Basic Research Goes to Washington

February 15, 2017

This week, NSF-funded research was on display on Capitol Hill for “The Arc of Science: Research to Results” event. Scientists whose work provides insights, products, or services to American citizens, businesses, and government interacted with congresspeople, congressional staffers, and representatives from various sectors of the economy, including health care, education, and industry. Guests enjoyed hands-on demonstrations of technologies directly stemming from NSF-funded research.

Attendees learned about BIO-funded research at the exhibit, “QSTORM: Achieving Pinpoint Surveillance Capacity Inside Living Cells.” The Principal Investigator, Dr. Jessica Winter (Ohio State University) and colleagues from the Museum of Science Boston showed how NSF is supporting teams of scientists and engineers to come together to tackle one of the last frontiers of microscopy – obtaining detailed images of the inner workings of living cells. The researchers explained to attendees how new breakthroughs in nanotechnology, chemical engineering, optics, and computer programming are allowing them to address this challenge.

Visitors to the exhibit had the opportunity to “turn on” a real set of amazingly bright and colorful quantum dots–the researchers use these to illuminate the tiniest features inside cells. Then, using a styrofoam and slinky model, the team demonstrated how they “turn off” a quantum dot using a gold nanoparticle tethered by a strand of DNA. Attendees learned how STORM super-resolution microscopy can reconstruct detailed images from overlays of pinpoint dots of light.

Dr. Olds peers into a small box sitting on a table by lifting up a small flap on the box. Researchers look on.
NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, used models of QSTORM quantum dots to discover how they enable scientists to look inside living cells. (Photo credit: NSF)

The QSTORM project, originally funded in 2010, has since received a second grant from NSF to work on implementing new imaging techniques made possible by the original science and to help establish partnerships which otherwise may not have come to be. Dr. Winter is working with the Museum of Science Boston to develop several hands-on demonstrations to explain the science of quantum dots to a broader audience.

The Arc of Science event was coordinated by the National Science Foundation and the Coalition for National Science Funding. Invited speakers included NSF Director Dr. France A. Córdova, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI).

To see additional highlights from the event, look for Tweets from @NSF with the hashtag #ArcOfScience.

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:

“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.”

Coordinating Global Brain Projects Event

September 14, 2016

Coordinating Global Brain Projects

Due to revolutionary new technologies, neuroscientists are poised to significantly advance our understanding of the brain and behavior, with profound implications for health and society.

To enhance collaboration and better coordinate global efforts in fundamental neuroscience research, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support a conference of scientists and government representatives from countries with significant investments in neuroscience research. Attendees, many of whom are members of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, a public-private collaborative effort aimed at accelerating the development and application of new technologies to revolutionize our understanding of the brain, will exchange ideas and information about their efforts and identify new opportunities for collaboration.

rat hippocampus,
This image shows a rat hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning, memory and emotion. Credit: Elyse L. Aurbach, Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan

NSF and The Kavli Foundation will support the event, hosted by Rockefeller University in cooperation with Columbia University.

“Brain diseases and disorders affect millions of families worldwide, leading to billions of dollars in medical expenses and lost productivity,” said NSF Director France Córdova, who will deliver opening remarks at the event. “This event is intended to promote collaboration and cooperation in emerging, large-scale international brain projects to further advance neuroscience research. NSF plays a pivotal role in funding brain research, bringing the research community together and shaping the vision for a global brain initiative.”

The NSF’s Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, will present information about the NSF’s participation in the U.S. BRAIN Initiative.

The U.S. State Department, the Global Partnerships Forum, The Kavli Foundation and NSF will also host a complementary event at the U.N. headquarters in New York City the evening of Sept. 19.

Use the hashtag #globalbrain to follow the conversation on social media.

For event details, please see the official NSF Media Advisory:

Related links:


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

NSF Announces Participation in National Microbiome Initiative

(Updated May 16, 2016)

On May 13, 2016, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with Federal agencies and private-sector stakeholders, announced the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI).

As shared by OSTP, “Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that live on or in people, plants, soil, oceans, and the atmosphere. Microbiomes maintain healthy function of these diverse ecosystems, influencing human health, climate change, food security, and other factors. The NMI aims to advance understanding of microbiomes to aid in the development of useful applications in areas such as health care, food production, and environmental restoration.”

To kick off the NMI, OSTP hosted an event at the White House to hear from community and research leaders about microbiome science, and opportunities for collaboration and progress. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO), Dr. Jim Olds, participated in the event as a member of a federal agency panel.

