National Science Foundation - FY 1999 Testimony

The ASM, a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), supports the coalition's recommendation to provide the NSF with an increase of $344 million or 10 percent over its FY 1998 funding level. This increase would raise the NSF's overall budget from $3.429 billion in FY1998 to $3.773 billion in FY 1999. NSF's mission is to promote and advance scientific, mathematical, and engineering research and education in the United States by funding the highest quality academic research and education programs. A 10 percent increase would enable NSF to support additional excellent research projects in pursuit of important discoveries and innovations. Enhanced support for the NSF's efforts to improve education will help expand our nation's intellectual capital. Strong links between research and education are essential to a healthy research enterprise, an educated public, and a well trained future workforce.

Microorganisms surround us and affect our lives in many ways. They play key roles in processing our wastes, recycling the nutrients that support our agriculture, forests and fisheries, yield new pharmaceuticals, provide key tools for biotechnology, affect the quality of our food and water, control some pests (biocontrol), and cause disease. NSF is to be complemented for recognizing a few years ago the important role microorganisms play in our well-being and in opportunities for basic science advances through its Microbial Biology initiative. This led to new programs such as LExEN (Life in Extreme Environments), which ASM applauds. However, NSF needs to continue on its current trajectory to properly represent microbiology in its program areas, and achieve better balance in its biological program areas now underrepresented in microbiology research.

New advances in science have provided new opportunities and needs in microbiology research which should be considered in NSF programming. These areas are the following.

Genomics Research

More than a dozen microbial genomes have now been completely sequenced and many more are underway. This information fundamentally changes the approach to research and what can be learned about an organism. Microorganisms, being the simplest forms of life, are the first in which the roles of all genes can potentially be understood. To maximize the value of the genome sequencing effort, NSF should expand its research in functional genomics and associated genomic areas. This should extend beyond the more obvious areas of molecular biology and genetics to the areas of ecology, taxonomy and population biology for example, so that the value of genomics is more fully realized. ASM strongly endorses NSF's functional genomics and Knowledge Networking (KN) programs and requests that microbially focused efforts be an important part of these and other programs.

Integration of Microbial Databases

Because of the small size of microorganisms, information of all types, including sequence, phenotype, function, chemistry and habitat is needed to efficiently understand and identify an organism. Such information is of value not only to the researcher, but also to the technician wanting to rapidly diagnose a disease, to the quality control technician, to the patent office and to the researcher in the pharmaceutical industry. The jobs of these and others would be more efficient if microbial data were available in an integrated electronic database. The ASM endorses the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Report, "Teaming With Life," which calls for a minimum of $40 million per year investment for each of the next five years for the next generation National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII). Microbial databases are a particularly critical portion of this need. The NSF also proposes a new postdoctoral program in bioinformatics. Cross-disciplinary training is urgent if we are to wisely manage the variety of microbiological data, and ASM strongly supports this new initiative.

Microbial Biodiversity

Only a few percent of the microorganisms on earth are known, leaving microorganisms as the largest untapped source of biodiversity. New drugs, enzymes, biocontrol and bioremediation agents are examples of the economic potential in the discovery of this biodiversity. The NSF's proposed Microbial Observatories Program focused on observing, recovering, and understanding microbes in diverse environments will be an important aid to this goal. Efforts are also needed to advance the systematic, ecological, biochemical, and evolutionary understanding of particularly unique, newly discovered microbes. The ASM supports the additional PCAST recommendations for a $130 million effort over three years on the Discovery of New Species.

The above major programmatic needs and other advances in science have also changed the infrastructure needs of the biological researcher. The ASM recommends that the NSF initiate planning for the infrastructure and training requirements for biological scientists in the 21st century. This should include plans for centralized infrastructure, e.g., databases, specialized equipment, cross-disciplinary training needs, financing strategies, partnerships with other countries and interfaces with advances in science funded by other directorates.

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 supports fundamental basic research. United States leadership in science and technology is dependent on sufficient funding for basic research. Most of today's scientific achievements in areas such as bioremediation, technology to clean up oil spills and industrial pollution, the development of new antibiotics and drugs, biopesticides, and biotechnology all have their roots in basic research. The many future public health and environmental challenges the United States will face can only be overcome through the potential of basic research to generate crucial new scientific knowledge and advancements that lead to new technologies for the future.