National Science Foundation - FY 2001 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprised of more than 42,000 members, appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 budget within the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The ASM represents scientists who work in academic, industrial and governmental institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research to improve human health and the environment. The ASM's mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of basic life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well being.

This testimony will outline the ASM's funding recommendations for the NSF research and education programs for FY 2001.

The ASM, a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), strongly endorses the coalition's recommendation to provide the NSF with at least the 17.3 percent, or $675 million, increase proposed by the Administration for FY 2001. This would raise the NSF's overall budget from $3.89 billion in FY 2000 to $4.57 billion in FY 2001. The ASM also urges Congress to sustain this expansion of the NSF budget over the next five years in order to reach the Agency's budget goal of $10 billion.

The NSF's mission is to promote and advance scientific, mathematical, and engineering research and education in the United States by funding the highest quality academic research and education programs. The NSF is the premier basic science agency in the United States and has effectively stimulated and supported the best scientific talent in the country, which has led to cutting edge research discoveries. The NSF budget, however, has not grown commensurate with its record of achievement and broad and unique responsibilities to support science, mathematics and engineering research across disciplines. This year, the Administration has recognized this deficiency by proposing a substantial increase that will restore balance among scientific fields. The NSF must ensure that the entire spectrum of research fields receives strong federal support and that America's human resources in science and technology are replenished. Enhanced support for the NSF's efforts to improve science education will help expand our nation's intellectual capital. Strong links between research and education are essential to a healthy research enterprise, an educated public, and a well trained future workforce.

The NSF is a key part of this Nation's great enterprise of discovering new knowledge, which in turn creates new industries, better products and services - all contributing to our economic strength, national security and general well-being. The NSF is one of the few government agencies that support fundamental basic research. United States leadership in science and technology is dependent on sufficient funding for basic research. Most of today's scientific achievements in areas such as bioremediation of past industrial pollution, the development of new antibiotics and drugs, biopesticides, and biotechnology have their roots in basic research. The many future public health and environmental challenges the United States will face can only be overcome through the potential of basic research to generate crucial new scientific knowledge and advancements that lead to new technologies for the future.

The NSF is the primary source of funding for scientists in the United States working in many areas of biological research. Programs supported by the NSF, for example, are critical to microbiologists, especially as they relate to the exploration of biodiversity and the roles of microorganisms in global biogeochemical cycling reactions that maintain the environmental quality of the earth.

Microorganisms surround us and affect our lives in many ways. They play key roles in processing our wastes, recycling the nutrients that support our agriculture, forests and fisheries, yield new pharmaceuticals, provide key tools for biotechnology, affect the quality of our food and water, control some pests (biocontrol), and cause disease. The NSF is to be complimented for recognizing a few years ago the important role microorganisms play in our well-being and in opportunities for basic science advances through its Microbial Biology initiative. This led to new programs such as LExEN (Life in Extreme Environments), Microbial Observatories which focus on the discovery of important but uncultured microorganisms, and the first Biocomplexity Program which is focused on microbially based ecosystems. ASM applauds these new initiatives. Microorganisms do present very different types of research challenges and opportunities than those for macroorganisms. Hence we encourage NSF to maintain its momentum in Microbial Biology programming to ensure that basic discoveries for this group of organisms is realized.

New advances in science have provided new opportunities and needs in microbiology research which should be considered in NSF programming. These areas are the following.

Genomics Research

The tremendous improvements in DNA sequencing technology have reduced sequencing costs and greatly enhanced the number of complete microbial genome sequences currently available and becoming available in 2000. Complete genome sequence data revolutionizes the approach to microbiology and for the first time gives the complete gene information necessary for an organism's function and success. There are new obstacles, however, to fully understanding this information, requiring advances in software, computation, proteomics, gene function, and informatics. NSF is a key agency for supporting research that utilizes genomic information in new and creative ways. The ASM encourages the Foundation's efforts through workshops and the development of an interagency group designed to identify gaps and opportunities within genomic research. This should extend beyond the more obvious areas of molecular biology and genetics to the areas of ecology, taxonomy and population biology as well as to the geosciences, and the computational and engineering areas.

Biocomplexity

ASM supports NSF's bold initiative to better understand the complexity of interactions between organisms and their environment so that human impact and trends in our global environment can be better understood and properly managed. Advances in the underlying disciplines from molecular biology, ecology and the geosciences to mathematics and the computational sciences have now made it feasible to begin to understand more complex interactions. Microorganisms are key members of the soil, water, plant, and animal environments and therefore are dominant factors in understanding these interactions. Furthermore, only a small percentage of the microbial species on earth are known, leaving their functional role unknown. These unknown organisms are the largest untapped source of biodiversity and a potential source of new pharmaceuticals, enzymes, biocontrol agents, and tools for nanotechnologies.

The ASM also endorses NSF's initiative to establish cutting-edge technologies for exploring the earth's global biology in the form of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). We could expect that microbes, the most important catalysts of global elemental cycles, would be comprehensively explored with NEON-based technologies.

Microbial Informatics

Information from genomics, biocomplexity, and NEON, as well as other physiological, systematic, and biochemical studies needs to be organized and integrated in a manner that is easily accessible to the scientific community. The jobs of the many practitioners of microbiology would be more efficient if microbial data were available in an integrated electronic database and new insight about the most numerous organisms in our universe could be more readily realized. NSF needs for recognize that biological databases, such as microbial databases, are a central and vital infrastructure need to modern day biological research and should be treated as a central national facility. NSF's information technology research (ITR) appears to also provide for advances useful in future biology research, including microbial informatics. With more intensive and extensive data, we need better ways to analyze, visualize and compute the information. ASM looks forward to the benefits from ITR.

Members of the ASM, whose activities include research concerned with the impact of microorganisms on the well-being of humans, animals, plants, and the environment, are very supportive of NSF's increased focus on microbial biology. For years, research efforts have concentrated on the study of microbes in human and animal health. The unknown microbial world provides opportunities to discover new knowledge about microbial life forms and their potential application in industry, medicine and agriculture. In addition, microbiological research continues to provide the foundation for today's advances in biotechnology and for understanding the role microbes play in sustaining our global environment. Future accomplishments and their safe application to increased agricultural productivity (an important by-product of biotechnology) will not be possible without NSF funded basic research.

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