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AIBS Comments on President's Grand Challenges of the 21st Century

April 15, 2010

Dr. John Holdren, Director
Office of Science and Technology Policy
727 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20502

Re: Request for comments regarding grand challenges (75 FR 5634)

Dear Dr. Holdren,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Administration's Grand Challenges of the 21st Century. The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is a nonprofit scientific association dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. AIBS is sustained by a robust membership of individual biologists and nearly 200 professional societies and scientific organizations representing the breadth of the biological sciences. The combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 250,000.

In the report "Strategy for American Innovation," President Obama proposed a plan for fostering the innovation economy of the future. As the Administration moves forward with efforts to prioritize the scientific and engineering challenges that will constitute the strategy, several additional areas should be included in the plan. Food security, healthy ecosystems, cataloging biodiversity, and access to scientific data are all grand challenges for the 21st century.

Improving Food Security

A growing world population, increased energy demands, degraded agricultural lands, and a rapidly changing climate are straining our capacity to produce an adequate, healthy, and sustainable food supply. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, we must increase global food production by 70 percent by the year 2050 if we are to meet the demands of the world's growing population. In 2009, the National Research Council recognized food security as a grand challenge in the report, A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution. The report stated: "A better fundamental understanding of plant growth and productivity, as well as of how plants can be conditioned or bred to tolerate extreme conditions and adapt to climate change, will be key components in increasing food production and nutrition in all areas of agriculture to meet the needs of 8.4 billion people by 2030 (Census Bureau, 2008), while allowing adequate land for energy production and environmental services."

The United States is a leader in agricultural research. Through the research activities of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we have increased crop productivity, addressed pest outbreaks, and created drought-tolerant crops. These efforts, particularly through USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, should be expanded. By increasing collaboration among scientific disciplines and between American and international scientists, we can work to end world hunger while exploring energy production from some biofuels and addressing the domestic obesity problem. These efforts would also yield economic returns. According to USDA's Economic Research Service, each dollar invested in agricultural research returns approximately $10 in benefits.

Restoring and Protecting Ecosystem Health and Services

Whether producing commodities (e.g. timber or fish), purifying water and air, or providing recreational opportunities, ecosystem services from properly functioning environmental systems are essential to everyone. Collectively, biological systems provide trillions of dollars in ecosystem services each year. Unfortunately, as you are well aware, overuse and degradation of some systems has produced real environmental problems. As noted in A New Biology for the 21st Century, "Fundamental advances in knowledge and a new generation of tools and technologies are needed to understand how ecosystems function, measure ecosystem services, allow restoration of damaged ecosystems, and minimize harmful impacts of human activities and climate change."

Understanding ecosystems and the services they provide is essential if we are to develop sustainable models of natural resource use and responsible environmental stewardship. Federal agencies, such as the United States Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conduct or support important ecosystem research and monitoring programs. These efforts can help the nation and the world address climate change, improve human health, and build a green economy based on carbon neutral fuels. A significant and sustained federal investment in the research and monitoring programs of these agencies would drive innovation, create jobs, and contribute to the resolution of our grand environmental challenges.

Cataloguing Biodiversity

Biological products and genetic resources identified or derived from living organisms contribute to the economy. One-quarter to one-half of all pharmaceuticals are derived from biological products. Naturally-derived medications like taxol are helping to fight cancer. Modern agriculture is based upon domesticated species, which continue to be modified through the introduction of genes from wild populations. Living organisms are also catalysts for advancements in materials science, such as the development of adhesives that can be used underwater or the creation of bulletproof vests from spider silk. With countless new discoveries waiting to be made, it would be wise to make a sustained and significant investment in a coordinated effort to identify and study the planet's biological diversity.

The nation's scientific collections are one of our greatest resources for understanding biological diversity. Natural science collections, which include biological specimens ranging from organisms to tissue and cell samples to proteins and genes, are records of the diversity and history of life on Earth. Indeed, the important contribution of scientific collections to our nation's research infrastructure was recognized by the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections: "...scientific collections are essential to supporting agency missions and are thus vital to supporting the global research enterprise."

The United States should strive to discover and document all living species within its borders and to work with international partners to do the same throughout the world. A key aspect of these efforts will be the digitization of object-based scientific collections, which will provide researchers and students with greater access to specimens and data. Additionally, if we were to digitally capture the specimens and associated data currently in our nation's scientific collections, this knowledge could be made available to students learning in the digital libraries envisioned by the President.

Although the National Science Foundation has invested in this area, the federal investment is insufficient to meet the need. Funding will help the scientific community ensure access to and proper curation of irreplaceable biological specimens and the associated data, and will stimulate innovative new computer systems, digitization technologies, and database management tools. A sustained investment in this programmatic area will advance science and cultivate new technologies and economic markets.

Making Federal Data Available

The federal government maintains data on weather, health, natural resources, and other topics. The Administration has initiated efforts to make more of these valuable data sets available to the public. Despite these efforts, many other data sets compiled by federal agencies are not available online or have not yet been transcribed into an electronic format. This information, if made available in an easily accessible format, would advance our nation's research enterprise.

Making federally-managed data available to the public would facilitate interdisciplinary research that could contribute to the President's stated grand challenges in human health. These data could be incorporated into classrooms around the country as part of research-driven learning experiences. In order to realize these benefits, the Office of Science and Technology Policy should lead an effort to work with federal agencies to prioritize the inclusion of data and to set data format standards. Although the launch of data.gov was an important first step, more work remains.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments. If AIBS may provide further assistance to you on this or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact me or AIBS Director of Public Policy Dr. Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500.

Sincerely,

Richard T. O'Grady, Ph.D.
Executive Director

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