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-