The US National Academies are set to start awarding grants of their own for the first time, under a $40-million project funded by the California-based W. M. Keck Foundation.

The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative will focus on interdisciplinary research, says Ken Fulton, who will head it. As part of the initiative, the academies will host small meetings to bring together researchers from various disciplines to discuss particular themes.

Researchers who attend the meetings may subsequently apply for grants worth $200,000 to support interdisciplinary projects. The programme is funded for 15 years, and four seed grants are expected to be given during its first four years.

“We're hoping to foster innovative, imaginative cross-disciplinary work that might not have occurred without the interaction of the investigators at these conferences,” Fulton says.

Conferences will be held twice a year, beginning this November with a meeting on signalling in neuroscience, cell biology and engineering. Participants will be asked to discuss how signalling networks convey information in physical and biological systems, and how these systems can inform each other. Future topics will include nanotechnology and genomics.

Although the money will only support a few researchers, a spokeswoman for the Keck Foundation says that the initiative hopes to reach a broader audience through the conferences. The project is also intended to affect the research direction of funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which have often been criticized as slow to support multidisciplinary work. Representatives from these government agencies will be invited to the meetings, she adds.

“We're trying to get scientists from across disciplines to sit down and ask new questions, rather than having the biologists ask the mathematicians to help them solve a piece of the problem in some research they're conducting,” says a spokesman for the Keck Foundation. The futures initiative will fund a National Academies consensus study on how best to foster interdisciplinary research.

The academies will also rename their new building in Washington DC, which opened last year. On 13 May, the building will be christened the Keck Center of the National Academies.