Dr. Olds was proud to announce NSF’s participation in this initiative through a Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 16-087) highlighting NSF BIO’s vision and approach to support and encourage microbiome research across the phylogenetic spectrum and biological scales; from host – microbe interactions to ecosystems. NSF BIO will also foster the development of a national research infrastructure to support collaborative science on microbiomes.

Dear Colleague Letter title: Supporting Research Advances in Microbiomes

NSF BIO encourages proposals that advance discovery in the realm of microbiomes with support through several programs in fiscal year 2017. These programs cross the entire BIO Directorate and span basic science through translational research that addresses pressing global challenges and support the development of tools needed for the 21st century.

To learn more about NSF BIO’s participation in the National Microbiome Intiative, access the Dear Colleague Letter here:

Scuba diving researchers collect samples from coral.
Researchers Rebecca Vega Thurber and Ryan McMinds on a mission to obtain samples from a reef. Research on coral microbiomes is funded by the NSF through a Dimensions of Biodiversity award. Read more:
Photo Credit: Ryan McMinds

BIO’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) Home Page
IOS Core Funding Programs Page (including EDGE Track)
Plant-Biotic Interactions Program Page (IOS and USDA/NIFA)
Symbiosis, Defense, and Self-Recognition Program (IOS Physiological and Structural Systems Cluster Page)
BIO’s Division of Environmental (DEB) Biology Home Page
DEB Core Funding Programs Page
BIO’s Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) Advances in Biological Informatics Program Page
Systems and Synthetic Biology Cluster of BIO’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Page

NSF Hosts Delegation from China

On Thursday, April 21, 2016, a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of Science & Technology (MOST) and the Embassy of China visited the National Science Foundation. The delegates met with representatives from across the Foundation, including Assistant Director for BIO, Dr. Jim Olds.

The delegation discussed current NSF partnerships through the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) and Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) programs and talked about potential areas for future collaboration. The meetings were highly informative and strengthened the good relationship between NSF and MOST.

Photo of delegation with staff and management of the NSF.
Top row, left to right: Paula Mabee (Division Director, BIO/DEB), Jim Deshler (Deputy Division Director, BIO/DBI), LV Jia (Deputy Director, Division of Americas and Oceania, Department of International Cooperation, MOST), Matthew Hawkins (Division Director, NSF/BFA Large Facilities Office), WANG Lian (Third Secretary, Embassy of P.R. China), QIAO Jian (Third Secretary, Embassy of P.R. China)
Bottom row, left to right: Karen Alroy (Science Associate, BIO/DEB), Rebecca Keiser (Office Head, NSF/OISE), Jim Olds (Assistant Director, BIO), CAI Jianing (Associate Counsel, Department of International Cooperation, MOST)

NSF Division of Environmental Biology Visits China
NSF Beijing Office

Exploring Microbiome Opportunities Symposium

On April 20, 2016, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a one-day symposium on “Exploring Microbiome Opportunities in Life Sciences and Agriculture.” Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) gave an overview of the significance of microbiome research for several priorities of the Obama administration, including the precision medicine initiative, climate change, soil erosion, forensic biology, national security, alternative energy, and economic opportunities. James I. Prosser from the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen then delivered a plenary lecture about the long-term goals and challenges for microbiome research.

Photo of four panelists
Left to Right: Jo Handelsman, Assistant Director for Science at OSTP, H. Gert de Couet, NSF BIO Division Director in IOS, Joseph Graber, Program Director at DOE, and Lita Proctor, Program Director and Project Coordinator at HMP (Credit: Sevie Kenyon, UW-Madison)
The plenary lectures were followed by presentations of the diverse portfolio of microbiome research projects conducted at UW-Madison. The symposium concluded with a panel discussion of funding opportunities for microbiome research. Participants were Jo Handelsman, Assistant Director for Science at OSTP, Lita Proctor, Program Director and Project Coordinator of the Human Microbiome project at NIH (HMP), and Joseph Graber, Program Director at the Department of Energy (DOE). NSF was represented by H. Gert de Couet, Division Director in BIO’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS).

Brain Awareness Week 2016 #BAW

In honor of Brain Awareness Week (March 14-20, 2016), here is a selection of recent news stories, videos, and other resources about NSF-funded basic research related to the brain.

