March 14, 2011 - National Science Foundation - FY 2012 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) wishes to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with over 38,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to better understand life processes and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well-being.

The ASM strongly supports the Administration’s FY 2012 NSF budget proposal of nearly $7.8 billion, a 13 percent increase over the FY 2010 level of spending. The ASM thanks Members of Congress for their support of the NSF and asks that Congress continue to recognize NSF’s contributions to US research and development in science and engineering, by approving the President’s proposed FY 2012 budget for the Agency.

The ASM recognizes the many challenges ahead in the federal budgeting process. However, the ASM maintains that strong investment in science and technology will continue to show substantial returns on federal investments. Moreover, strong investments in science are essential for the long-term vigor and vitality of the United States economy.

For more than sixty years, NSF funding has stimulated innovation in the United States by providing support to researchers across the breadth of scientific and engineering disciplines. Approximately 95 percent of the Agency's budget goes directly to support research, research infrastructure and STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Importantly, three-fourths of NSF funding is distributed each year to US colleges, universities and academic consortia, through merit based, competitive grants that engage more than 210,000 people participating in funded research and education programs.

The increased budget proposed for NSF programs will strengthen the American Competitiveness Initiative, the President’s Plan for Science and Innovation and the NSF’s 2011–2016 strategic plan that “envisions a nation that capitalizes on new concepts in science and engineering and provides global leadership in advancing research and education.” The NSF plays a unique role in building US R&D capabilities and global competitiveness at a time when support from other sectors is shrinking. The NSF is the nation’s largest source of non-medical academic research funding, providing 21 percent of the total federal budget for basic research.

The NSF sponsors fundamental and transformative research that supports new, economically critical disciplines, such as nanotechnology, genomics and information technology. For some vitally important fields, such as computer science and environmental science, NSF is the dominant funding source. NSF grants catalyze scientific inquiry by a diverse set of recipients ranging from over 190 Nobel laureates to elementary school students participating in NSF sponsored STEM activities. The Agency estimates that in FY 2012 more than 302,000 people will be directly involved in NSF programs, including a large percentage of the nation’s female and underrepresented minority scientists and students.

NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences

The ASM endorses the FY 2012 request of $794.5 million for NSF’s Directorate of Biological Sciences (BIO), roughly 11 percent over the enacted FY 2010 funding level. This request includes support for the Directorate’s Emerging Frontiers initiative, which recognizes high risk, cutting-edge research with the potential to transform US science and technology. Through Emerging Frontiers and its core BIO programs, NSF provides about 68 percent of federal funding for basic research in life sciences at the nation’s academic institutions.

Understanding living organisms and systems directly contributes to improving our economy, agriculture, environment and public health. Recent National Research Council reports have urged creative applications of “the new biology” to solve recalcitrant problems, such as balancing food security with clean energy needs and environmental impacts. BIO supported research is uniquely positioned to provide answers, and to address national priorities, including climate science, biotechnology and sustainable energy, as well as control of infectious diseases. BIO also maintains a capacity to respond rapidly to urgent research needs as they arise. In the past year, for example, NSF provided $20 million for critically needed research on the biological impacts of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The FY 2012 budget request also highlights the Directorate’s research portfolio within the NSF wide Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) initiative, particularly clean energy projects and cross cutting projects within the research at the interface of the Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences (BioMaPS) program.

The FY 2012 BIO appropriation will help realize two of NSF’s strategic goals, “Transform the Frontiers” and “Innovate for Society.” To illustrate, BioMaPS research areas will include advanced manufacturing techniques related to biosensors; new nano-scale technologies that collect data in real time; and the use of chemistry and engineering to build cellular systems for more efficient computational networks. Also in FY 2012, BIO will begin operations of its new National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which will collect data across the United States on the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species. NEON will be the first observatory of its kind, able to forecast ecological change nationwide over multiple decades.

Investments in the BIO Directorate consistently advance scientific knowledge with potential societal or economic benefits. BIO supported discoveries reported in the past year include: (1) soil microbes release less than expected carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during climate warming; (2) bacteria communicate with chemical signals and when a critical number of signaling molecules are detected on the bacteria cell surface (quorum sensing), the collective bacteria coordinate their attack on an infected host (suggesting new drug regimens); and (3) certain methane-metabolizing bacteria can leech copper out of the environment, thereby both cleaning up toxic waste and breaking down the greenhouse gas methane.

The NSF contributes to the fields of medical, agricultural and environmental microbiology, which are important to public health, food security, biotechnology and much more. An example is the Ecology of Infectious Disease (EID) initiative managed jointly by NSF and NIH, which supports research that combines ecological and biomedical methods to study interactions between human caused changes in the environment and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. The most recently funded EID projects include livestock movement in Central Africa as related to transmission of foot and mouth disease virus, how climate and human behavior influence the spread of dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes, and biological and environmental factors that affect the spread of wheat stripe rust disease. In the past year, EID-supported investigators reported results from studies that examined, for instance, (1) the cross-species transmission of infectious diseases using a rabies model; and (2) floating aggregates of organic material (called “marine snow”) as protective transports for pathogenic microorganisms, affecting water sampling outcomes and the transmission of waterborne diseases.

