Biological research is in the midst of a revolutionary change due to the integration of powerful technologies along with new concepts and methods derived from inclusion of physical sciences, mathematics, computational sciences, and engineering. As never before, advances in biological sciences hold tremendous promise for surmounting many of the major challenges confronting the United States and the world. Historically, major advances in science have provided solutions to economic and social challenges. At the same time, those challenges have inspired science to focus its attention on critical needs. Scientific efforts based on meeting societal needs have laid the foundation for countless new products, industries, even entire economic sectors that were unimagined when the work began.
The lessons of history led the Committee on a New Biology for the 21st Century to recommend that a New Biology Initiative be put in place and charged with finding solutions to major societal needs: sustainable food production, protection of the environment, renewable energy, and improvement in human health. These challenges represent both the mechanism for accelerating the emergence of a New Biology and its first fruits. Responding to its Statement of Task, the committee found the answer to the question “How can a fundamental understanding of living systems reduce uncertainty about the future of life on earth, improve human health and welfare, and lead to the wise stewardship of our planet?” in calling for a national initiative to apply the potential of the New Biology to addressing these societal challenges.
As the report explains, the essence of the New Biology is integration––re-integration of the many subdisciplines of biology, and the integration into biology of physicists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to create a research community with the capacity to tackle a broad range of scientific and societal problems. The committee chose biological approaches to solving problems in the areas of food, environment, energy and health as the most inspiring goals to drive the development of the New Biology. But these are not the only problems that we both hope and expect a thriving New Biology to be able to address; fundamental questions in all areas of biology, from understanding the brain to carbon cycling in the ocean, will all be more tractable as the New Biology grows into a flourishing reality. Given the fundamental unity of biology, it is our hope and our expectation that the New Biology will contribute to advances across the life sciences. Throughout the report, “New Biology” is capitalized to emphasize that it is intended to be an additional and complementary effort to traditional life sciences research, not a replacement. Peer-reviewed, independent investigator-initiated research is the foundation on which the New Biology rests and on which it will continue to rely.
Many exciting and important areas of biological research are not considered in this report. America’s research capability in life sciences leads the world. This committee strongly endorses current research endeavors, both in the public and private sector. Within biology, the excellent work underway must be continued. But for this study, the intent was not to comprehensively review all life sciences research. Instead the committee focused on those opportunities that cannot be addressed by any one subdiscipline or agency––opportunities that require integration across biology and with other sciences and engineering, and that are difficult to capitalize on within traditional institutional and funding structures.
It is not merely the sciences that need to be integrated. The New Biology will draw on the research and development capabilities of universities, government, and industry. Individual federal agencies will continue to lead important, independent efforts. For the New Biology to flourish, however, interagency co-leadership of projects will be needed to a far greater extent than is the case today. This approach is not simply a matter of funding. The combined capabilities and expertise of numerous organizations are required to address society’s greatest challenges.
This study represents the collective efforts of the committee during meetings, workshops, a December 2008 Biology Summit, and many teleconferences. We would like to thank the Summit and workshop participants for their valuable input. We also thank the committee members who volunteered countless hours and the Board of Life Sciences staff for their efforts and dedication to the study.
America’s investment in basic research in the life sciences has paid rich dividends. A commitment to the New Biology will extend this proud record.
In the words of President Obama when he addressed the 2009 annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences:
As you know, scientific discovery takes far more that the occasional flash of brilliance—as important as that can be. Usually, it takes time and hard work and patience; it takes training; it requires the support of a nation. But it holds promise like no other area of human endeavor.
The well-being, security, and prosperity of our nation are the prize. We fully endorse the recommendations here presented.
Committee on a New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution
National Academies Press (US), Washington (DC)
National Research Council (US) Committee on a New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution. A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009. Preface.