National Science Foundation - FY 2009

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The President requests a 13 percent increase in the NSF’s budget for FY 2009 for a total funding level of $6.85 billion. Included in this request is $5.6 billion for Research and Related Activities (R&RA), an increase of $773 million, or 16 percent above FY 2008. With the 16 percent growth, NSF anticipates supporting an additional 1,370 research grants, which will help increase the overall funding rate to 23 percent from the 21 percent rate in FY 2008. However, the success rates in many important biological sciences programs remain below 20 percent. The ASM, therefore, recommends a 16 percent, or $98 million, increase for BIO, consistent with the requested increase for R&RA. The ASM also recommends that the overall increase for R&RA be $808 million, or 16.8 percent, and the overall increase for NSF be 13.6 percent above FY 2008, to cover ASM’s recommended increase for BIO without affecting the requested increases for other programs.

The NSF plays a critical role in the discovery of new knowledge in the biological sciences. The Society has a number of concerns about BIO funding for the biological sciences, which are discussed below. Our nation’s competitiveness in areas such as nanotechnology, climate change, water sustainability, and alternative energy sources depends on innovation in the biological sciences. It is essential that NSF continue strong support for the biological sciences to maintain and expand the contributions of biological sciences research for human, environmental, and economic well being.

The NSF has successfully leveraged its resources for over half a century to promote progress in all fields of science and to enhance its effectiveness and productivity. The NSF builds the nation's research capability through investments in advanced instrumentation and facilities, and by supporting excellence in science and engineering research and education through its competitive, peer-reviewed grants programs. These activities are essential for increasing the nation’s economic and scientific competitiveness. Nearly 90 percent of the NSF’s budget supports extramural grants, selected through a competitive merit review process, that meet the mission of the Foundation "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…" The NSF has been especially responsive to and benefited from supporting individual investigators and investigator-initiated ideas.

The ASM particularly supports increased funding for R&RA. This funding will promote support for unsolicited grants that potentially advance the frontiers of learning and discovery. The ASM enthusiastically supports the continuation of the NSF’s tradition of funding investigator-initiated research.

NSF Biological Sciences

The NSF provides 67 percent, about two-thirds, of federal support for US academic basic research in non-medical biological sciences. This means that NSF’s BIO, is arguably the most important source of non-medical funding for biological research, infrastructure, and education in the US. Through its long history of productivity and innovation, biological research supported by the NSF has been critical for understanding issues of national importance such as the environment, economy, agriculture, and human welfare.

NSF funding is not only important for understanding the functions and behaviors of organisms, it is especially important for understanding how organisms, such as microbes, function and interact with physical and chemical systems. For example, basic biological research has provided physicists and chemists with model systems used in nanotechnology, chemical production and renewable energy generation, each of which are important for American competitiveness. Thus, it is essential to continue strong investments in the biological sciences, since they translate to advances in physical, mathematical, engineering, and computational sciences.

The Administration has proposed an FY 2009 budget for BIO of $675 million, an increase of 10.3 percent over FY 2008. This increase continues along the proposed track of the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). The ASM is concerned that funding for BIO since FY 2003 has flattened and even decreased. The success rate of competitive awards for BIO in FY 2009 is estimated at 19 percent, well below the overall NSF estimated funding rate of 23 percent. Additionally, some programs within BIO have funding rates less than 14 percent, such as the Microbial Observatories/Microbial Interactions and Processes (MO/MIP) programs, Assembling the Tree of Life program, and the Ecology of Infectious Diseases program. Funding rates for BIO research grants have been consistently lower than agency wide average research funding rates, and the gap between BIO and agency wide funding rates has increasingly widened in the last three years.

Scientific opportunities in the biological sciences are increasing significantly, illustrated by the estimated 20 percent increase in BIO research grant proposals from FY 2003 through FY 2007. However, as opportunities have steadily increased, BIO research grant funding rates have decreased significantly from 26 percent in FY 2003 down to an estimated 19 percent in FY 2007.

Growth in BIO is essential for progress in the biological sciences. Growth in the total NSF budget should be reflected by real growth in BIO as well as other NSF directorates. We, therefore, recommend an increase in the BIO budget consistent with the President’s request for R&RA in FY 2009, of 16 percent, for a total of $710 million.

Research in BIO is key to providing fundamental support that is needed for research supported by other NSF directorates. The rapid growth in knowledge by the biological sciences is resulting in the formation of new multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary efforts that often involve physical and chemical sciences and engineering. Advances in programs in bioenergy and biophysics now depend as much on biology as they do on other scientific disciplines. BIO supports scientific disciplines other than the biological sciences through programs such as Environmental Genomics, MO/MIP, and contributes to interagency priorities, such as climate change and the new NSF-wide program Dynamics of Water Processes in the Environment (WATER).

BIO MO/MIP

In addition to its general concerns about biological sciences funding, the ASM is concerned with a proposal to shift funding in FY 2009 to strengthen core BIO programs and to eliminate support for the demonstrably highly successful Microbial Observatories (MO), Microbial Interactions and Processes (MIP) programs. These programs represent the only sustained national initiatives to describe broadly and understand the diversity of microbial life within the US. Loss of these programs will mean that other nations with which the US competes in biotechnology (e.g., China, Japan, Korea, Germany) will continue to support efforts to discover microbial diversity, while the US decreases support.

