March 28, 2012 - National Science Foundation - FY 2013

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 appropriation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with about 38,000 members. The ASM endorses the Administration’s FY 2013 request of $7.373 billion for NSF, a 4.8 percent increase over the FY 2012 level.  For over 60 years, NSF grants have been responsible for breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), sponsoring research with economic benefits and providing opportunities to train new generations of STEM professionals. 

US global competitiveness in science and technology can only be sustained by increased resources devoted to research and development (R&D). In NSF’s most recent biennial Science & Engineering Indicators report, US investment in R&D declined during the 1999–2009 period relative to other nations’ investments. It is critical that funding be increased for the NSF because it is the primary source of federal research funding in multiple STEM disciplines.

Each year, NSF distributes funds to about 1,900 colleges, universities, and other US institutions. This year NSF will support about 285,000 researchers, postdoctoral fellows and other trainees, teachers, and students.  In FY 2013, it expects to make more than 12,000 new awards selected from over 55,000 submitted research proposals. The NSF is responsible for 61 percent of the total federal budget for basic academic research.

The NSF FY 2013 budget will support the American Competitiveness Initiative and the National Bioeconomy Blueprint designed to resolve issues in health, food, energy, and the environment. NSF has launched several new initiatives to accelerate innovation, including the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program to build partnerships between NSF funded researchers and the private sector.  The Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program will use sustainability science to generate important innovations in clean energy like microbial produced biofuels.

NSF funded scientists contribute new information about living organisms that benefits public health, our economy, and the environment. In the past year, NSF-supported researchers at academic institutions have reported the following results, among many others:

  • Electron microscopy and 3-D image reconstruction revealed the seahorse-shaped structure of a protein complex in Escherichia coli that can adapt to defend the bacteria against viruses and other microbial threats, indicating a bacterial immune system analogous in part to the human immune system.
  • In stressful environments, Bacillus subtilis bacteria increase their survival by pulsing genes, like those initiating cell repair, on and off, counter to previous belief that once turned on, the genes remain active.
  • Some patients develop blood infections from implanted cardiac devices because the biofilm bacteria involved have gene mutations that make the bacteria more likely to adhere to device surfaces, according to research partly funded by NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences.
  • Viruses known to infect E. coli bacteria (M13 phages) have been tricked into self-assembling as thin films with 3-D features like filaments or ridges, offering a potential nanoscale tool that might eventually lead to tissue regeneration and repair.
  • Genetic sequencing of the bacteria that cause speck disease in tomatoes (Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato), comparing isolates from 1975 and 2000, revealed that the economically important plant pathogen evolves more rapidly than expected, increasing its resistance to the tomato immune system and becoming more virulent.
  • Novel therapeutics effective against drug-resistant influenza viruses might be developed using new research on the pocket-shaped surface cavities of avian influenza viruses that are targeted by flu drugs, based on computer simulations of how these cavities move and change.
  • Scientists have sequenced the genomes of two fungal pathogens responsible for plant diseases that severely impact global food supplies, wheat stem rust and poplar leaf rust, in a six-year collaborative program involving several universities, NSF, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

NSF Funding Supports Diverse Research in Biological Sciences

The FY 2013 budget requests $733.86 million for NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO), a 3 percent increase over the enacted FY 2012 level.  We are concerned that funding for the BIO divisions has remained essentially flat since FY 2010.  BIO supported research contributes important insights and new knowledge across the wide spectrum of living organisms and systems, with obvious applications to public health.  FY 2013 funding will further current BIO strategies that emphasize cross-cutting research combining several scientific disciplines or leveraging the interfaces between the physical and biological worlds. 

Within its research portfolio, the Directorate invests in the five so-called Grand Challenges in Biology: synthesizing life-like systems; understanding the brain; predicting organisms’ characteristics from their DNA sequences; elucidating interactions between the earth, its climate and its biosphere; and understanding biological diversity.  BIO grant recipients and training programs seek answers to major problems like climate change, energy shortages, animal and plant diseases, and threats to our environment.  In FY 2013, BIO funding will be distributed among more than 18,000 scientists, students, and K–12 teachers to promote relevant research and education.

