March 29, 2006 – ASM Sends Letter to Congress Regarding FY 2007 Funding of Astrobiology Programs

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) would like to express its concern over the proposed fiscal year (FY) 2007 funding level for the Astrobiology Research and Analysis program (ARA) sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the impact that a cut of 50 percent, approximately $33 million, will have on support for basic research.

The ASM is the premier educational and scientific society dedicated to the advancement of microbiological research and its application for the common good. The Society represents more than 42,000 microbiologists, including scientists in academic, industrial and government institutions, working in a variety of areas, including public health, medical, genomic, molecular, environmental and food microbiology.

In its efforts to search for and understand the distribution of extraterrestrial life, NASA has supported numerous highly successful research programs that emphasize microbial biology. Such programs are essential for the goals of Astrobiology and the “Vision for Space Exploration”, since it is widely accepted that microorganisms may be the most common extraterrestrial life forms. In addition, extraterrestrial microbial activities could provide compelling evidence for past or present life through readily detectable biotic transformations of minerals and planetary atmospheres.

NASA’s pioneering Astrobiology program in particular has sponsored broad, interdisciplinary research efforts that have defined prospects for extraterrestrial life, and added substantially to our understanding of the profoundly important role that microbes have played in the history of life on Earth. During the development of models for understanding possible modes of extraterrestrial life, Astrobiology research has also contributed remarkable new insights about extant terrestrial life. Novel findings, such as those about microbial life in Earth’s deep sub-surface layers, have helped guide extraterrestrial exploration while expanding our ability to solve challenges posed by the impact of human activities, such as, pollution of sub-surface environments.

In addition, Astrobiology research programs have helped transform the conduct of science by promoting “brick-and-mortar-free” NASA Astrobiology Institutes (NAI) that address fundamental problems by bringing together groups of investigators representing diverse disciplines and many locales. The NAI currently supports more than 70 leading Ph.D.-level microbial biologists in institutional teams led by 16 different institutions and astrobiology funding has benefited students and scientists in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. These scientists are training students, at over 670 secondary and post secondary education institutions, who will collectively increase US competitiveness in critical fields in life and Earth sciences. Just as it is essential to maintain human infrastructure in engineering for the instruments and vehicles that explore space, it is equally essential to maintain the infrastructure of scientists who can interpret the observations and can determine what to explore.

The ASM strongly recommends that full funding should be restored to $65 million for NASA’s astrobiology programs because they:
  • support research that is unique within the portfolio of federally sponsored research programs; no other federal agency funds research that can support basic NASA science missions;
  • integrate cutting-edge research questions and methods from multiple, often distinct disciplines, ensure successful integration of these disciplines, and foster synthetic analyses that create new knowledge about fundamentally important problems;
  • provide a highly visible programmatic focus that attracts undergraduate and graduate students, and trains a new generation of microbial biologists and life scientists that is essential for NASA’s future success as well as for the Nation’s future scientific workforce and competitiveness.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide input and is prepared to help NASA meets its ambitious science goals. We are pleased to respond to any questions concerning this valuable scientific program.

Stanley Maloy, Ph.D., President, ASM
James Tiedje, Ph.D., Immediate Past President, ASM
Gary King, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Environmental Microbiology, ASM
Ruth Berkelman, M.D. Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board, ASM

Michael Griffin, Ph.D., Administrator, NASA
Mary Cleave, Ph.D., Deputy Administrator of the Office of Earth Science, NASA
Carl Pilcher, Ph.D., Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, NASA