National Science Foundation - FY 2011 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 appropriation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with approximately 40,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well being.

The ASM strongly supports the Administration’s FY 2011 budget proposal for the NSF of $7.4 billion, an 8 percent increase over the FY 2010 appropriation.

The NSF is the only federal agency dedicated to the support of basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Since 1950, the NSF has stimulated advances in multiple disciplines, through competitive grant awards. Seventy-four percent of the NSF’s annual budget funds academic institutions, in support of approximately 241,000 scientists, students and teachers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. NSF funding has supported 187 Nobel laureates, including 21 in the last five years alone. The ASM commends Congress for increasing NSF funding over the past two years, helping to reverse the erosion of federal support for basic and applied research which declined from 64 percent to 60 percent between 2005 and 2008.  

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided additional funding that has helped NSF build on the nation’s past investment in research.  In FY 2009, the NSF evaluated over 45,000 grant proposals and made roughly 14,700 new awards, of which about 4,700 were ARRA funded.  The ARRA grants are supporting more than 6,700 investigators, including 2,350 who had not previously received NSF funding.   

Increased funding for the NSF in FY 2011 will stimulate future discoveries by NSF supported researchers at nearly 2,000 US institutions. The latest NSF report on science and engineering indicators, indicates that US global R&D competitiveness is at risk. The United States accounts for about one-third of the $1.1 trillion in annual global R&D expenditures. However, US growth in R&D funding averaged 5 to 6 percent annually between 1996 and 2007, while comparable growth rates in Asia were 10 to 20 percent.  In the same period, US technology export shares fell by about one third, while China’s share more than tripled.  The NSF is critical to increasing public and private investment in R&D and encouraging technology and business innovation in the United States.   

Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO)
The ASM urges congress to fund BIO with $767 million in FY 2011, a 7.5 percent increase. BIO provides about 68 percent of federal funding for nonmedical, academic basic research in the life sciences, including the environmental biology research needed to answer questions related to climate change.  In addition, BIO researchers works to find solutions to create national energy independence, as well as the development of new biologically based materials for diverse applications and better management of the environment. 

Researchers supported by NSF grants regularly make compelling discoveries that impact human health and wellbeing. Recent discoveries supported by the NSF include: (1) the isolation of one of the smallest known microbes found more than 3 km deep in an ice core and estimated to be more than 120,000 years old.  This organism will help scientists to understand and study the limits of life and will also provide important information on the functionality of biomolecules in cold temperatures. (2)  Research involving a representative legume, a group of plants that collectively feed one third of the world’s population. This has revealed a crucial control of the symbiosis through which a certain bacteria fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere in a form useful for plants.  This research may lead to significant improvements in agricultural production and reduced dependence on fertilizers that require fossil fuels for production. (3) Researchers have used the growth responses of a common bacterium in stressful conditions as the basis for developing mathematical models to illuminate the complex decision making behavior of humans.  The responses of some microbes provide valuable insights about the kinds of processes that humans use in a range of activities from politics to economics. 

The BIO funding portfolio reflects the ongoing evolution of biology from once distinct disciplines into multi faceted interdisciplinary programs comprising diverse institutions, research specialties, and mission priorities.  For example, BIO is a key contributor to the US Global Change Research Program involving thirteen US agencies, and a partner in the NSF Centers program supporting over 100 centers in seven interdisciplinary program areas.  These large collaborative programs tackle complex problems requiring significant investments in equipment, facilities, personnel and other crucial resources. 

BIO also leverages multidisciplinary expertise in its own focus areas, including its Emerging Frontiers (EF) Division, which is designed as an incubator for 21st century biology.  Programs include “Assembling the Tree of Life” (ATOL), an effort to assemble phylogenetic data for all major lineages of life, and “Ecology of Infectious Diseases” (EID), which includes goals to develop better predictive models of disease transmission. Recently awarded EID grants include spatial modeling of onchocerciasis in Africa by remote sensing, epidemiology of leptospirosis in Latin America, the role of environment and direct transmission in chronic wasting disease, and incidence gradients in Lyme disease in the eastern United States. 

BIO has also developed a major new multidisciplinary initiative, “Dimensions in Biodiversity” that is intended to dramatically transform what we know and how we perceive Earth’s living systems.

