sizable donation to your university, you finally get some encouraging news. An affluent alumnus wants to meet in person to discuss the possibility of making a sizable donation. But she has some specifics she wants to discuss first.

The next day you sit down for lunch with the potential donor and she informs you that she is prepared to make sizable (i.e. multi-million dollar) donation to the university. However, some conditions apply. Firstly, this donation will only be made if the funds go towards the creation of a new research institute. Secondly, this research institute must be unique; it must stand out from the hundreds of other institutes that already exist in universities around the country and globe. And thirdly, and most importantly, the mission of the institute must be truly ambitious-- it must aspire to promote research that could really be a "game changer" in terms of promoting human health and happiness. These are the three stipulations the donor attaches to the money. You have one week to come up with a coherent, unique and bold vision for this new research institute. What do you come up with?

Below is a brief outline of what my vision would be....

The Institute of Positive Biology (IPB): Dedicated to the Promotion of Health and Happiness

The distinctive focus of IPB is that its diverse group of researchers and scholars study exemplar examples of health and happiness, the goal of which is to translate such findings into novel interventions that can promote the opportunities for humans to flourish. Rather than focusing on pathology, which is the central concern of most research in the biomedical sciences, the IPB focuses instead on the environmental and genetic determinants of health and happiness.

The Institute is interdisciplinary, bringing scientists and scholars together from a variety of disciplines, in both the natural and social sciences. Researchers at IPB exam the determinants of happiness, the positive emotions, optimism, resilience, the genetics of longevity, talent, high level cognitive functioning, etc.

A sample of the societal impact the research of IPB could lead to is captured in the following (at least for now) hypoethical "media releases":

Media Release #1: IPB sequences the genomes of supercentenarians. These rare individuals (approximately 1 in 7 million) ages 110+ may hold the key to developing an aging intervention which could help aging populations delay and compress the chronic diseases of late life.

Media Release #2: IPB finds association between "high level" conversations and self-reported high levels of happiness.

Media Release #3: IPB helps design "happy workplace"-- designed to amplify flow, gratitude, interest, social interactions, etc.-- which actually boosted worker productivity.

Media Release #4: IPB advises local municipality on designing and implementing plans for a new "playful" template to help transform the city into a "play-friendly habitat".

Media Release: #5: IPB publishs study on the effects of cognitive enhancements. Researchers will advise the FDA on the ethical regulation of safe and effective cognitive enhancers that could help boost memory, spatial planning, etc. This research is part of Institute's larger "Realizing Enhancements Initiative: From the Lab to the Market".

Media Release #:6 IPB releases findings on the "Prison and Positive Emotions" project. Interventions designed to elicit the positive emotions were found to help with inmate rehabilitation, reduced inmate violence and significanly lowered the rate of re-offence when compared to the normal prison population.

The Institute of Positive Biology could, I believe, truly be a "game changer". It could help foster the kind of interdisciplinary knowledge needed to significantly improve human health and happiness. Such an institute would be both unique and bold. I hope that, one day, the Institute of Positive Biology can become a reality. [further reading]