From the Field: A New Biology for the 21st Century

Also from the NRC, the A New Biology for the 21st Century report presents a broader context for nurturing 21st century problem solvers, anticipating a future world they might shape, a world: 

  • where there is abundant, healthful food for everyone 

  • where the environment is resilient and flourishing 

  • where there is sustainable, clean energy 

  • where good health is the norm. 

Each of these goals is a daunting challenge. Furthermore, none can be attained independently of the others––we want to grow more food without using more energy or harming natural environments, and we want new sources of energy that do not contribute to global warming or have adverse health effects. The problems raised by these fundamental biological and environmental questions are interdependent and ‘solutions’ that work at cross purposes will not in fact be solutions. 

The case made in A New Biology important for planners of learning spaces is that society is at a tipping point in terms of challenges that influence our collective long-term future. The reality that solutions to 21st century problems are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice cannot be avoided by those responsible, in the 21st century, for learning spaces in the undergraduate setting.  


Authors of A New Biology report suggest that at its essence the new biology is integration—the re-integration of the many sub-disciplines of biology, and the integration into biology of physicists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to create a research community with the capacity to tackle a broad range of scientific and societal problems… 

Purposefully organized around problem-solving, this approach marshals the based research to advance fundamental understanding, brings together researchers with different expertise, develops the technologies required for the task and coordinates efforts to ensure that gaps are filled, problems solved, and resources brought to bear at the right time. Combining the strengths of different communities does not necessarily mean bringing these experts into the same facility to work on one large project—indeed, advanced communication and informatics infrastructures make it easier than ever to assemble virtual collaborations at different scales. 

A New Biology imagines a future for research in STEM fields that challenges the present of STEM learning, recognizing that students will have to be educated in new ways…. Its approach suggests the power of imagining a future, of backward engineering the process of undertaking transformative initiatives.