March 22, 2013 National Science Foundation - FY 2014

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 appropriation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 37,000 members.

The National Science Foundation supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. There is no doubt that NSF funded research contributes greatly to the Nation’s economic growth and improves quality of life. Since its creation in 1950, the NSF mission has been to promote the progress of science and broadly stimulate discovery and innovation important to human welfare.

 

NSF provides more than 20 percent of federal support for basic research at US academic institutions with approximately11,000 new grant awards per year selected from over 40,000 proposals. Every year, the NSF supports at least 200,000 scientists, engineers, educators and students at universities, laboratories, and research sites throughout the United States and worldwide. NSF resources also fuel the Nation’s strategy to elevate K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), toward a science literate public and an expanded technical workforce.

 

The ASM is concerned about sequestration cuts to the NSF budget. NSF’s tradition of expending most of its budget to support extramural projects will inevitably link budget cuts to diminished research throughout the country. We urge Congress to support the NSF FY 2014 budget at the highest level possible.

 

NSF Funding Stimulates Innovation, Research and Infrastructure

 

Each year, nearly all of the NSF’s appropriation directly supports extramural STEM related activities. In the Agency’s FY 2013 budget request, 81 percent was allocated for research and related activities, 12 percent for STEM education and workforce expansion, and 3 percent for major research equipment and infrastructure construction. NSF funding of individual and institutional research collectively empowers the US research enterprise as NSF fulfills strategic goals to: “transform the frontiers and innovate for society.”

Most NSF research funding distributed each year supports US academic institutions (77 percent in FY 2013). In a recent funding cycle, NSF's share of federal funding for basic academic research in the United States included: 48 percent for physical sciences, 39 percent for engineering, 59 percent for environmental sciences, 61 percent for social sciences, 64 percent for mathematics, 64 percent for non NIH biological sciences, and 81 percent for computer sciences.   The broad scope of the NSF’s mission allows for funding to most of the nation’s academic STEM-associated departments, schools, and disciplines. In FY 2011, the NSF awarded 11,200 competitive awards to 1,875 institutions, supporting 276,000 researchers, postdoctoral fellows, trainees, teachers and students.

 

US industries commercializing STEM discoveries are increasingly reliant on scientists and engineers outside of industry for basic research. Reports like the National Science Board’s 2012 ‘Science and Engineering Indicators’ consistently point to the United States’ world class universities as incubators for economically valuable technology based products, as well as the dire need for more US students in STEM graduate programs.

 

Declines in state funding are threatening public university recruitment of top tier faculty and students, research performance and training of new scientists and engineers. According to an NSF report released in September, state per student funding for the Nation’s principal public research universities dropped an average of 20 percent between 2002 and 2010, with some states falling as much as 48 percent. NSF has a long tradition of supporting new generations of scientists and engineers. Since 1952, it has awarded 44,000 Graduate Research Fellowships. More than 200 Nobel laureates have benefited from NSF funding and include half of the 2012 winners. The FY 2013 budget request included $19 million for the NSSF Innovation Corps, among multiple programs to promote research training and careers.

NSF skillfully fosters large scale research that would be impossible without far sighted federal grant-award mechanisms. For example, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) infuses economic and intellectual resources into states and funding projects comprising multiple disciplines and institutions. Three FY 2013 examples are Alaska’s Adapting to Changing Environments project; Utah’s Urban Transitions and Arid-region Hydro-sustainability project; and Wyoming’s project to establish a research center on watershed hydrology, geophysics, remote sensing, and computational modeling. NSF support also builds research infrastructure like computational capabilities or multi user facilities such as US Antarctic stations. Last year, NSF became lead agency on the new US Ignite initiative to build, test, and explore next generation networks, to help transform US computing capabilities.

NSF Funding Expands Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge

Research in the United States becomes more expensive and complex each year. The NSF recognizes that there is unprecedented potential for innovative results. Boundaries that once defined engineering and science are dissolving into melded disciplines like geobiology and biophysics. Through NSF funding, US researchers explore science, engineering and technology in new ways that might otherwise be ignored. NSF’s inclusive vision of basic research includes both the virologist using genetic sequencing in a university laboratory and massive, difficult to resolve issues like nationwide energy needs, fragility of our environment, or recalcitrant infectious diseases.

The NSF supports clinical microbiology related research that offers public health protection, improves environments, technological advances that boost US industry, sustainable energy sources and other benefits. NSF funded projects from the past year offer examples of the contribution to basic research:

  • Some bacteria that cause deadly cholera outbreaks can resist the human immune system by changing their surface electrical charge, according to a study reported last year. Based on this newly understood mechanism, the researchers are screening potential antibiotics against the pathogen.
  • Scientists described how cytomegaloviruses (CMV) evade host immune defenses with a type of “accelerator circuit” in its DNA that allows the virus to quickly reach optimal numbers within the host cell, but stop short of killing the cell―suggesting approaches to developing new therapies against the virus. CMV infects more than half of adults worldwide and normally lies dormant within those infected.
  • University researchers reported how the movement of individual soil bacteria (Myxococcus xanthus) is amplified within bacterial colonies to build waves of motion, spreading to engulf their prey. The scientists used computer modeling, followed by time-lapse microscopy, to elucidate the collective wave motion of M. xanthus, an organism useful in the growing field of systems biology.
  • Scientists have discovered a unique symbiosis between single-celled algae and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the ocean, with algae essentially replacing missing microbial genes typically responsible for several key metabolic pathways―bacteria provide nitrogen to the algae, algae carbon to the bacteria. Genomic analysis points to a possible model for early evolution of plant organelles like choloroplasts. The unusual bacteria are likely central to global nitrogen cycles.
  • Research supported by NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Energy has described how a bacterial plant pathogen (Pseudomonas syringae) tricks a host plant with a chemical signal mimicking part of the plant’s immune system, overcoming the host’s defenses by keeping open the plant’s stomata for more bacteria to invade. P. syringae causes disease in more than 50 plant species.

NSF excels in its support of collaborative research initiatives like the relatively new Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease (EEID) program, a joint effort with NIH and the US Department of Agriculture. Focusing on the dynamics of disease transmission, EEID’s multidisciplinary research already has added to understanding the globalization of infectious disease. Among the latest projects are those investigating how human activity like land-use trends has changed patterns in vector-borne pathogens, such as those responsible for West Nile infection, Lyme disease, and dengue fever. Another will uncover the ecological and socio-economic factors behind antibiotic resistance acquired by infectious disease pathogens, examining interactions among microbes, people, and animals in relatively isolated villages of Tanzania. Other 2012 EEID awardees are studying avian influenza, computer models of disease among marine invertebrates, and leptospirosis in Brazil.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to submit comments and strongly urges that Congress fund the National Science Foundation at the highest possible level in FY 2014.

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