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April 3, 2014 - National Science Foundation - FY 2015

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science Society with over 39,000 members, wishes to submit the following statement in support of increased funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in FY 2015. The NSF is the only federal agency that supports innovative basic research across all fields of science and engineering. For over six decades, the NSF has invested in basic research and education at the frontiers of science and engineering, including high risk and transformative research not supported by other funding sources. In FY 2013, 81 percent of the NSF budget supported research and related activities at colleges, universities and academic consortia and NSF reviewed 49,000 grant proposals and made 10,844 new awards to 1,922 institutions in all states across the Nation.

An estimated 299,000 people were directly involved in NSF programs and activities in FY 2013. NSF programs indirectly impact millions (e.g., K-12 students and teachers, general public, institutions like museums). NSF grants supported eight of the 13 Nobel Prize 2013 winners at some point in their research careers. NSF has now funded 212 Nobel laureates since the agency began, 41 of whom also had been NSF Graduate Research Fellows. Since 1952, the agency has funded nearly 47,800 graduate research fellows.

NSF support of multidisciplinary research and all levels of education is critical to improving the future of the Nation’s science and engineering enterprise and our global competitive edge. NSF’s National Science Board just released its latest biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, a detailed analysis of the Nation’s position in global science and technology. Since 2001, the share of the world's R&D performed in the United States has decreased from 37 percent to 30 percent, while that performed by Asian countries grew from 25 percent to 34 percent. It is critical to increase the NSF budget to help reverse this worrisome trend.

NSF Builds R&D Infrastructure

Through competitive grants, contracts and fellowships, NSF builds partnerships among industry, academia and other R&D stakeholders which expands the Nation’s technical workforce. The NSF supports multidisciplinary research, cutting edge facilities, and initiatives and consortia. Examples are the National Big Data R&D Initiative launched in 2012 and NSF’s Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Initiative (EEID). In FY 2013, the NSF invested more than $17 million in 60 multidisciplinary projects to employ new computational analyses essential to data driven STEM breakthroughs. The effort was part of over $75 million spent in FY 2013 to advance software, networking, data sciences and workforce training to support all STEM disciplines, via NSF’s Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering.

Funding from NSF builds local R&D infrastructures through the long standing Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program. In mid-2013, four newly funded projects were in the EPSCoR portfolio: (1) a New England consortium focused on pathogenic bacteria in coastal regions, their environmental and economic impacts and decision making through human interactions with natural systems; (2) a three state study of high elevation water resources, to create better computer models related to water quality; (3) a joint project in North and South Dakota to develop processing methods for converting biomass into renewable energy resources; and (4) a three state collaboration in New England placing a network of environmental sensors in each state, to collect data on carbon and nutrients in watersheds over time.

NSF partnerships with academia are vital to energizing the US workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The NSF responds to wide spread concerns about future workforce shortages across STEM disciplines. An example of NSF’s STEM education strategy are five STEM projects funded last September involving multiple institutions in five states, to increase STEM participation of women and girls, underrepresented minorities and underserved rural areas. The nearly $4 million in EPSCoR grants will pilot new methods among students from middle school to early career levels.

Another example is the diverse 2013 class of NSF Graduate Research Fellows, 2,000 young researchers from 434 U.S. baccalaureate institutions, including 1,102 women, 390 from underrepresented minority groups, 51 with disabilities and 28 veterans. Forty percent indicated interdisciplinary fields of study. In mid-2013, NSF announced the first 53 recipients of the new Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program, partnering with 12 countries to place NSF research fellows in institutions abroad.

NSF also collaborates with the private sector to boost R&D entrepreneurs in the United States, in part through the competitive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer program. In October, under an agreement between NSF and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, 10 NSF funded early stage biotech companies presented at the 12th annual BIO Investor Forum to begin raising funds in the private sector. The startups focus on drug discovery, diagnostics and other platform technologies.

