A Letter from the Assistant Director

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Dear Colleagues,

BIO is excited to be back to work following the long lapse in appropriations. We thank the biological sciences community for its patience and its support of students, postdocs, faculty, technical and administrative support staff and researchers during this challenging time.

Fortunately, because BIO core programs have a no-deadline submission process and relevant systems remained online during the shutdown, BIO has experienced few disruptions to our division programs. However, this also means that we have a backlog of submitted proposals and missed panels. As we get our systems up and running again, we are establishing processes that will enable us to focus on high-priority areas, particularly in light of the three-week continuing resolution. Our staff is working hard to reschedule cancelled merit review panels and process awards, and is prioritizing in particular the review and funding of postdoctoral fellowships and REU site awards. As we work to expedite the return to normal operations, I call upon the volunteerism of the reviewer community and ask for your flexibility in participating in rescheduled and virtual panels.

In addition to addressing the backlog of activities from the lapse, BIO remains committed to delivering on ongoing competitions, including the Understanding Rules of Life competitions. Please note that deadline dates for BIO special solicitations and DCLs remain unchanged.

A special note to our colleagues in the ecological sciences community about the changes that took place at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) during the lapse in appropriations: Now that NSF has resumed operations, we are re-engaging with all key stakeholders in the project. I remain fully committed to ensuring that NEON realizes its scientific promise as it transitions to full operations. I wish to express my gratitude to all those who have worked together to bring NEON construction to the finish line, including Battelle staff and NEON’s Science, Technology and Education Advisory Committee (STEAC), and thank the STEAC for their thoughtful engagement and continued commitment to NEON.

I once again thank you for your patience in this challenging time and ask for your continued support as we work to get back on track as soon as possible.

Sincerely,
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Joanne Tornow, PhD
Assistant Director for Biological Sciences

Statement from the Acting Assistant Director for Biological Sciences on Proposal Submission Limits

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Dear Colleagues,

In August, the BIO directorate released new solicitations to its proposal submission process to eliminate deadlines and limit the number of proposals that could be submitted to a given division annually by a PI or co-PI. As BIO was receiving far more worthy proposals than it has money to support, this submission cap was established with a view to ensuring that BIO’s merit review process would not be overwhelmed with the move to no deadlines.

In the ensuing three months, the community expressed serious concern that this new policy would hinder collaboration as well as limit funding prospects for new investigators. BIO places a high value on collaboration and on fostering careers of new investigators; thus, we held internal discussions to consider ways to address these concerns. In addition, relatively few proposals have been submitted to BIO since the release of the solicitations.

Having listened to community concern and tracked the current low rate of submission, and following extensive internal consultation, BIO is lifting all PI or co-PI restrictions on proposal submission for FY 2019, effective immediately.

BIO recognizes that it is important to track the effects of the no-deadline policy on proposal submission patterns, to ensure that a high-quality review process is sustained. Therefore, we are seeking approval from the Biological Sciences Advisory Committee to establish a subcommittee to assist in developing the evidence base for any future policy changes that may be needed.

Solicitations for proposals will be amended and released over the next few weeks to reflect these changes.

Sincerely,
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Joanne Tornow, PhD
Acting Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences

A Letter from the Acting Assistant Director

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Dear Colleagues,

This is an exciting time for the biological sciences. The way we do science is rapidly changing; it is increasingly collaborative, interdisciplinary, and enhanced by new capability to collect and analyze more complex data than ever before. We at the National Science Foundation Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) are committed to creating funding opportunities that foster collaboration and innovative research to advance biological knowledge. As part of this effort, we have recently made changes to enable us to respond to this changing research environment and continue to meet the needs of our community – early career and senior scientists alike – as it progresses into the future.

We have just released a set of solicitations designed to support the biological sciences community broadly and to take advantage of emerging research opportunities. In addition to retaining all core and special funding programs, we have added a new funding opportunity: a Rules of Life track, which provides new mechanisms for review and funding of ambitious, integrative research projects addressing questions across scales that would not ordinarily fit well within a single BIO division. With these solicitations, we have also completed our initial transition to a BIO-wide no deadline submission process. By accepting proposals at any time, BIO aims to encourage submission of creative, well-developed, interdisciplinary projects by providing investigators with greater flexibility to prepare their proposals.

Given that BIO already receives many more excellent, funding-worthy proposals than we have money to support, more submission opportunities do not equate to more awards. Thus, with a shift to no deadlines, it was clear there needed to be some restrictions to limit submission and resubmission of similar proposals within a given year. After extensive consideration, conversations with key community stakeholders, and analysis of past submission patterns, we determined the most balanced way to do this was to limit annual submissions as PI or co-PI. Each year, researchers may submit one proposal each to MCB, IOS and DEB core programs, and two proposals to DBI infrastructure programs. In addition, researchers may submit one proposal to the Rules of Life track each year. Further, to ensure that this cap does not harm collaborative projects, we have removed previous restrictions on submissions as subaward PIs. We sought an objective way to limit proposal submissions to carefully considered, unique research ideas, while removing barriers to collaboration by allowing unlimited involvement on proposals with potential to receive budgets.

