NSF Assistant Director Discusses BIO Research and Infrastructure Investments with the NSB

On November 8, 2016, the NSF’s Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, presented to the National Science Board an overview of the BIO Directorate’s research and infrastructure investments. This is a brief summary of his major talking points.

The NSF provides approximately 68 percent of federal support for basic research in biological sciences (not including support from the National Institutes of Health).

A bar graph that includes data for all science and engineering fields, physical sciences, engineering, environmental sciences, mathematic, social sciences, biology, and computer science.
NSF Support of Academic Basic Research in Selected Fields as a Percentage of Total Federal Support. “Biology” includes biological sciences and environmental biology; excludes NIH. Source: NSF/NCSES FY2014

One of the ways in which NSF ensures that basic biology achieves downstream impacts is through partnerships with other agencies, in the U.S. and internationally, and public-private partnerships; for example, with the USDA, NIH, BBSRC, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

The research supported by BIO’s Divisions crosses scales of size, space, time, and complexity.

The total FY2017 budget request for BIO is $791 million, which is about 1/10th of the NSF’s total request.

Pie chart showing the budget request for the 5 Divisions of the Biological Sciences Directorate
Directorate for Biological Sciences FY2017 Budget Request by Division

Part of the FY2017 budget request includes funds to support research across the Directorate related to the “Rules of Life” framing device which includes, but is not limited to, research focused on: the relationship between genes, the environment, and phenotype; plant and microbial sciences (microbiomes); synthetic biology; the origins of life; as well as support for quantitative, interdisciplinary approaches and resources for training and early career science. Support for projects that involve sophisticated modeling and theory development are seen as opportunities for partnerships with other NSF Directorates.

BIO’s “Rules of Life” framing device contributed to the development of the Ten Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments, specifically the “Predicting Phenotype” research challenge. Among the biggest gaps in our biological knowledge is how to predict the phenotype of a cell or organism from what we know about the genome and environment. The traits of an organism are emergent properties of multiple types of information process across multiple scales. Unpacking phenotypic complexity will require convergence across biology, computer science, mathematics, the physical sciences, behavioral sciences, and engineering.

Headline: NSF awards $15.9 million to foster new understanding of biological systems on regional to continental scales.

Some recent awards made by the BIO Directorate support research across scales, for example the MacroSystems Biology and Early NEON Science program awards. Examples of projects funded by this program include research on forest function from genes to canopies, plant-pollinator-pathogen networks, and modeling of invasion dynamics across scales.

More than a dozen initiatives constitute the “Major Investments” of BIO’s FY2017 request. Among these are Understanding the Brain, Clean Energy Technology, Microbiome, and support for training and education.

The FY2017 request for BIO’s portion of the NSF’s Understanding the Brain initiative is $46 million which includes $19.54 million for BRAIN Initiative activities. Understanding the Brain is a cross-Directorate initiative; for BIO, funding may support team-based science, mapping circuits, connecting function to behavior, and support for data, infrastructure, and tool development. This opens the door for diverse partnerships. In September 2016, the NSF provided support, with The Kavli Foundation and Columbia University, for the Coordinating Global Brain Projects conference hosted by The Rockefeller University, and the NSF is co-sponsoring the upcoming workshop, Comparative Principles of Brain Architecture and Functions, with the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) at UC San Diego.

Using amazing new technologies, evolutionary neuroscientist Dr. Melina Hale and her graduate students at the University of Chicago are discovering that the basic movements of one tiny fish can teach us big ideas about how the brain’s circuitry works. Source: “Mysteries of the Brain,” produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the NSF (Full video: https://youtu.be/BUzeEpcO238)

“I love watching these cells be active while the animal is behaving. It’s just remarkable to me that we can see the brain work and try to understand how it’s functioning.” – PI Melina Hale

A new BIO program, Next Generation Network for Neuroscience (NeuroNex), will fund research with the goals of: developing theoretical frameworks for understanding brain function across organizational levels, scales of analysis, and/or a wider range of species; and the development and dissemination of innovative research resources, instrumentation and neurotechnology. We anticipate this portfolio will be transformative, integrative, and synergistic.

