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A New Biology for the 21st Century
for the extremely diverse community of current and future New Biologists to identify, prioritize, and advocate for the investments that would have the biggest impact on the most sectors.
An alternative approach is to set an ambitious goal and invest in the research and technology development needed to meet it. This approach has led to some of America’s most spectacular scientific achievements. The committee believes that the best way to capitalize on the unique opportunity presented by emerging capabilities in the life sciences is to undertake a bold national program to apply the New Biology to the solution of major societal problems.
The call for a large commitment to applying the New Biology to big goals is not meant to imply that such a program would consist only of “big science” collaborative projects. The enunciation of big goals is important because it invites the participation of both collaborative groups and individuals from a broad spectrum of disciplines. Solutions to large-scale problems demand contributions from investigators operating both individually and together. Given the need to stimulate both conceptual and technological advances to fulfill the promise of the New Biology, a mixture of both individual and large-scale projects will be necessary. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council addressed this question in the 2003 report Large-Scale Biomedical Science (National Research Council, 2003c). That report states that “the objective of a large-scale project should be to produce a public good—an end project that is valuable for society and is useful to many or all investigators in the field.” The report goes on to point out that “large-scale collaborative projects may also complement smaller projects by achieving an important, complex goal that could not be accomplished through the traditional model of single-investigator, small-scale research.” The report lists several criteria that characterize projects that are best carried out on a large scale, including external coordination and management, a required budget larger than can be met under traditional funding mechanisms, a time frame longer than that of smaller projects, and strategic planning with intermediate goals and endpoints as well as a phase-out strategy.
The committee chose to focus on four areas of societal need because the benefits of achieving these goals would be large, progress would be assessable, and both the scientific community and the public would find such goals inspirational. Each challenge will require technological and conceptual advances that are not now at hand, across a disciplinary spectrum that is not now encompassed by the field. Achieving these goals will demand, in each case, transformative advances. It can be argued, however, that other challenges could serve the same purpose. Large-scale efforts to understand how the first cell came to be, how the human brain works, or how living organisms affect the cycling of carbon in the ocean could also drive the development of the New Biology and of the technologies and sciences necessary to advance the entire field. In the