Annual NSF investments deliver a steady stream of discoveries that help fight costly infectious diseases of humans, other animals, and plants. Recent NSF supported research findings include:

Stress-response genes in tuberculosis bacteria switch the pathogen into its dormant state within an infected host, increasing resistance to antibiotics and host immunity.

  • The corkscrew-shape of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, linked to ulcers and gastric cancer, is specifically tied to the microbe’s ability to colonize the acid-laden stomach.
  • Microbial pathogens can hijack nutrient pathways in rice plants by using previously undiscovered plant cell pores that transport sugar out of the plant. Other researchers found a genetic mutation that allows plants to better withstand drought.
  • A nanotechnology based diagnostic test for Mycoplasma pneumoniae can diagnose this common type of pneumonia within minutes, versus current tests that take several days.
  • An international team will use a new technology called MHC tetramers to develop novel vaccines against cattle diseases that cause estimated annual losses of $40 billion in sub-Saharan Africa, to quickly screen potential vaccines in the laboratory.

NSF Directorates for Geosciences, Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences

The ASM supports the Administration’s FY 2012 proposed NSF funding for research activities at the Engineering Directorate (ENG), the Geosciences Directorate (GEO) and the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS).

The ENG Directorate recognizes the centrality of engineering principles and multidisciplinary research to national priorities, including sustainability, the U.S. cyberinfrastructure, next generation manufacturing practices and technologies that mitigate environmental threats. ENG programs in clean energy and advanced manufacturing will also contribute to the FY 2012 activities in the NSF wide BioMaPS investment. Within the ENG request, the Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) will support sustainability research and education related to climate, water and energy as part of the Agency wide SEES initiative.

Increasingly, biology and engineering are collaborating to find solutions to societal, environmental, and economic challenges. Recent NSF funded examples are: (1) computer modeling to predict how bacteria would respond to different drug doses and which doses are most effective in patients, to radically shorten drug development; and (2) potential drugs against HIV identified by combining optimization theory from mathematics with computational biology, with a formula based on statistical thermodynamics that predicts which drug structure would be most effective.

The Geosciences Directorate provides about 68 percent of federal support for basic geosciences at the nation’s academic institutions, and is clearly a decisive player in research and education often ignored by other funding sources. GEO funds studies of the atmosphere and the oceans that increase our understanding of climate change, improve water quality and offer potential prediction of natural disasters, such as drought and earthquakes. Major FY 2012 GEO investments will include continued participation in the SEES initiative, with the Division of Earth Sciences (EAR) leading GEO efforts toward clean energy and contributing to sustainability research networks. Current EAR funding opportunities also include paleobiology studies of past changes in the Earth’s environments that might inform present day challenges. In the past year, as examples, EAR supported studies concluded that cyanobacteria producing oxygen helped create a breathable atmosphere on Earth some 2.5 billion years ago; while comparisons of modern microbial mats with fossilized bacterial colonies provide clues to ancient cell biology.

Many of today’s innovations in science and technology are powered by increasingly complex mathematical and statistical capabilities. The modest FY 2012 increase proposed, however, for the MPS Directorate is barely adequate to sustain MPS efforts that reach across NSF, for example, SEES and BioMaPS programs as well as the new Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering (CIF21). There have been extraordinary changes in how science is done: explosions of data, the mandate for faster and larger networks among researchers, rapidly advancing technologies, many of which rely upon MPS funded discoveries. NSF provides more than 60 percent of federal support for basic mathematics at US colleges and universities; in certain specialties, the percentage is much higher. In addition, MPS frequently coordinates with other NSF directorates in activities such as the quest for renewable fuels, biosensors, and advanced imaging. MPS and BIO recently issued a joint solicitation for grant proposals involving collaborations among investigators from the biological, mathematical and physical sciences that “foster new interactions that span interfaces between MPS and BIO.”

Conclusion

The ASM recommends that Congress approve the Administration’s FY 2012 budget for the NSF which is the only federal Agency that supports all fields of science and engineering. As the principal sponsor of research and education in multiple disciplines, NSF investment undoubtedly catalyzes innovation essential our society and economy. The Agency’s focus on high risk, interdisciplinary research clearly traverses the frontiers of discovery. NSF programs, such as the new Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE), uniquely encourage emerging fields, including synthetic biology. For decades, the NSF has helped train the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and partnered industry and academia to generate a long list of new technologies and patented products. Congressional approval of the FY 2012 budget would sustain the NSF’s many contributions to the nation’s scientific achievements.

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