We recognize concerns have been expressed about potential negative impacts of this shift, and I can assure the community that we have extensively considered these same issues. We have paid particular attention to the possible impacts on early career researchers. We are confident these caps will not harm their opportunities to receive research funding; in addition to the funding opportunities open to all researchers within BIO, early career researchers will remain eligible to apply for CAREER awards. Nurturing the next generation of biologists is a priority for BIO program staff, and we will continue to monitor progress closely. I encourage the community to read the FAQs and blogs posted by each division on the new submission cap and shift to no deadlines for answers to common questions and more details on the opportunities available within BIO. As we go through this first year under the new submission system, BIO will track these and other areas of concern and will evolve as necessary.

Collectively, these new solicitations offer many opportunities for innovative, challenging and potentially transformative science. I am eager to see how our new solicitations will move forward BIO’s mission to enable discoveries for understanding life and advance the frontiers of biological knowledge.

Sincerely,
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Joanne Tornow, PhD
Acting Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences

Q&A: Getting to Know Dr. Joanne Tornow

Dr. Tornow visits NEON CASTNet Site
BIO’s Acting AD, Dr. Joanne Tornow, visits a NEON site outside of Boulder, Colorado.

BIO recently welcomed a new Acting Assistant Director, Dr. Joanne Tornow. Though she is coming to BIO after six years in NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences and the Office of Information and Resource Management, Dr. Tornow is no stranger BIO, having spent more than a decade in a variety of roles across the Directorate. We sat down with Dr. Tornow to get to know her a little better and welcome her back to her first home at NSF.

When did your interest in the sciences first begin?

I trace back my falling in love with biology and genetics to my 9th grade biology class. It all just made perfect sense and I loved it, so from then on, I was a biology person. At the time that I was in college, molecular biology did not really exist as a discipline, but microbial biology and microbial and molecular genetics was just starting, so I concentrated on what was then a very emerging area of microbial genetics. As I progressed, there was really very little debate in my own mind about what I was interested in. I love biology and knew I wanted to pursue it as a career.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from a career as a traditional, academic researcher to science administrator?

I did the traditional academic path – graduate school, postdoc, faculty position – and then there was an opportunity during my sabbatical to do something completely different that I was really interested in.

At the time, Dolly had just been cloned the year before and we were in the middle of the Human Genome Project. I was teaching genetics to undergraduates and molecular genetics graduate students, and these events were raising all of these questions about the intersection of science and policy, genetic privacy, cloning – it was really a fascinating time. So when I stumbled on the AAAS policy fellowship, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go and see how the policy side intersected with the science and then bring that back to the classroom.

I spent a year working on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee, getting experience working on the Hill and understanding how that process worked – how the federal budget is generated and how it drives policy. Then an opportunity came up to go to OSTP [the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy] for a year, and there I was able to work on things that were a little bit more relevant to my science.

What was your favorite part of working on the policy side of things?

Just a month or two after I started my fellowship in OSTP, the first papers on isolating human embryonic stem cells came out. Every month or so, something else was getting cloned. It created some really great policy questions, and so it was a wonderful time for me to be at OSTP – that was a fabulous year.

How did you ending up coming to NSF?

At the end of that year, I was getting ready to go back to my institution. I had been in contact with NSF because I knew that when I had initially planned to come to DC on my sabbatical that NSF had been an option. A position was available as a rotator and they reached out to me. By that time, after two years in DC I had sort of made the switch in my mind from doing the academic life to thinking about science in the bigger context, and it was really appealing to me both personally and professionally to stay in this area, so I took the position.

You and BIO have a long history together! When were you last here, and what projects were you involved with?

Starting in the Fall of 1999, I was program director for gene expression in the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB). The portfolio for gene expression was much broader than understanding the control of transcription, which was my area of expertise. I was a program director in MCB for about six and a half years before leaving for a little bit to do a detail in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) front office.

After that, I came back to be senior advisor in the BIO front office, but as it turned out, I went up to the Director’s office for about 8 months on a detail to work on a particular project for the Deputy Director, and so spent very little time in the front office. After that, I returned to BIO and was the Acting Division Director for MCB for two years.

By that time [former BIO AD] Jim Collins was finishing up his tenure and left, and I moved in to be the acting Executive Officer [equivalent to the current Deputy Assistant Director]. When a new AD was found two years later, there were a variety of vacancies in the Deputy AD spots, so I applied for those and that’s when I moved to the Directorate for Social, Behavior and Economic Sciences (SBE) as Deputy AD.

Each of these jobs – that whole path, including my details in EHR and in the OD, and my time in OIRM – all gave me different perspectives and really helped me when I came back to be an Acting Division Director and now Acting Assistant Director in BIO. Having spent the time at OSTP, on the Hill, in the OD – all of those experiences helped me be more effective here at NSF.

What are you most looking forward to for your time as Acting Assistant Director for BIO?

There are a couple of things that I’m really looking forward to. One is that it’s been six years since I’ve been in BIO and I’m just really loving getting back in touch with BIO and catching up on all that’s happened – all the ways that the science and the programs in BIO have advanced. So that’s probably the best part about this – I’m really just getting back to my first love.