NSF Supported Microbiology Research

Within NSF, the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) sustains a research portfolio encompassing the wide breadth of biology from molecules to ecosystems and the global biosphere. BIO divisions include those focused on environmental biology, systems biology or molecular biology. The Emerging Frontiers Division invests in higher risk, interdisciplinary activities that show promise of generating productive innovations. BIO also supports R&D infrastructures like the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), biological field stations and computerized databases that include DNA sequences of microorganisms. In FY 2013, the directorate was able to fund 21 percent of the 5,937 grant proposals submitted by researchers. Research reported in the past year illustrates the diversity of BIO’s funding:

  • Bacterial DNA is more likely to be naturally transferred to human tumor cells than to normal, healthy cells, suggesting a role for bacterial gene transfer in cancer and other diseases associated with mutations. Scientists had already shown that bacteria can transfer DNA to animal genomes through previous genomic sequencing studies.
  • For the first time, the banded mongoose in Botswana was identified as carrying Leptospira interrogans, the bacterial cause of leptospirosis, which is the world's most common illness transmitted to humans by animals.
  • Scientific analysis of the 2011 record breaking algae bloom in Lake Erie blamed a “perfect storm” of weather events and agricultural practices, predicting more huge blooms in the future.
  • An unusual soil bacterium is being used in modeling and simulations by computational biologists to study how individual cells might have evolved into more complicated configurations. Myxococcus xanthus organizes itself into multicellular, three dimensional structures made up of thousands of cells to hunt other microbes and survive in harsh conditions.
  • The redwoods of California are being threatened by the combined effects of forest fires and sudden oak death disease, linked in 2000 to the plant pathogen Phytophthora ramorum. Flames carried into the tree canopy by the dead oaks scorch the crowns of surrounding redwoods.

Last August, BIO funded US and United Kingdom scientists in four projects that could revolutionize farming methods: (1) to design a synthetic biological module that will “fix” nitrogen inside plant cells, by reengineering nitrogen fixing bacteria to build an N- fixing unit that can be transferred; (2) to rediscover a bacterium found only once (in the 1990s in a German charcoal pit) that contains a unique enzyme allowing nitrogen fixing in oxygen rich environments normally inhibitory to nitrogen fixing bacteria; (3) to genetically alter nitrogen fixing bacteria and a grass species similar to more complex cereals such as maize, to ensure a lock and key interaction between plant and microbe and maximize the amount of usable nitrogen delivered to the plant; and (4) to optimize practical applications of nitrogen fixing blue green algae and genetically engineer plant cells to fix atmospheric nitrogen directly.

The NSF Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) also funds microbiology research through studies of Earth’s environment and the myriad roles played by microorganisms. In January, the directorate awarded grants to four new critical zone observatories, which join six existing CZOs to study the zone where Earth’s surface meets the atmosphere and living organisms. The CZOs are the first research network to holistically investigate this zone, so important to water quality, food supplies, soil health and carbon storage.

Both GEO and BIO contribute to NSF’s Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases program jointly sponsored with the National Institutes of Health. EEID supports the study of ecological and biological mechanisms of environmental change that shape emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. Projects help understand how large scale events like habitat destruction can alter microbial diseases in humans and other animals. In 2013, new EEID grant recipients included studies on foot and mouth disease virus, honeybee killing parasites, impacts of livestock production practices on emerging drug resistant staphylococci bacteria and transmission of Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease. Effects of climate change on the spread of infectious disease is another EEID focus area, generating reports last year that model disease outcomes based on climate variables to guide public health officials. In February, researchers reported field studies showing that environmental temperatures significantly influence whether or not Wolbachia bacteria will block the malaria pathogen from developing within carrier mosquitoes. The Wolbachia malaria interaction is considered a promising new tool for controlling malaria. Other EEID funded studies are investigating West Nile virus, Lyme disease and hantavirus in the context of climate change and other environmental factors.

There is no doubt that NSF contributes to the Nation’s scientific strength and economic growth. The ASM urges Congress to increase funding for NSF in FY 2015 to the highest level possible. The ASM also looks forward to continued future investment of NSF resources in programs related to microbiology since microbes are at the foundation of scientific discovery and other activities that are at the core of the NSF mission.