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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.

Cover of A New Biology for the 21st Century

A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution.

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Society is at a tipping point in terms of challenges that influence our collective long-term future; the United States is well-poised to exert leadership in addressing these urgent needs by creating a New Biology. Our response will require launching an ambitious new effort that empowers individuals, agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector to integrate a deeper understanding of biology with practical applications across the agriculture, environmental, energy, and health sectors. Reaching these goals will require investing in a new approach to setting research goals—taking a long-term and cross-cutting approach both to foundational science and technology development, and to evaluating progress and outcomes. A key factor in meeting these challenges will be putting in place a flexible and functional interface among all of the agencies whose programs touch on the life sciences. The committee believes that the most promising way to achieve this interface is through a national initiative. It will be individual agencies, however, that implement components of the initiative; therefore developing an efficient management and oversight structure to facilitate communication and shared decision-making on cross-cutting investments is critical.

Finding 1

  • The United States and the world face serious societal challenges in the areas of food, environment, energy, and health.
  • Innovations in biology can lead to sustainable solutions for all of these challenges. Solutions in all four areas will be driven by advances in fundamental understanding of basic biological processes.
  • For each of these challenges, solutions are within reach, based on building the capacity to understand, predict, and influence the responses and capabilities of complex biological systems.
  • There is broad support across the scientific community for pursuing interdisciplinary research, but opportunities to do so are constrained by institutional barriers and available resources.
  • Approaches that integrate a wide range of scientific disciplines, and draw on the strengths and resources of universities, federal agencies, and the private sector will accelerate progress toward making this potential a reality.
  • The best way for the United States to capitalize on this scientific and technological opportunity is to add to its current research portfolio a New Biology effort that will accelerate understanding of complex biological systems, driving rapid progress in meeting societal challenges and advancing fundamental knowledge.

Recommendation 1

The committee recommends a national initiative to accelerate the emergence and growth of the New Biology to achieve solutions to societal challenges in food, energy, environment, and health.

Finding 2

  • For its success, the New Biology will require the creative drive and deep knowledge base of individual scientists from across biology and many other disciplines including physical, computational, and earth sciences, mathematics, and engineering.
  • The New Biology offers the potential to address questions at a scale and with a focus that cannot be undertaken by any single scientific community, agency, or sector.
  • Providing a framework for different communities to work together will lead to synergies and new approaches that no single community could have achieved alone.
  • A broad array of programs to identify, support, and facilitate biology research exists in the federal government but value is being lost by not integrating these efforts.
  • Interagency insight and oversight is critical to support the emergence and growth of the New Biology Initiative. Interagency leadership will be needed to oversee and coordinate the implementation of the initiative, evaluate its progress, establish necessary working subgroups, maintain communication, guard against redundancy, and identify gaps and opportunities for leveraging results across projects.

Recommendation 2:

The committee recommends that the national New Biology Initiative be an interagency effort, that it have a timeline of at least 10 years, and that its funding be in addition to current research budgets.

Finding 3

  • Information is the fundamental currency of the New Biology.
  • Solutions to the challenges of standardization, exchange, storage, security, analysis, and visualization of biological information will multiply the value of the research currently being supported across the federal government.
  • Biological data are extraordinarily heterogeneous and interrelating various bodies of data is currently precluded by the lack of the necessary information infrastructure.
  • It is critical that all researchers be able to share and access each others’ information in a common or fully interactive format.
  • The productivity of biological research will increasingly depend on long-term, predictable support for a high-performance information infrastructure.

Recommendation 3

The committee recommends that, within the national New Biology Initiative, priority be given to the development of the information technologies and sciences that will be critical to the success of the New Biology.

Finding 4

  • Investment in education is essential if the New Biology is to reach its full potential in meeting the core challenges of the 21st century.
  • The New Biology Initiative provides an opportunity to attract students to science who want to solve real-world problems.
  • The New Biologist is not a scientist who knows a little bit about all disciplines, but a scientist with deep knowledge in one discipline and a “working fluency” in several.
  • Highly developed quantitative skills will be increasingly important.
  • Development and implementation of genuinely interdisciplinary undergraduate courses and curricula will both prepare students for careers as New Biology researchers and educate a new generation of science teachers well versed in New Biology approaches.
  • Graduate training programs that include opportunities for interdisciplinary work are essential.
  • Programs to support faculty in developing new curricula will have a multiplying effect.

Recommendation 4

The committee recommends that the national New Biology Initiative devote resources to programs that support the creation and implementation of interdisciplinary curricula, graduate training programs, and educator training needed to create and support New Biologists.

Copyright © 2009, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK32511


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