National Science Foundation - FY 2010 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 appropriation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 43,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well-being.

The ASM strongly supports the Administration’s stated FY 2010 budget proposal for NSF of $7 billion, an 8 percent increase over the FY 2009 appropriation.

The Administration’s proposed NSF budget is a critical step toward maintaining the nation’s global leadership in science and technology. Investments in high quality research revitalize economic growth, and strong funding for NSF directly boosts innovative basic research across the United States. Many priority areas specifically identified in the America COMPETES Act of 2007 intersect the broad mission of NSF to maintain the vitality of the US academic science and engineering enterprise to include enabling university-industry partnerships, encouraging interdisciplinary research, and improving funding rates for new investigators to strengthen the nation’s workforce in science and engineering. More than 80 percent of NSF’s annual budget is awarded to academic researchers, and as a result supports approximately 20 percent of all federally funded basic research conducted at US colleges and universities.

We commend Congress for the substantial and much needed NSF funding included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009. The need remains, however, for a steady and reliable increase of fiscal year appropriations to offset the detrimental cuts and loss to inflation in past NSF budgets. Sustained NSF funding wields considerable impact on our national research endeavor. Each year, NSF supports research by nearly 200,000 individuals across all fields of science and engineering, at over 1,900 institutions in all 50 states. NSF currently receives about 45,500 requests annually for its competitive, peer-reviewed grants, selecting roughly 11,500 to receive funding for new multi-year projects. It also expends over $400 million each year in professional and service contracts, further infusing resources into America’s private science and technology sectors.

The NSF promotes innovation across many disciplines, generating 21st century technological advances to preserve human health and our environment. NSF funding keeps the nation at the leading edge of discovery and ensures a skilled technical workforce in the future. The NSF’s wide-ranging funding portfolio is the foundation for much of the nation’s enviable success in the biological and physical sciences.

Support for the Directorate for Biological Sciences

The ASM is concerned with past low funding levels for NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO.) Although ASM does not have details of the Administration’s budget request for NSF, we recommend an FY2010 funding level of at least $675 million for the BIO directorate, a 10 percent increase over the FY2008 level. In FY2008, the overall funding rate for BIO grants was only 16 percent, which failed to capture the many meritorious research opportunities that NSF could have funded with a larger budget. Funding rates for BIO research grants have been consistently lower than those for NSF as a whole, and the gap between BIO and agency-wide funding rates has grown in recent years.

The NSF provides about two-thirds of federal support for US academic basic research in non-medical biological sciences, a major source of funding for research, infrastructure, and education in these crucial disciplines. Research supported by the NSF through BIO programs is critical for understanding issues of national importance, such as sustaining the environment, improving agriculture, or maintaining public health and well being. NSF funding is particularly important to understand how living organisms, from microbes to humans, function and interact with non-living systems. It is also important because the physical, mathematical, engineering, and computational sciences increasingly use living systems to raise questions and find solutions in their respective fields.

Life sciences are in transition. Traditional disciplines are giving rise to multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs, creating new research areas that then become new disciplines in their own right. Science is constantly changing and NSF is adept at responding to this constant transformation, supporting work at the intersection between the life and physical sciences. In February, 2009 the NSF directorates for biological sciences and geosciences announced a new NSF funding emphasis on interdisciplinary research that bridges both areas, to meet the challenges of the earth’s changing physical and chemical environments. BIO supports other scientific disciplines through its own funding priorities and through collaborative programs, such as those in environmental genomics, biogeochemistry, and biochemical engineering. BIO also advances federal interagency priorities, such as research on climate change, and NSF-wide programs, such as Dynamics of Water Processes in the Environment, which studies freshwater systems to provide solid scientific bases for decision-making about water resources.

Growth in BIO appropriations is essential for progress in the life sciences and other allied disciplines, and to sustain the ongoing innovation flowing from NSF-supported projects across the United States. Last year, academic researchers at the University of Minnesota showed that bacteria (Geobactersulfurreducens) can be harnessed to form batteries and biosensors; previous and ongoing studies have shown that these and other bacteria that produce electrical currents can be used to create microbial fuel cells that that wastewater organic compounds while producing useful electricity. Other researchers are leveraging the fact that each ecosystem contains a particular suite of microbes, inventorying the microbial DNA profiles unique to each type of ecosystem with the ultimate goal of using microbes as early warning systems of a variety of ecological threats.

It is imperative that NSF has sufficient resources to increase competitive awards and research grants that ensure scientists and engineers remain involved and generate basic research discoveries. The ASM strongly supports increasing BIO funding made available to the thousands of post doctorates, senior researchers, graduate students and teachers who contribute immeasurably to our collective scientific knowledge through BIO programs. Growth in the BIO budget should be commensurate with growth in the total NSF budget. ASM, therefore, recommends an increase in the BIO budget consistent with that of overall NSF increases for Research and Related Activities in FY 2010.