The ASM supports the Administration’s funding level of $20 million for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) in FY 2011.  NEON is an EF initiative and the first observatory of its kind.  Designed to detect and enable forecasting of ecological changes, NEON will use cutting edge technology to collect data on climate change at 62 sites across the United States.  It also will incorporate data from airborne observations, land use studies, invasive species studies and on site experiments.  The proposed $20 million for NEON represents the first year of a five year project, with construction scheduled to begin this fiscal year and completion expected in FY 2016.  The data collected will be available to all users, serving a diverse constituency, and will help scientists forecast change at continental scales over multiple decades.

Directorates of Geosciences, Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences                                       
The ASM urges congress to fund the Geosciences Directorate (GEO) the Engineering Directorate (ENG), and the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS), with the Administration’s proposed increases of 7.4 percent, 11 percent, and 4.3 percent, respectively.

The Geosciences Directorate encompasses wide ranging research activities that study living systems within the changing physical environment.  For example, GEO supports the new Water Sustainability and Climate initiative that will understand and predict interactions among water quality and climate change, land use, present day water systems and services, and ecosystem characteristics.  Within GEO, the Division of Earth Sciences (EAR) supports research that examines the shifting relationships between living and non living systems.  The ongoing Continental Dynamics Program, for example, is identifying links between the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere, funding large projects drawing from multiple disciplines.  EAR funded research recently resulted in a discovery by geomicrobiologists that microbes living as biofilms in dark, oxygen free caves produce energy through previously unknown mechanisms that are still being studied.  In an exploration of deep-sea venting systems, other researchers have shown that rare members of microbial communities can become dominant members; this result has broad implications for understanding the importance of microbial biodiversity in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 

NSF funding accounts for 39 percent of academic basic research in all engineering fields and is a significant contributor to the knowledge base and workforce development essential for US economic vitality.  Through advances in innovative biosensors, biomaterials, bioimaging, waste and water treatment, food engineering and more, the Engineering Directorate’s Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems Division (CBET) funds research that affects industry, including those producing pharmaceuticals, food, and medical devices.  This year, CBET is soliciting new grant proposals for its Biosensing Program, targeting identification and detection of existing or emerging pathogenic microorganisms and toxins, as well as smart field deployable molecular sentinels for monitoring food, water, and air quality. 

Support of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate is critical to all scientific disciplines, as innovation increasingly depends on state of the art cybertools and computational techniques.  NSF underwrites 65 percent of basic academic research in mathematics, 47 percent in physical sciences and 82 percent in computer sciences.  Efforts in molecular biology, genomics and metagenomics, predictive infectious disease modeling, high volume drug discovery, and other fields now require collection and evaluation of massive amounts of data. MPS supports the development of new and innovative mathematical and statistical methods to better evaluate DNA sequence data.  For example, MPS recently requested that researchers work to find new and improved mathematical and statistical methods to better evaluate an exponential increase in DNA sequence information for biological threats.  

In addition, MPS funding for FY 2011 will boost the directorate’s broad impact programs. Including the Science and Engineering Beyond Moore’s Law (SEBML) initiative to overcome current limits in communications and computation capability.  MPS will also contribute to a new NSF wide priority investment, Science and Engineering Education for Sustainable Well Being (SEES), designed to integrate NSF’s existing efforts in climate and energy research with new education and cyber based activities. 

Workforce Development and Training
The ASM supports increased funding allocated to strengthen the NSF’s own workforce, which is responsible for administering programs of impressive scope and complexity. For example, NSF staff facilitated nearly 239,000 proposal reviews in FY 2009, involving almost 46,000 external reviewers.  

NSF supports the nation’s goal of advanced training and education in science and engineering through its extensive system of fellowships, training grants, and investigator grants that benefit both graduate and undergraduate students. Training tomorrow’s technical workforce is vital to sustaining and enhancing the nation’s scientific and economic competitiveness.  To promote greater STEM training, NSF’s FY 2011 funding opportunities include:  Interdisciplinary Training for Undergraduates in Biological and Mathematical Sciences (a joint BIO/MPS program); Cyberinfrastructure Training, Education, Advancement, and Mentoring for Our 21st Century Workforce (CI-TEAM); and a new program, Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduates in STEM.  The success of these programs relies on adequate, consistent and long term funding in FY 2011 and beyond.  

The National Science Foundation supports multiple research disciplines and its far-sighted approaches to research at the frontiers of discovery have pushed the nation toward ever greater scientific achievements.  The ASM urges Congress to provide and 8 percent increase for the NSF to ensure that basic and applied research in the United States is sustained in FY 2011 and beyond.  

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY2011 appropriation for the National Science Foundation.