Farewell, Dr. Olds!

Photo Dr. James OldsOn January 10, 2018, Dr. Jim Olds’ term as Assistant Director for Biological Sciences came to an end. Since taking up the post in September 2014, Dr. Olds has led BIO through many big changes, including the conception of the Rules of Life Big Idea and implementation of a no-deadline submission mechanism for receiving and reviewing proposals. All of us at BIO would like to thank Dr. Olds for his excellent leadership over the past three and a half years, and wish him the best as he returns to George Mason University.

Dr. Joanne Tornow, Head of the Office of Information and Resource Management (OIRM) and former BIO Acting Deputy Assistant Director, will be taking up the mantle as Acting Assistant Director for BIO while the search for Dr. Olds’ successor is underway. Stay tuned to learn more about Dr. Tornow and the exciting things she has planned for the directorate in the coming months!

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.”

The BRAIN Initiative: Three Years at the Frontiers of Neuroscience | The Kavli Foundation

In this Science Spotlight from the Kavli Foundation, a group comprising scientists and funders, including the NSF’s Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, reflects on what the BRAIN Initiative has already achieved and how it is evolving.

Article: The BRAIN Initiative: Three Years at the Frontiers of Neuroscience | The Kavli Foundation

Assistant Director for BIO Attends Cancer Moonshot Summit

On June 29, 2016, the Cancer Moonshot Summit was held on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC. The National Science Foundation’s Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, was pleased to represent the Foundation at the event.

From the Office of the Vice President of the United States:

“In his final State of the Union address, the President tasked the Vice President with heading up a new national effort, the Cancer Moonshot. The ultimate goal is to double the rate of progress—to make a decade’s worth of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care in five years—to ultimately end cancer as we know it.

The goals of this effort cannot be achieved by one person, one organization, or one discipline. Solving the complexities of cancer will require the formation of new alliances to defy the bounds of innovation and accelerate the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and—ultimately—a cure. It’s going to require millions of Americans speaking up and contributing what they’re able.

The Cancer Moonshot Summit will be a venue to bring together all sectors that have a role to play in making progress on the Cancer Moonshot goals to share new ideas and launch new collaborations and actions.

The Cancer Moonshot is a mission, and all of us #CanServe. How will you make a difference, break down barriers to progress, or catalyze change where you live or work?

Photo of Dr. Olds at Summit with quote: I can serve by ensuring support for the highest quality fundamental biological sciences research

NEON Management Update

March 16, 2016
(Updated links March 23)

The National Science Foundation has completed the process for selecting the new managing organization of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and have chosen Battelle Memorial Institute.

For more information about the selection and future updates about NEON, please visit the NEON Program Summary page and the NSF NEON Special Report on nsf.gov.

NEON site design
Image credit: neonscience.org

Research at the Interface of Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences (BioMaPS)

by Dr. Jim Olds, BIO AD

As transdisciplinary research becomes more mainstream, the National Science Foundation has supported this trend by creating new programs and unique funding streams to support collaborations and individual research that gets at the “sticky edges” between disciplines.

BioMaPS, or Research at the Interface of Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, is an example of how a cross-Directorate initiative (involving BIO and the Directorates for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) and Engineering (ENG)), can be used to strategically invest in research on living systems across scales, from atoms, to organisms, to the environment.

The goals of BioMaPS involve discovering fundamental new knowledge at the intersections of biology, math, and physical sciences to better understand and replicate nature’s ability to network, communicate, and adapt and to enable innovation in national priorities such as clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and understanding the brain. For example, BioMaPS has and will accelerate the generation of bio-based materials and the advanced manufacturing of bio-inspired nanosensors, devices and platforms. Such investments are essential to the nation’s prosperity, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.

In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, NSF invested approximately $60 million total in BioMaPS-related research and plans to continue supporting this vital investment with the goal of attracting scientists and engineers to transdisciplinary research and educating the STEM workforce of tomorrow. For BIO, Emerging Frontiers has been providing matching funds to supplement the support of BioMaPS awards by established BIO programs.

In FY14, BIO supported 106 BioMaPS awards. Modeling and Informatics proposals across all four of BIO’s divisions were jointly funded with the MPS and ENG Directorates for modeling of biological systems. Fifteen proposals had applications in instrument development, and 10 proposals had applications in bio-manufacturing. Projects ranged from instrumentation for high-speed, high-volume 3D imaging in vivo to unlocking the mechanism of tRNA translocation through the ribosome using large-scale molecular simulation.

Recently, BioMaPS FY15 funding was used to provide to Dr. Jennifer Doudna a Creativity Extension for her existing award, “Mechanisms of Acquired Immunity in Bacteria” (Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences). Dr. Doudna is a pioneer in studying Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPRs), whose function in bacteria is to recognize and destroy incoming phage or plasmid DNAs. CRISPR technology is now revolutionizing the biotech industry.

If you think your research meets the criteria of a BioMaPS project or you are considering developing a research project that reflects BioMaPS goals, please contact the Program Director for an established BIO program (i.e., there is not a separate solicitation or Dear Colleague Letter soliciting proposals specifically for BioMaPS funding).