This year, the first test sites in the NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will be operational.  NEON is a unique research infrastructure that will study all biological entities identified in large geographic areas over extended periods.  Included in NEON research will be numerous studies of microbial communities, their responses to environmental change, and how they can be utilized in useful ways.  Another large-scale NSF project with microbe-based components is the agency wide SEES program, distributing grants in bioremediation and microbial genetics.

BIO provides about 62 percent of federal funding for non-medical basic research in the life sciences at academic institutions and supports important microbial research.  Over the past two years, BIO has awarded over 580 grants worth about $111 million to microbiology related projects, which have advanced basic and applied microbiology, such as new ways to produce drugs against infectious diseases and potential remediation methods to clean polluted environments. 

The Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease (EEID) program is a joint BIO effort in partnership with USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The principal focus is the dynamics of disease transmission, and the program supports academic research on the ecological, evolutionary, and socio-ecological processes that determine the spread of diseases. Through this program, NSF multidisciplinary research is creating inventive approaches to controlling infectious diseases.  Potential grantees are encouraged to utilize investigative teams of physicians, veterinarians, food scientists, virologists, and multiple other specialists in their proposals. 

Last year, EEID-funded researchers identified the mosquito and bird species most responsible for West Nile virus transmission and linked bacteria in human sewage to white pox disease that is killing elkhorn coral in the Caribbean.  Recently funded EEID projects include studies of the transmission of brucellosis among bison in Yellowstone Park, the spread of the fungal disease white-nose syndrome among hibernating bats, and how wildfires and extreme droughts affect the spread of the infectious plant disease called sudden oak death that has attacked millions of trees in California and Oregon. EEID’s mission encompasses the varied factors that determine transmission of diseases to humans, non-human animals, and plants, enabling research in infectious disease not replicated elsewhere.

NSF Funding Supports Basic Research in Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences

The NSF supports interdisciplinary studies in all STEM fields as the boundaries have become increasingly blurred among biological, physical, and computing sciences. The Directorate for Engineering (ENG) would receive $873.33 million, an increase of 6.1 percent; the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO), $906.44 million (2.4 percent); and the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS), $1,345.18 million (2.8 percent). 

The Directorate for Geosciences, which provides about 55 percent of federal funding for basic geosciences research, supports  diverse academic studies of the global environment.  GEO funded research, scientist training, and education contribute new knowledge about the oceans, our atmosphere, water quality, and other environmental systems.  GEO funds help underwrite observatories, ocean drilling projects, and other large-scale programs that would be unlikely without NSF support.  The resulting research also has added to our understanding of natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes. Geochemists’ identified microbes in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that ingest natural gases like methane and ethane at cold temperatures, which should inform future contaminant remediation.

The Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences provides half of the federal funding for basic research at academic institutions.  Its contributions to the SEES program include grant awards for sustainable chemistry research.  MPS recently appointed a committee of external experts, called NSF Materials 2022, to develop future research strategies in materials science that will undoubtedly utilize biological systems among others.  In FY 2013, MPS also will continue its partnership with the BIO and ENG directorates in the Research at the Interface of the Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences (BioMaPS) program, which integrates biological, engineering, mathematical, and physical sciences to study naturally occurring networks. BioMaPS-funded projects generate bio-based materials, through new approaches to manufacturing devices and platforms.  MPS funding for this creative program would increase 50 percent in FY 2013, recognition of the potential contributions from mathematical and physical sciences to technologies like bioimaging, renewable fuels, and biosensors. 

The Directorate for Engineering contributes about 35 percent of federal funding for basic engineering research at academic institutions. Bioengineering research offers exciting new solutions to challenges faced in health care, environmental stewardship, and the US economy.  The Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET) underwrites SEES related research and education aimed toward sustainability in water, climate, and energy.  The CBET research portfolio includes emerging specialties like biosensing and investigations that involve engineers, life scientists, and bioinformatics experts. 

Conclusion  

The ASM recommends that Congress approve the Administration’s FY 2013 budget request for the National Science Foundation, the nation’s principal sponsor of basic research in crucial technical areas.  It is important that Congress sustain NSF’s proven successes in STEM-related research and education.  By funding academic research, NSF serves the public as a partner in achieving our national imperative to enhance discovery and innovation across STEM disciplines. 

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