National Science Foundation - FY 1998 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprising more than 42,000 members, welcomes the opportunity to testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies and provide comments and recommendations for the fiscal year (FY) 1998 appropriations for the scientific research programs within the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The ASM is made up of scientists who work in academic, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research on problems related to human health, the environment, agriculture, and energy. The mission of ASM 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.

The ASM welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Administration's FY 1998 budget request for the National Science Foundation. The NSF's long standing record in fostering basic research has provided the critical foundation for advancing the health of the nation's people, environment and economy. Federal support for the NSF is an investment that creates and strengthens the economic growth of the United States and allows the United States to remain competitive in a global market. The President's FY 1998 budget request for the NSF of $3.367 billion is only 3 percent or $97 million, more than was appropriated in FY 1997. Based on the rate of inflation, which is approximately 2.6 percent, the NSF would be level funded for the next fiscal year under the President's request. At the same time, our global competitors have made commitments to increase funding for science and technology. For example, Japan has committed to increase its support for basic research over the next five years by 50 percent. The United States may be in danger of losing its lead in science and technology as the 21st century approaches if it does not increase federal funding for basic research.

The ASM, a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) and its steering committee, supports the CNSF's recommendation of $3.5 billion for the NSF in FY 1998, an increase of 7.1 percent over the FY 1997 appropriation. NSF Director Neal Lane stated before this Subcommittee that the NSF's original budget request was $3.5 billion, a funding level that would allow the United States to remain a world leader in the area of science and technology. The ASM is deeply concerned with the inadequacy of the President's NSF budget request and its impact on the NSF's ability to meet the scientific challenges of the 21st century. The ASM urges this Subcommittee to support the CNSF's recommendation of $3.5 billion for the NSF in FY 1998. New initiatives within the NSF reflect the partnership between research and education and the need to encourage research in new areas of science. The ASM applauds NSF's proactive stance to promote research across disciplines that will lead to the development of information technologies in order to unify experimental and theoretical concepts. A program called Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI). KDI is an effort designed to realize the full potential of emerging technologies in communications, computing and networking and revolutionize science and engineering and the way people learn and work. The new Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) initiative will spearhead the need to provide graduate students with multi-disciplinary research and educational training opportunities. G raduate students will benefit from IGERT through broader training and greater flexibility in attaining future employment. A focused program begun in FY 1997, Life in Extreme Environments (LExEN), is a critical component in understanding the interplay between microorganisms, plants and animals in earth's environment and how humans impact the microbial world. The study of life in extreme environments can provide important new insights into how microorganisms evolve, and the extent their adaptive mechanisms allow them to function in their environments. Once researchers are able to understand these mechanisms, they will be able to employ them in other capacities such as in bioprocessing and bioremediation.

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 and the diversity of microorganisms, an initiative begun in FY 1996 under the auspices of the NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). For years, research efforts have concentrated on the study of microbes in human and animal health. The unknown microbial biomass 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. These advances are based on understanding the molecular basis of microbial physiology and the genetics of viral, yeast and bacterial plasmid vectors. Future accomplishments and their application to increased agricultural productivity (an important by-product of biotechnology) will not be possible without NSF funded basic research.

The NSF is one of the few government agencies that funds basic research. Leadership by the United States in opening new avenues of science and technology will be lost without sufficient funding for basic research. Most of today's scientific achievements in areas such as global warming, bioremediation of oil spills and industrial pollution, new antibiotics and drugs, biopesticides, and gene therapy, are the outgrowths of basic research. The United States is faced today with many challenges that can be met only through the potential of basic research to generate the crucial new scientific knowledge required to advance the welfare of all people worldwide.

New knowledge is required in order to address a broad range of societal problems including those inherent in the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, new infectious diseases facing the human population and the agricultural community, and environmental pollution. The NSF plays a critical role in furthering our basic understanding of molecular and cellular processes. NSF-supported research can unravel the basic, molecular complexities of many health issues including cancer, aging, developmental abnormalities, and the body's immune response. There is a long history of outstanding achievements by NSF-funded investigators, namely:

DNA in living organisms is the blueprint for making all the organism's protein. A large portion of DNA, known as "junk DNA," in most organisms is not used for proteins and appeared for a long time to have no function. Recently, however, researchers have determined that junk DNA has a very important function. In certain situations, it is involved in assuring that, when a cell divides into two daughter cells, two copies of each chromosome find their way into each daughter cell. This is the first time researchers have identified a function for junk DNA and it may have far-reaching impacts. For instance, developmental abnormalities, such as Down Syndrome in humans, are caused by the presence of more than two copies of one of the chromosomes. Researchers can now examine the role of junk DNA and define ways to avoid such abnormalities.

Researchers supported by NSF have identified a gene in a common weed that allows the plant to extract iron from soil whenever it is starved for the essential nutrient. This discovery has important implications for both crop yields and human nutrition. Iron deficiency is the leading nutritional disorder in people worldwide. Most people get their daily iron supply in the form of plant foods. By understanding how plants absorb iron, researchers could develop crops that are more efficient users of iron in soil and richer sources of iron in foods.

Plants have a remarkable capacity to filter or metabolize large amounts of particular pollutants. Scientists have used this capacity to clean up contaminated soils, a process known as phytoremediation. Now, with genetic engineering, it is possible to engineer "super-remediators." NSF-supported scientists have isolated and transferred a bacterial gene that converts the ionic form of mercury into a less toxic metallic form. The resulting plants can survive in contaminated soil with a relatively high level of mercury. Studies to expand this research to other toxic heavy metals are underway.

Investing in basic research is an investment in the future. The ASM urges this Subcommittee to support a budget of $3.5 billion, a 7.1 percent increase, for the NSF in FY 1998.