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Suggested Citation:"Biological Disciplines." National Research Council. 1970. The Life Sciences: Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs The World of Biological Research Requirements for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9575.
Page 276
Suggested Citation:"Biological Disciplines." National Research Council. 1970. The Life Sciences: Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs The World of Biological Research Requirements for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9575.
Page 277

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276 THE LIFE SCIENCES Natural history museums, as both forums and research settings for sys- tematists, ecologists, and environmental scientists, are becoming increasingly important as a national scientific resource, despite a long history of public neglect. BIOLOGICAL DISCIPLINES For brevity and conciseness, we found it useful to structure all the life sciences into a dozen research areas. But this should not conceal the rich and diverse infrastructure of the life sciences. As we have seen, classical disciplinary labels have lost their meaning, but one could readily describe a hundred or more subdisciplines based on the work of groups of like- minded scientists who have blended the approaches of several older dis- ciplines in attacks on some specific subsets of biological problems. A few examples are cited in the following paragraph. PhOtobiolo~istsq well versed in optics and the nhv~ics of light, are vari- in photosynthesis, -is -- or- ously concerned with the mechanism of vision, the events the emission of light by bacterial and animal forms (the biological purpose of light emission by all but fireflies being not at all evident), and the photo- inactivation of enzymes and viruses. Neuroscientists bring the skills of electrophysiology, cellular biology, molecular biology, and communications theory to bear on studies of information processing in the nervous system. Oncologists, focusing on the essential nature of the transformation of normal cells into malignant ones, are similarly a group apart, borrowing from every major discipline that may be of help, while vascular physiol- ogists necessarily borrow from hydrodynamics and studies of urban traffic flow as they study the operation of a capillary bed or a major blood vessel. Physical anthropology is a subdiscipline that contributes to the total en- deavor while it provides a bridge from the biological to the social sciences. It is the study of the bodily manifestations of human variation in particu- lar, the description of human body size, shape, and function in the light of man's history and the role of heredity, environment, and culture In bringing about man's present diversity. The biological anthropologist aims to understand human physical variation and to apply his knowledge for human betterment through medicine and engineering. As concern with the environment grows, an increasing number of physi- cians and biologists of many backgrounds have generated the area of research and practice called "environmental health," the concern of one of the panels of this survey. More sophisticated understanding of this field should permit society to enjoy the fruits of an advancing technology, a

THE WORLD OF BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH 277 superior living environment, and freedom to develop a society with fewer restraints and tensions. Past effort is minuscule compared with the magni- tude of the problem. Since the problems increase with increasing population density and developing technology, efforts at controlling the environment, and thus the health of the population, must keep pace. Indeed, in a very real sense, students of environmental health serve technology by providing the knowledge permitting its benefits to be enjoyed without adventitious adverse effects on the health of man and, more broadly, on the environment of man. Thus, support of an adequate level of competence in environmental health is indispensable to a society that elects to make optimal use of the fruits of technology. Accordingly, the environmental-health resources of the nation must first be expanded to catch up with the problems now with us and thereafter be developed, along with technological development, to provide an adequate preventive program. Current support of research in environmental health probably lies between $30 million and $50 million per year; support for training for both research and practice is between $9 million and $18 million per year and is known to support (in 1969) 974 candidates for the master's degree, 981 candidates for the Ph.D., and 148 postdoctoral fellows. A broad federal policy is needed, with a long-range plan of attack upon the whole problem of environmental deterioration and with better identifi- cation of the separate missions and responsibilities of the several federal departments and agencies. Only with such a policy will it be possible to develop in an orderly way the required training programs to supply the personnel needed for both research and practice, both within and outside the government, necessary to build a strong foundation for effective control programs against environmental-health hazards, a foundation that must rest on the entire current understanding of the life sciences. Thus, the world of research in the life sciences is marvelously diverse. Tens of thousands of scientists in a thousand institutions contribute to its prog- ress. They migrate between institutions, between classes of institutions, and between subfields of biology. They are quick to seize upon any new instruments or techniques, without regard to whether these are initially devised for use in the physical sciences or for some other research area in the life sciences. Biochemistry has become the language of biology, pro- viding the bridge to the physical sciences, but it has yet to be applied to the farthest reaches of organismal biology. The federal government is the principal sponsor of the entire endeavor and, for the indefinite future, only the federal government can sponsor an effort of this magnitude. Its success will affect all aspects of our lives, and its conduct has become one of the central purposes of our civilization.

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