Support for clean energy technology-related research will involve funding for enhancing photosynthesis, for systems and synthetic biology, for bioinspired-design of proteins, for exploring the metabolic and energetic potential of living organisms, and for modeling environmental impacts, as well as impacts on genome stability, fitness, and phenotype.

BIO’s investments in studying microbiomes will focus on the role of microbes in plant and animal function, productivity, health and resilience to environmental change, as well as microbes’ role in soil and marine ecosystems. Partnerships with USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture have already led to support for research on plant biotic interactions, as well as research to develop and enable breakthrough technologies for animal and plant phenomics and microbiomes.

In BIO’s FY2017 budget request, approximately $43 million is designated for programs that will enhance training and education, provide support for early career researchers, and broaden participation. BIO will continue participation in NSF INCLUDES, ADVANCE, CAREER, and Improving Undergraduate STEM Education. In addition, BIO will provide new opportunities for research traineeships (details to come!). It is also important to think about how we track students who are supported by BIO funding along their career trajectory and this will be a topic of discussion throughout the Directorate in 2017.

The Biological Science Directorate also recognizes how critical research resources (infrastructure), centers, observatories, networks, and support for data science are to the success of basic scientific research. CyVerse (was iPlant) integrates many aspects of data science, including providing key infrastructure for data management and analysis. This resource democratizes access to high-throughput computing. Continued investment in cyberinfrastructure would be congruent with some of the Ten Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments and would provide an avenue for BIO to continue to engage with partners in other NSF Directorates. The NSF recently announced awards for four new Science and Technology Centers – the Center for Cellular Construction is BIO-managed and will allow for the development and use of tools for controlling cell trajectories across the phenotypic landscape, which is important for understanding, for example, how cells become malignant.

The big picture for the future of the Directorate for Biological Sciences is this — biology is the engine of innovation in the 21st century. As President Obama said in his weekly address of October 16, 2016, “Innovation is in our DNA.”

BIO’s FY 2017 Budget Request

On February 9, 2016, the National Science Foundation rolled-out its FY 2017 budget request to Congress.

Information about the NSF’s budget request can be found on nsf.gov, including a summary brochure, a press release, fact sheets, the Director’s presentation slides, and more.

Dr. Jim Olds, NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, rolled-out the budget request for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). BIO currently supports 68% of academic basic research in non-medical biology.


The total FY 2017 request for BIO is $790.52 million, a 6.2% increase over the FY 2016 estimate. Of the $790.52 million, $745.73 million is discretionary funding and $44.79 million is new mandatory funding*.

The table below identifies how BIO’s request is distributed across its Divisions.

FY 2017 Request (millions)
Molecular and Cellular Biosciences $136.77
Integrative Organismal Systems $215.40
Environmental Biology $145.17
Biological Infrastructure $135.74
Emerging Frontiers $157.44 (includes mandatory funding)

BIO’s top priority is core research across biology. Broad support for academic basic research in biology is necessary to produce the knowledge that will address national needs in agriculture, health, the environment, and continuing innovation for the bioeconomy, which has already shown progress in areas such as biofuels, biorenewable chemicals, and nanotechnology.

BIO funding priorities for FY 2017 include the following:


BIO support for clean energy technology would provide funds for research in areas such as: systems and synthetic biology to streamline and scale the metabolic and energetic potential of living organisms, to produce non-petroleum based sources of important chemicals, materials, feed stocks, and fuels; bioinspired design of new proteins and other complex biomaterials that can transform light into energy; and investigations to assess the impact of fuel and/or bio-renewable chemical production to assess the potential environmental impacts of these technologies.

Understanding the Brain combines support for activities relevant to the the White House’s BRAIN Initiative and continuing NSF support for activities in the areas of cognitive and neuroscience.

Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) will be stressed in NSF-wide and BIO specific programs, such as Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) and Macrosystems Biology (MSB). Also, a joint solicitation between BIO’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems and USDA NIFA, called Plant Biotic Interactions (PBI), will be issued in FY 2016, with initial awards funded in FY 2017.

BIO’s budget request includes increased support for microbiome research. Microbiome investments support research on the role of microbes in plant and animal function, productivity, health, and resilience to environmental change, as well as microbes’ role in soil and marine ecosystems. Studies of microbiomes occur on a broad range of scales from metagenomics, which looks at the entirety of collective genomes in microbial communities, to individual community composition and collective metabolic activity. The joint IOS/NIFA solicitation mentioned above will include support for microbiome research.

major investments

In FY 2017, as NEON nears completion, BIO will assume full responsibility for NEON operations and oversight. With the need for increased oversight, BIO will transfer program management for NEON operations from Emerging Frontiers (EF) into the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI),   which   has   long-standing   experience   managing   cooperative   agreements and infrastructure, such as Science and Technology Centers (STCs), iPlant (now CyVerse), and other BIO Centers for Analysis and Synthesis. Funding for early NEON science, including continuing support for the MacroSystems Biology (MSB) program, remains a priority.   NSF is in the process of evaluating new managing organizations for NEON operations and maintenance.

BIO will sustain support for new mid-scale projects to advance data, software, and collaborative infrastructure in support of several priority areas through the Advances in Biological Informatics (ABI) Program, BIO Synthesis Centers, as well as ongoing solicitations, e.g., Software Infrastructure for Sustained Innovation (SI2). In FY 2017, SI2 will begin to focus on software infrastructure for major projects and awards including STCs, iPlant (now CyVerse), and Major Research Facilities and Construction (MREFC) projects.

The NSF-wide BioMaPS investment seeks to discover fundamental new knowledge to enable innovation in national priorities such as clean energy, climate science, and advanced manufacturing. In FY 2017, BIO will sustain support for this activity. One area of emphasis will be synthetic biology, which is a convergent area at the intersection of biology, engineering, and physical sciences that informs our ability to design and build novel biological functions and systems using engineering principles.

Understanding the Rules of Life represents our shared vision for core research. Support for this new emphasis includes research areas such as the genotype to phenotype challenge, plant and microbial sciences, including the study of microbiomes, synthetic biology, origins of life, and developing biological theory as a framework for the rules of life. Quantitative approaches that integrate the mathematical and physical sciences, computer science, and engineering into advancing basic biological understanding underpinning the study of the rules of life will be encouraged.


BIO’s FY 2017 budget request also includes support for early career scientists through enhanced funding for PIs, new efforts to train graduate students, and targeted support for postdoctoral fellows. BIO will participate in the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program. And a BIO Research Training Grant (RTG) Program would provide $6.16 million to improve graduate education.

BIO will participate in the NSF initiative, Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners that have been Underrepresented for Diversity in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES), an effort to increase the preparation, participation, advancement, and potential contributions of those who have been traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented in STEM fields. BIO will also continue participation in the NSF-wide program ADVANCE as part of its ongoing commitment to broaden participation to build strategies and models to increase the participation, retention, and advancement of women in all STEM academic careers.

Finally, in the area of innovation activities, the FY 2017 budget includes support for an Origin of Life Ideas Lab – a partnership between NSF BIO and NASA Astrobiology to stimulate creative thinking and new research on the earliest events leading to life on Earth. Projects resulting from the Ideas Lab would explore plausible pathways for the origin of life that would contribute directly to our understanding of the indispensable properties of life on Earth and inform our search for life on other worlds, and would contribute to a theoretical framework for the “metabolism first” and “RNA first” hypotheses for the origin of life.

*Mandatory funding, also known as “direct spending,” is a different category of Federal spending than NSF typically sees. It is most commonly associated with entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) and is not subject to discretionary caps. In FY 2017, the Administration is seeking legislation to provide mandatory funding for NSF and other R&D agencies on a one-time basis.