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'New Biology' Initiative

Call for integration, collaboration in life sciences research to solve societal challenges is ambitious, but lacks specifics

by Britt E. Erickson
October 5, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 40

Credit: National Academies
Credit: National Academies

An interagency, multidisciplinary initiative is needed in life sciences to solve some of society’s most pressing problems in health care, energy, environment, and food, concludes a new report from the National Research Council. The report was requested by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy to help determine how best to build upon the Human Genome Project and other advances in biology. It calls for a new approach to life sciences research, one in which chemists, physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and other researchers are integrated into the field of biology.

Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN
Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN

Such collaborations would allow scientists to capitalize on advances in areas such as imaging, high-throughput technologies, and computational science, the report notes. And to support the so-called new biology initiative, the report recommends dedicated funding that is separate from current research budgets for at least 10 years.

The report gives few specifics regarding how to implement the initiative or how much funding is needed, but it recommends giving priority to development of information technologies that would allow researchers across the federal government to share and access information in a common format. The report also recommends investment in education, including the creation of interdisciplinary undergraduate curricula and graduate training programs.

Whether Congress and the Obama Administration will buy into the idea remains to be seen, but the report stresses that now is the time to make such investments. The costs are low compared with the costs of not addressing the challenges, it notes.

“It is critical to make those investments,” Phillip A. Sharp, cochair of the NRC committee that wrote the report, said at a briefing. Sharp, who is a professor at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, referred to urgent problems such as climate change, increasing costs of nonrenewable energy, food shortages, and the need for more efficient health care that is focused on the individual and not on population-based statistics.

The four societal challenges were not chosen at random. “They are interrelated in key ways and cannot be solved in isolation,” noted committee member Keith R. Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the School of Medicine and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. For example, one can’t solve the food shortage problem by using fuels to ship food over long distances because then “we will have failed in other challenge areas,” he said. Sustainable, local food production is needed, and that will require altering crop plants to grow under any conditions, Yamamoto said.

Health care, energy, environment, and food represent half the economy in terms of gross domestic product, and “the science is at a stage where it can really be accelerated in development and impact across all four areas,” Sharp pointed out. “Never before have we had more needs for physical scientists, computational scientists, earth scientists, and engineers to become engaged in life science,” he said.

Sharp and other members of the committee acknowledged that the initiative is unlikely to solve society’s big problems in 10 years. The committee set ambitious objectives on purpose “to get the juices flowing,” Yamamoto noted. “We need to set big goals and let the problems drive the science,” said committee cochair Thomas M. Connelly Jr., chief innovation officer at DuPont.

When asked whether the initiative has the support of the Obama Administration and the Office of Science & Technology Policy, Yamamoto replied that the committee is encouraged by the conversations it has had with representatives from the White House. “It will be very important for the community at large, whether it’s individual scientists, institutions, or professional societies, to really become engaged,” he added.

The initiative has already garnered some support from the scientific community. In a recent post on his blog, Richard O’Grady, executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, called the initiative “scientifically sound” and “strategically savvy.”

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which represents 22 biological and biomedical professional societies, does not yet have a position on the initiative, FASEB President Mark O. Lively says.

But Lively sees the initiative as “exciting and bold,” and one that will “get the computational scientists talking to the biologists, get the biologists talking to the chemists and physicists, and bring their ideas and approaches together to solve problems.”

When it comes to funding the initiative, however, “the devil is in the details,” Lively notes. “The NIH budget has been flat since 2003, and the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act money has provided a lot of new opportunities that are boosting activities across NSF and NIH,” he says. “How Congress or the agencies would choose to fund this and implement the recommendations is really key.”



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