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A New Biology for the 21st Century 1 The New Biology’s Great Potential In July, 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Department of Energy (DOE) asked the National Research Council’s Board on Life Sciences to examine the current state of biological research in the United States and recommend how best to capitalize on recent technological and scientific advances that have allowed biologists to integrate biological research findings, collect and interpret vastly increased amounts of data, and predict the behavior of complex biological systems. The board convened a committee entitled the Committee on a New Biology for the 21st Century to take on this assignment. The committee’s statement of task was broad, calling for an appraisal of areas in which the life sciences are poised to make major advances and how these advances could contribute to practical applications and improved environmental stewardship, human health, and quality of life. The committee was asked to examine current trends toward integration and synthesis within the life sciences and the increasingly important role of interdisciplinary teams and the resultant implications for funding strategies, decision-making, infrastructure, and education in the life sciences. Ultimately, the committee was asked to make recommendations aimed at ensuring that the United States takes the lead in the emergence of a biological science that will support a higher level of confidence in our understanding of living systems, thus reducing uncertainty about the future, contributing to innovative solutions for practical problems, and allowing the development of robust and sustainable new technologies. The study included a “Biology Summit” on December 3, 2008, at which leaders of major biology research funding agencies and private research foundations outlined the great potential of biology research and the challenges in reaching that potential. Other speakers included private sector “consumers” of life sciences research results, a university president, and several biology
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A New Biology for the 21st Century researchers who illustrated the interdisciplinary, high-impact biology research that is already taking place. The Summit proceedings were published as a workshop report in January 2009 (National Research Council, 2009). Given the statement of task’s imperative that the committee provide recommendations to federal agencies on how best to support emerging capabilities in the life sciences, the committee invited several speakers to its first meeting in November 2008 for advice on how to develop effective and implementable recommendations. Both Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, spoke with the committee, as did several speakers knowledgeable about the impact of past National Academies reports. The committee also heard talks on how basic life sciences research contributes to diverse economic sectors and international science policy efforts. After the Biology Summit in December 2008, the committee met three times, in February, April, and July 2009, to develop the report and its recommendations. Because the statement of task was broad, the committee wrestled with how best to address it. Some of the questions the committee was invited to consider focused on scientific priorities––for example, what fundamental biological questions are ready for major advances in understanding? Other questions were more practical––are new funding mechanisms needed to support cross-cutting, interdisciplinary, or applied biology research? The committee explored several different approaches to addressing so wide a range of questions. One approach would have been to examine the current life sciences landscape and highlight specific areas of biological research that are particularly exciting or promising. This was the approach taken in a 1989 National Research Council (NRC) report called Opportunities in Biology (National Research Council, 1989). Over 400 pages in length and with a chapter devoted to each of nine major subdisciplines of biology, the report identified questions each of those sub-disciplines was poised to answer. Certainly there would be no shortage of material if this committee had followed that model: Across biology from neuroscience to organismal biology to ecology, genomics, and bioengineering, the pace of discovery is rapid, making ambitious goals ever more realistic (Institute of Medicine, 2008; Schwenk et al., 2009; National Academy of Engineering, 2009). But such a list would, by necessity, be incomplete and almost immediately outdated. Furthermore, the committee felt that such an approach would miss a critical insight with tremendous implications. Biology is at a point of inflection. Years of research have generated detailed information about the components of the complex systems that characterize life––genes, cells, organisms, ecosystems––and this knowledge has begun to fuse into greater understanding of how all those components work together as systems. Powerful tools are allowing biologists to probe complex systems in ever-greater detail, from molecular events in individual cells to global biogeochemical cycles. Integration within biology and increasingly fruitful col-
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A New Biology for the 21st Century laboration with physical, earth, and computational scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are making it possible to predict and control the activities of biological systems in ever greater detail. These trends both reflect and depend on the fundamental nature of life. Biology’s tremendous potential rests on two powerful facts, the first being that all organisms are related by evolution. Therefore, work on one gene, one cell, one species is directly relevant to understanding all others because processes may be identical or highly similar between different organisms due to their shared descent. Second, the process of evolution has generated countless variations on these common themes––a vast array of organisms with myriad adaptations to diverse environments––and comparison is a powerful illuminator. Biology is now at a point of being able to capitalize on these essential characteristics of the living world, and that ability has implications across many sectors. Just as the Internet, combined with powerful search engines, makes vast amounts of information accessible, the core commonalities of biology, combined with increasingly sophisticated ways to compare, predict, and manipulate their characteristics, can make the resources of biology accessible for a wide range of applications. The committee concluded that the life sciences have reached a point where a new level of inquiry is possible, a level that builds on the strengths of the traditional research establishment but provides a framework to draw on those strengths and focus them on large questions whose answers would provide many practical benefits. We call this new level of inquiry the New Biology and believe that it has the potential to take on more ambitious challenges than ever before. As examples of the kinds of challenges this approach can address, the committee has chosen aspects of critical economic sectors––food, the environment, energy, and health––to which the New Biology could make important contributions. Though the problems are indeed diverse, many of the solutions the life sciences can offer will derive from greater understanding of core biological processes—processes that are common to all living systems. Achieving understanding at this systemic level is the promise of the New Biology. Biological research is supported by many federal agencies (Box 1.1). Each nurtures a talented community of scientists and engineers, supports technology and tool development, builds infrastructure, and funds training and education programs. Because of biology’s increasing trend toward integration, the work of these agencies is potentially more complementary than ever before. In fact, the committee concludes that if a framework were in place for these agencies and others to work together and solicit input from academia, the private sector, and foundations, significant progress could be made on meeting major societal challenges. The committee concludes that a bold proposal to focus the newly emerging capabilities of biological research on major societal challenges is timely and that a relatively small investment could have large benefits by leveraging resources and skills across the federal government, private, and academic sectors.
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A New Biology for the 21st Century BOX 1.1 Federal Departments and Agencies that Support Biology Research Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) Forest Service (FS) Department of Commerce (DOC) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Department of Defense (DOD) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Defense Science and Technology Program Office of Naval Research (ONR) U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) Department of Energy (DOE) Science Office National Laboratories Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Department of the Interior (DOI) Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Geological Survey (USGS) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Health and Human Services Department (HHS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) National Science Foundation (NSF) Veterans Affairs Department (VA)
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A New Biology for the 21st Century The committee discussed each of the points in its statement of task (Appendix A). Although each question may not be explicitly addressed in this report, those discussions had a major impact on leading the committee to recommend a problem-focused approach. For example, the committee argues that focusing attention on solving practical problems will require, and in turn lead to, advances in fundamental understanding. Implications for infrastructure, education, and research culture are raised throughout the report, and suggestions are offered for positive approaches to implement change. It is the committee’s hope that the report presents a convincing vision of how federal agencies could more effectively leverage their investments in biological research and education to address complex problems and a compelling argument that this near-term investment will lead to substantial long-term benefits and a strong, competitive advantage for the United States.
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