can have immediate applications throughout biology, and the transformative insight that provides the most direct path to a practical solution may arise in a seemingly unrelated research area. Giving explicit recognition to the role of theory in the practice of biology and increasing support for the theoretical component of biology research are ways to help make such connections and thus leverage the value of basic biological research.
The extent of life’s diversity has not yet been plumbed, and many biological processes are understood only imperfectly. New tools and computational capabilities are improving biologists’ ability to study complex phenomena. Tying together the results of research in the many diverse areas of biology requires a robust theoretical and conceptual framework, upon which a broad and diverse research portfolio of basic biological investigations can be based. The impact of biology on society could be enhanced if discovery and experimentation are complemented by efforts to continuously enrich biology’s fundamental theoretical and conceptual basis.
Theory, as an important but underappreciated component of biology, should be given a measure of attention commensurate with that given other components of biological research (such as observation and experiment). Theoretical approaches to biological problems should be explicitly recognized as an important and integral component of funding agencies’ research portfolios. Increased attention to the theoretical and conceptual components of basic biology research has the potential to leverage the results of basic biology research and should be considered as a balance to programs that focus on mission-oriented research.
Biologists in all subdisciplines use theory but rarely recognize the integral and multifaceted role that theory plays in their research and therefore devote little explicit attention to examining their theoretical and conceptual assumptions. Major advances in biological knowledge come about through the interplay of theoretical insights, observations, and key experimental results and by improvements in technology that make new observations, experiments, and insights possible. The fragmentation of biology into many subdisciplines means both that the mix of these components can differ dramatically from one area to another and that the development of theoretical insights that cut across subdisciplines can be difficult. It is the committee’s opinion that all subdisciplines of biology would benefit from an explicit examination of the theoretical and conceptual framework that characterizes their discipline.