A Vision of the Future

Imagine a world:

  • where there is abundant, healthful food for everyone
  • where the environment is resilient and flourishing
  • where there is sustainable, clean energy
  • where good health is the norm

Each of these goals is a daunting challenge. Furthermore, none can be attained independently of the others––we want to grow more food without using more energy or harming natural environments, and we want new sources of energy that do not contribute to global warming or have adverse health effects. The problems raised by these fundamental biological and environmental questions are interdependent and “solutions” that work at cross purposes will not in fact be solutions.

Fortunately, advances in the life sciences have the potential to contribute innovative and mutually reinforcing solutions to reach all of these goals and, at the same time, serve as the basis for new industries that will anchor the economies of the future. Here are some of the many different ways in which the life sciences could contribute to meeting these challenges:

  • A wide variety of plants with faster maturation, drought tolerance, and disease resistance could contribute to a sustainable increase in local food production.
  • Food crops could be engineered for higher nutritional value, including higher concentrations of vitamins and healthier oils.
  • Critical habitats could be monitored by arrays of remote sensors, enabling early detection of habitat damage and providing feedback on the progress of restoration efforts.
  • Water supplies and other natural resources could be monitored and managed using biosensors and other biologically based processes.
  • Biological systems could remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus helping to maintain a stable climate; the carbon they capture could be used to create biologically based materials for construction and manufacturing.
  • Biological sources could contribute at least 20 percent of the fuel for transportation through a 10-fold increase in biofuel production.
  • Bio-inspired approaches to producing hydrogen could provide another affordable and sustainable source of fuel.
  • Biologically inspired approaches to capturing solar energy could increase the efficiency and lower the cost of photovoltaic technology.
  • Manufactured products could increasingly be made from renewable resources and be either recyclable or biodegradable.
  • Industrial manufacturing processes could be designed to produce zero waste through a combination of biological treatment of byproducts and efficient recycling of water and other manufacturing inputs.
  • Greater understanding of what it means to be healthy could lead to health care focused on maintaining health rather than reacting to illness.
  • Individualized risk profiles and early detection could make it possible to provide each person with the right care at the right time.

Science and technology alone, of course, cannot solve all of our food, energy, environmental, and health problems. Political, social, economic, and many other factors have major roles to play in both setting and meeting goals in these areas. Indeed, increased collaboration between life scientists and social scientists is another exciting interface that has much to contribute to developing and implementing practical solutions. But the life sciences have the potential to provide a set of tools and solutions that can significantly increase the options available to society for dealing with problems. Integration of the biological sciences with physical and computational sciences, mathematics, and engineering promises to build a wider biological enterprise with the scope and expertise to address a broad range of scientific and societal problems. The following chapters will discuss why the life sciences are poised to tackle major challenges of the 21st century, describe why we reside at such an exceptional moment for the life sciences, and finally, provide recommendations for shaping investment in life science research.