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.