Differences in funding emphases between existing core programs and microbe- specific programs will likely lead to lower success rates and less funding for microbial researchers. Funding success rates for MO/MIP are already less than 10 percent. The ASM recommends that MO and MIP should be identified as a part of the core programs in BIO, rather than be discontinued. The ASM also recommends increased support for MO/MIP.

Maintaining programs such as MO/MIP is essential to ensure continued discovery of the microbial world, over 99 percent of which remains undescribed. Because they are ubiquitous and functionally more diverse than all plants and animals combined, microbes continue to offer enormous economic potential for industry, agriculture, and medicine. Bioprospecting has already led to many commercial applications, including probiotics, biofuels, and wastewater treatment. The wealth of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that have yet to be cultivated or understood comprise an untapped resource for industry, agriculture, and medicine.

Loss of MO/MIP cannot help but reduce our nation’s competitiveness and ability to sustain leadership in microbial biology. Loss of these programs will also adversely affect agricultural research involving a collaboration between USDA and NSF.

NEON

The ASM supports the establishment of the National Environmental Observatories Network (NEON), which will be the first national ecological measurement and observation system designed to answer fundamental regional- to continental-scale scientific questions about the current state of major ecosystems and their response to climate change and other disturbances. Full implementation of the NEON platform will transform our ability to detect and predict changes in ecosystems, and to provide information necessary to respond to change. Integration of microbial biology into the NEON framework also promises to provide a new level of understanding of the interactions between microbes, ecosystems and climate change. The ASM strongly encourages this integration through expanded funding in BIO, and expresses its concern that funding for NEON-related research not reduce the capacities of current BIO programs.

Support for Geosciences, Engineering, and Physical Sciences

Biology and microbial biology are important components of all the research directorates at NSF and should be strongly supported within them. The ASM supports the FY 2009 proposed increases in funding for the research activities at the Geosciences Directorate (GEO), the Engineering Directorate (ENG), and the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS).

The Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry program in GEO provides an example of the mutually beneficial relationship between biological sciences and geosciences. Among other areas, this program examines interactions between biological and geological systems at all scales of space and time, interactions between microbes and economically important resources, and interactions among microbes, minerals and groundwater. The Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry Program also facilitates cross-disciplinary efforts to harness new bioanalytical tools, such as those emerging from molecular biology. The ASM supports the proposed request of $178 million for Earth Sciences (EAR), an increase of $22 million, or 14 percent, above FY 2008, with an emphasis towards increased support for the biological geosciences and $354 million for Ocean Sciences Funding (OCE), an increase of $43 million, or 14 percent above FY 2008.

Similarly, the Engineering Directorate employs microbial research to examine problems involved in the processing and manufacture of economically important products, and in the efficient utilization of chemical resources and renewable bioresources. Much of this work depends on bioinformatics originating from genomic and proteomic studies. The ASM supports the proposed request of $173 million for Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET), an increase of $42 million or 32 percent, above FY 2008. High emphasis applications for the biological sciences within this program include postgenomic engineering, tissue engineering, biophotonics, nano-biosystems, and biotechnology, leading to improved biosensors, biomaterials, and controlled drug release.

Collaboration with other scientific disciplines is also very important for continued progress in physics, including biological physics at molecular and cellular levels. MPS supports interdisciplinary research that greatly benefits the physical sciences as well as the biological sciences by creating tools that assist in advancing biological research and other disciplines. The ASM also supports the NSF-wide investment, Dynamics of Water Processes in the Environment (WATER). WATER supports research on living organisms in freshwater ecological systems.

Workforce Development and Training

Support for science and engineering education, from pre-K through graduate school and beyond is an essential part of NSF's mission. Research funded by NSF is thoroughly integrated with education to help ensure that there will always be a skilled workforce to support new and future scientific, engineering, and technological fields, and a robust community of educators to train and inspire coming generations.

In FY 2007 BIO alone, support approximately 13,000 people, including senior researchers, other professionals, postdoctorates, graduate students, undergraduate students, and K-12 teachers. Due to flat funding in FY 2008, this number dropped to approximately 12,700. Increased support for the NSF is essential to fostering a competitive, well-trained scientific workforce. The proposed increase for BIO is estimated to support over 13,500 senior researchers, other professionals, postdoctorates, graduate students, undergraduate students, and K-12 teachers.

Conclusion

Support for the NSF is essential for maintaining and improving the nation’s scientific and economic competitiveness. The ASM recommends a 13.6 percent increase in funding for the NSF, slightly above the President’s request, but below the NSF’s authorized level for FY 2009. However, the ASM is concerned that BIO has suffered from flat funding over the last six years and we recommend at least a 16 percent increase for BIO, the same as the increase proposed by the President for the entire Research and Related Activities, of which BIO is a part. This increase will recapture ground lost to inflation, expand the currently successful programs, and take advantage of new scientific opportunities in the biological sciences, such as metagenomics. Increased funding for the NSF should ensure adequate funding for all areas of science. One of the primary strengths of the NSF is its ability to catalyze important interactions among research disciplines in the physical and biological sciences. Consequently, all science must be well funded and encouraged.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2009 appropriation for the NSF.

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