Support for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

The ASM strongly supports the continued BIO-funded effort to expand the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), and the integration of microbial biology into the NEON framework. Such integration promises a new and much needed level of understanding of the intricate interactions between microbes, ecosystems and climate change. The network utilizes state-of-the-art communications between instrumentation sites located across the continent, to collect data on ecological systems. It creates a unique virtual laboratory to study and predict the cause-and-effects between environmental change and biological processes. Although ecological forecasting is critically important in our changing world, the ASM urges Congress to ensure that funding for BIO is expanded sufficiently to support core programs and NEON-related initiatives.

Support for Geosciences, Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences

The ASM supports increased FY 2010 funding for research activities at the Geosciences Directorate (GEO), the Engineering Directorate (ENG), and the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS).

Within the Geosciences Directorate, the Division of Earth Sciences (EAR) supports research that examines the relationship between living systems and the earth’s changing physical environment. The Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry Program provide an example of the mutually beneficial relationship between biological sciences and geosciences. Among other areas, this program studies interactions between microbes and economically important resources, and interactions among microbes, minerals and groundwater. The program also facilitates cross-disciplinary efforts to harness new bioanalytical tools like those used in molecular biology. Another EAR-funded effort, the Continental Dynamics Program, supports work like the recent discovery of microbial contaminants in a 35-million-year-old crater crumbling beneath Chesapeake Bay, a potential threat to regional water supplies. The ASM supports $178 million in funding for Earth Sciences, 14 percent above the FY 2008 level, with an emphasis toward increased support for the biological geosciences and ocean sciences funding.

Of particular interest to ASM, research funded by the Engineering Directorate’s Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems Division (CBET) regularly uses microbial systems to examine problems involved in the processing and manufacture of economically important products, as well as the efficient utilization of chemical resources and renewable bioresources, , and the development of novel ways to produce drinking water and wastewater effluents to reduce public exposure to pathogens. Much of this work depends on bioinformatics originating from genomic and proteomic studies. Bioengineering is another cross-cutting research area of impressive scope, evidenced by recent development of nanoscopic plastic spheres, a type of artificial cell, designed to stimulate human immune cells to kill cancer cells. Not only does CBET-funded research contribute significantly to our knowledge base, it also helps develop the workforce for major US industries like petroleum, pharmaceuticals, microelectronics, and medical devices. The ASM supports funding the CBET at $173 million, the proposed FY2009 level. Priority applications for the life sciences within CBET include programs with great potential to enhance human health: tissue engineering, biophotonics, nano-biosystems, and biotechnology, which could lead to improved biosensors, biomaterials, and controlled drug release.

Researchers funded by the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate frequently collaborate with other scientific disciplines; this cooperation is important for continued progress in physics fields, such as studies at molecular and cellular levels. The NSF contributes 67 percent of federal support for academic basic research in the mathematical sciences and 42 percent in the physical sciences. MPS supports interdisciplinary research that greatly benefits both the physical sciences and the life sciences, by creating state-of-the-art tools and techniques that assist in advancing biological research and other disciplines. For example, MPS is a partner in the NSF-wide initiative, Dynamics of Water Processes in the Environment. The scope of MPS activity is enormous, from computational tools for cyberscience to understanding how microscopic processes transform the living world.

Workforce Development and Training

Support for science and engineering education is an essential part of NSF's mission. NSF-funded research is thoroughly integrated with formalized education strategies embedded into each NSF program, designed to ensure there will always be a skilled workforce to support future scientific, engineering and technological fields, as well as a robust community of educators to train and inspire coming generations. NSF is the second largest federal supporter of academic research, and Congressional appropriations directly strengthen education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Disappointing funding trends in the sciences can be seen clearly in U.S. academic institutions. As alternate career paths, non reliant on government funding, are seen as more desirable, the number of US students pursing careers in the sciences has declined. Foreign student enrollment however has increased and the fear is as these students leave the U.S. their departure will create a brain and talent drain, significantly reducing the Nation’s ability to compete on a global scale. It is critical that Congress understand the need to invest adequately for students to recognize that science and engineering represent worthwhile career paths.

Conclusion

Since 1950, it has been the NSF’s primary responsibility to energize the nation’s academic science and engineering enterprise. In meeting this mission, NSF has been a powerful motive force in US innovation, facilitating research at the frontiers of scientific exploration. Consistent and reliable funding support for the NSF is necessary to maintain and improve US scientific and economic competitiveness on a global scale. Funding essential programs as outlined above will remain an urgent priority in the coming years, and establishing a base level of $7 billion for FY2010 will begin to recoup serious losses from past budget cuts. Increasing appropriations for the NSF should ensure that all areas of science are at least adequately funded and that basic science research is encouraged and supported. The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2010 appropriation for the National Science Foundation.

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