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The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research
and conceptual framework. Biologists strive to discern patterns, processes, and relationships in order to make sense of the seemingly endless diversity of form and function. Explanatory theories are critical to making sense of what is observed—to order biological phenomena, to explain what is seen and to make predictions, and to guide observation and suggest experimental strategies. Because the living world is so complex, biological theory is also exceptionally rich and varied.
Science is facts; just as houses are made of stones, so is sciencemade of facts; but a pile of stones is not a house and a collectionof facts is not necessarily science
—Henri Poincare, French mathematician and physicist
What makes the house of biology from the pile of stone facts is the theoretical component.
THE ORIGIN OF THIS REPORT
In 1989 the National Research Council released a report entitled Opportunities in Biology. Over 400 pages long and four years in the making, the report provides a detailed snapshot of the state of biology at that time. Eleven different panels described the opportunities awaiting the rapidly diversifying field of biology. Reading the report today, the excitement of that time is palpable. Section after section describes new technologies and promises new discoveries. The technologies span many levels, from the molecular—DNA sequencing technology had recently progressed from manual to automatic—to the ecological, as robotic arms and free-ranging robots were dramatically expanding the ability of deep-sea submersibles to survey and sample the ocean floor. Nearly 20 years later, it appears that in many respects the authors of that report underestimated the power of the new technologies they described. In 1989 a total of 15 million nucleotides of DNA sequence had been determined. The latest generation of sequencing machines can sequence more than 100 million nucleotides per day. Satellites allow biologists to examine changes in landscapes on an ever finer scale and to track wildlife remotely, while the World Wide Web allows them to retrieve and share their data instantly.
The productivity of biological research since 1989 has been extraordinary. At the same time, the explosion of new biological information has consequences. Individual scientists can now collect data on a scale and at a level of detail that surpass any individual’s capacity to sift through, analyze,