To learn more about the NSF’s “Understanding the Brain” activities and the NSF’s participation in the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, please visit:

Recently, the NSF announced its participation in the National Research Infrastructure for Neuroscience effort:

NSF video series: In 2014, NSF awarded a total of $10.8 million to 36 brain research projects. These awards are called Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER). They are part of NSF’s broader efforts to understand the healthy brain. These six videos provide more detail about some of the exciting EAGER award projects:

NSF Radio Documentary: “Explorers of the Brain: Research from the Frontiers of Neuroscience.” This documentary aired on 111 radio stations around the U.S. Listen and access the transcript here: 

NSF/NBC Learn Video Series: “Mysteries of the Brain.” Scientists and engineers have studied the brain for decades, yet there are many mysteries that remain unsolved. New research is underway to develop and use cutting-edge technologies to better understand the brain. Watch this exciting 8-part video series to learn about the brain and the research NSF is funding:

What can fruit flies teach us about social interactions and the brain? Watch this NSF Science Nation video:

To watch this video with captions, click here

Neuroscientists have looked inside brain cells as they undergo the intense bursts of neural activity known as “ripples” that are thought to underlie memory formation. Read more from @CalTech:

Scientists decode brain signals nearly at speed of perception: Electrodes in patients’ temporal lobes carry information that, when analyzed, enables scientists to predict what object patients are seeing. Read more from @HSNewsBeat:

Like air traffic, information flows through major neuron ‘hubs’ in the brain. In many cortical regions, 70 percent of the brain’s information passes through only a fifth of the neurons. Read more from @IUNewsroom:

Engineered neural networks show hope for axonal repair in the brain, with minimal disruption to brain tissue. Technology holds potential to benefit patients with damage to brain connections resulting from brain injury or disease. Read more from @PennMedNews:

Researchers uncover “predictive neuron orchestra” behind looking and reaching movements. Read more from @NYUniversity:

rat hippocampus,
This image shows a rat hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning, memory and emotion. Credit: Elyse L. Aurbach, Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan

Researchers develop new method for analyzing synaptic density: High-throughput, machine-learning tool could help researchers better understand synaptic activity in learning and disease. Read more from @CarnegieMellon:

University study shows first evidence for independent working memory systems in animals. Data could inform new pre-clinical research models for Alzheimer’s disease treatment that goes beyond spatial memory. Read more from @IUNewsroom:

In experiments with zoo animals, relative brain size was the best clue to problem-solving ability in carnivores. Read more from NSF here and watch this video from the NY Times’ ScienceTake:

Finally, if you are in the DC/MD area on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, attend the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s Science Café from 6-7pm with NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, who will be speaking about “Searching for an Elusive Cure to Brain Diseases.” Read more from @medicalmuseum:


BIO AC NEON Subcommittee Report

The NEON Subcommittee of the Directorate for Biological Sciences Advisory Committee (BIO AC) has released the following report:

Report from the NSF BIO Advisory Committee Subcommittee on NEON Scope Impacts (Dec 18, 2015)

The report can be downloaded via the hyperlinks above and below or from the BIO AC web page where it is listed under the heading “BIO AC Workshop and Other Reports.”

BIO AC web page:
NEON Subcommittee report (.pdf):

Digitizing Biodiversity Draws a Crowd: iDigBio Summit V Highlights

The fifth annual iDigBio Summit was held on November 4-6, 2015, at the Hilton Hotel, Arlington, Virginia.

General information about the Summit, the agenda, and recordings of the event can be found on the iDigBio wiki:

One hundred thirty six scientists and students from 60 institutions representing 33 national and international biodiversity digitization initiatives participated.

A highlight of the summit was when the 15 Thematic Collections Networks (TCNs) supported by the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) program presented their reports. The reports underscored digitization progress, data accessibility and research accomplishments.

This year’s summit also engaged the participants in discussions focused on increasing mobilization of data, data use in research, long-term sustainability of the networks, products and cyberinfrastructure associated with digitization, and coalescing education and outreach efforts across ADBC-funded projects and the wider biodiversity collections community.

Here are some additional highlights as shared by participants on Twitter:

Related NSF Press Releases:

NSF awards fifth round of grants to enhance America’s biodiversity collections (PR 15-092)
NSF Awards Third Round of Grants to Advance Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (PR 13-135)
NSF Awards Second Round of Grants to Advance Digitization of Biological Collections (PR 12-082)
NSF Awards Grants to Advance Digitization of Biological Collections (PR 11-136)

Related media coverage:

Museum Specimens Find New Life Online, The New York Times Science, Oct. 19, 2015