April 21, 2017
House Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies
The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) appreciates the opportunity to provide testimony in support of fiscal year (FY) 2018 appropriations for the National Science Foundation (NSF). We encourage Congress to provide the NSF with at least $8 billion in FY 2018.
The American Institute of Biological Sciences is the national scientific organization that promotes the use of science to inform decision-making that advances biology for the benefit of science and society. Established in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS has been an independent, member-governed organization since the 1950s. The combined membership and staff of our more than 130 member organizations exceeds 200,000 individuals.
Biological research is in our national interest. Increasing our knowledge of how genes, cells, tissues, organisms, and ecosystems function is vitally important to efforts to improve the human condition. Food security, medicine and public health, bio- and national security, and sound environmental management are all informed by biological research.
Biological research strengthens our economy. The translation of biological research into formal and informal education programs fosters the development of the scientifically and technically informed workforce employers seek. Federal research programs, especially the NSF, are important engines powering our nation's economic growth. Over the past 50 years, roughly half of the economic growth at private businesses in the United States has resulted from advances in knowledge resulting from research and development. In the last decade, 80,000 U.S. patents were based on discoveries arising from research initially funded by the NSF. Additionally, data show that employers continue to seek workers with scientific and technical skills. Since 1960, growth in U.S. employment in science and engineering has outpaced growth in total employment, increasing at an average rate of 3 percent per year.
Through competitive, merit reviewed research programs, the NSF invests in the development of new knowledge and tools that solve the most challenging problems facing society.
- Combating emerging diseases: Long before Zika virus made headlines in the United States, the NSF was supporting research to study the environmental and social factors that put people at risk from diseases carried by mosquitos, to understand the physiology and life cycles of disease vectors, to model the spread of mosquito-born disease, and to understand the evolution of insecticide resistance. These research findings enabled public health officials to respond quickly when an outbreak of Zika virus started in the U.S. in late 2015.
- Enabling synthetic biology: Editing DNA and constructing cells may seem like science fiction, but scientists are now able to rewrite genetic code and redesign biological systems. The NSF funds research on how these techniques can be used to biomanufacture new materials, for example.
- Controlling invasive species: NSF-supported fundamental research on population biology and ecosystems provides the knowledge required to inform efficient strategies to combat economically harmful invasive species. Such research has shed light on the variable rates of spread of invasive species, the mechanisms by which invasive species have triggered mass extinctions in the past, and informed calculations of the true costs of invasive species.
- Mobilizing big data: Access to and analysis of vast amounts of data is driving innovation. The NSF enables integration of big data across scientific disciplines, including applications in the biological sciences. Digitization of natural science collections involves multi-disciplinary teams, which have put more than 95 million specimens and their associated data online for use by researchers, educators, and the public.
Other examples of federally funded research that has benefited the public are chronicled in a 2016 AIBS report, "Biological Innovation: Benefits of Federal Investments in Biology," which is available at https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/biological_innovation_report.html.
The NSF also plays a central role in recruitment and training of our next generation of scientists. Support for science education for undergraduate and graduate students is critically important to our research enterprise. Students learn science by doing science, and NSF programs engage students in the research process.
Initiatives such as the Graduate Research Fellowship and the Faculty Early Career Development program are important parts of our national effort to recruit and retain the best and brightest researchers. Other programs, such as the NSF Research Traineeship and Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology, provide opportunities to train biologists in high priority areas like data-enabled science and research using biological collections.
The NSF is an important supporter of biological research infrastructure, such as field stations, natural history collections, and living stock collections. Such place-based research enables studies that take place over long time periods and variable spatial scales.
To fully realize the benefits of NSF-supported research and to remain at the forefront of innovation, the government must make new and sustained investments in the NSF. Unpredictable swings in funding can disrupt research programs, create uncertainty in the research community, and stall the development of the next great idea.
Funding rates have become "dangerously low," according to the NSF. When pre-proposals are taken into account, the funding rate for some program areas within the Directorate for Biological Sciences are in the single digits. The NSF is the primary federal funding source for biological research at our nation's universities and colleges, providing 68 percent of extramural federal support for non-medical, fundamental biological and environmental research at academic institutions. Competition is good, but when success rates fall this low many scientists become demoralized and begin to look for alternative pursuits.
Funding the NSF at $8 billion in FY 2018 is a step toward resolving the issues that slow scientific discovery. We also ask Congress to maintain its longstanding commitment to allow the NSF to set funding levels for research directorates.
Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this request and for your prior efforts on behalf of science and the National Science Foundation.
Read more AIBS Position Statements