As you may have heard, after 23 years at NSF, I will be retiring at the end of September 2022. It has been a pleasure to serve this community and the nation through multiple steads in the Directorate for Biological Sciences, and especially for the last four years as BIO’s Assistant Director.
I know that, given the staff and leadership in BIO, the community will be in very good hands and NSF will continue to support the cutting edge of biology and its connections to other areas of science and engineering.
That said, NSF has begun a search for the next Assistant Director for Biological Sciences. Director Panchanathan released a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) requesting recommendations for the search committee to consider. Specifically, they are looking for outstanding leaders who have a deep record of scholarship and understand the issues facing the biological sciences, particularly in terms of support for fundamental research, innovation, broadening participation, and workforce development.
Recommendations should be sent via email to email@example.com by Friday, August 12, 2022. Further information on the review criteria, BIO, and the search committee can be found in the DCL.
Thank you for all you do to advance the biological sciences and to support the development of the next generation of biologists. The advances this community has made and the ones we will make are critical to addressing the most important challenges and making the best use of the grandest opportunities now and into the future.
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?”
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.
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: http://go.usa.gov/cuSMH
On September 28th and 29th, 2015, NSF BIO hosted the Advisory Committee (AC) for Biological Sciences. The meeting web page, including the agenda and supplementary documents is here. View our Tweets from the meeting here.
The BIO Advisory Committee meets twice per year at NSF. These meetings are open to the public, as required by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).
The committee comprises experts in the field of biological sciences, across many subdisciplines of biology. The current AC roster is here. NSF officials (BIO staff/management) are present for all official meetings of the AC. Currently, Dr. Jim Olds, NSF’s Assistant Director (AD) for BIO, is the Designated Federal Officer (DFO) for the BIO AC.
The agenda for each AC meeting is developed by the AD of BIO in consultation with the BIO AC Chair (currently Dr. Kay Gross).
So what does the BIO AC do?
Objective: The role of the AC is to provide advice and recommendations to the NSF concerning support for research, education and human resources in the biological sciences.
Duties: The duties of the AC include: reviewing and advising on the impact of BIO’s research support programs; advising on program management, overall program balances, and program performance; and advising as to the impact of NSF-wide policies on the scientific community. The BIO AC has no oversight or approval authority.
Committee of Visitors (COV): The BIO AC participates in each BIO Division’s COV assessment. A COV assesses a Division’s performance in the “integrity and efficiency of the processes related to proposal [or pre-proposal] review.” The BIO AC designates a representative to each COV, who ultimately presents the final COV report to the BIO AC for approval. Each COV is considered a sub-committee of the BIO AC; its external members are approved and appointed by the BIO AD as the DFO. The BIO AD (or authorized representative; e.g., Division Director) prepares a written response to each COV report that is then presented to the AC and NSF Senior Management. COVs convene every three years.
Advice: The Directorate often seeks advice from the BIO AC, or AC sub-committees, as authorized by the BIO AD, about matters such as:
Anticipated or emerging areas of research in the biological sciences, including, but not limited to areas of “high-risk” research, inter- or trans-disciplinary research, and trends in fundamental research supported by the “core” programs in BIO.
Strategic planning for research, education and infrastructure support by BIO for the non-medical biological sciences.
Strategic human resource development in undergraduate and graduate biology education, and inclusion of members of under-represented groups in STEM professions relevant to biology.
Development of metrics to determine the outcomes and impacts of the aforementioned activities.
Strategic communication with academic communities, professional societies, and NGOs that engage in or support biological research and education.
If you would like to make a recommendation for membership on an NSF Advisory Committee, please review the instructions for doing so here.
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.
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).
On March 26, 2015, Dr. James Olds testified before the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, United States House of Representatives, on Federal Investments in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology.
The human brain is arguably the most complicated biological entity we are aware of in the universe. With roughly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections linking them together, the brain is responsible not only for controlling basic physiology, such as breathing, but also for higher-level functions such as learning, memory, emotions and cognition.
NSF’s goal is to enable scientific understanding of the full complexity of the brain in action and in context. In order to meet this goal, fundamental research is needed to explore and discover the general principles underlying how cognition and behavior relate to the brain’s structural organization and dynamic activities, how the brain interacts with its environment, and how the brain can recover from lost functionality.
To address these issues, NSF is supporting interdisciplinary teams to develop the needed tools and to integrate their respective scientific disciplines at a rate they have not done in the past. NSF is strategically targeting its resource investments to advance the basic research needed to understand how healthy brains work and how they achieve cognition. An improved understanding of the healthy human brain is essential for dealing with the increasing frequency of neurological disorders that affect the human population.
This week, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Centennial Meeting was held in Baltimore, Maryland, so I was able to visit and learn about some of the exciting research our NSF-funded students and PIs are doing in the field of ecology.
In the morning, I had an informative meet-and-greet session with a number of researchers who stopped by to chat with me about their research and their concerns and hopes regarding the future of biological science. We discussed the value of collaborative networks, of regional to continental scale data collection and access, of core funding through BIO’s Divisions, and a variety of other topics. Most important, I got to listen, ask questions, and learn from the scientific community. Though I am a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by and dedicated to absorbing as much information as I can about the fundamental science of the disciplines that are supported by the Directorate. As a young researcher and later as a mentor, I had the privilege of working at Woods Hole in Massachusetts, which fostered my appreciation for the dynamic nature of ecological studies and the challenges faced by researchers tasked with elucidating the interactions of organisms and their environments.
In the morning, I chatted with researchers from the University of Minnesota, UC Irvine, the University of Utah, and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
In the afternoon, I attended the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) session which included many Ignite-style presentations about the data and resources that NEON is or will be providing. The Q & A in this session gave me and other BIO staff members the chance to hear some of the questions the scientific community has about the Observatory. I followed up this session by attending some great podium presentations about collaborative networks and the Global Lakes Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON).
In the afternoon, I had the chance to talk with more researchers during another meet-and-greet session and visited the BIO booth in the Exhibit Hall. Many thanks to the BIO staff who took the time to speak with ESA attendees about the programs and resources BIO has to offer.
A great day culminated in a Synthesis Center Reception co-hosted by SESYNC, NIMBioS, NCEAS, and the John Wesley Powell Center for Earth System Science Analysis and Synthesis.
Synthesis centers are a signature activity for the Directorate. NCEAS began as an NSF-funded center and paved the way for other NSF-funded centers, including the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCEnt) at Duke, SESYNC, located in Annapolis, and NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee, which have all been great successes. These centers provide resources and sophisticated infrastructure to allow researchers from varied disciplines to gather together to address new questions that require the synthesis of data.
It was a great day at ESA! I look forward to attending other professional society meetings and conferences throughout my tenure as Assistant Director of BIO.
In 2012, Congress encouraged NSF to create a cross-Foundational activity in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience. Congress recognized that NSF was uniquely positioned to advance research in these areas and NSF responded by developing a cognitive science and neuroscience roadmap outlining our priority areas and potential funding mechanisms.
Then, in Fiscal Year 2013, President Obama announced the multi-agency BRAIN Initiative, with NSF as one of the three lead agencies, along with the National Institutes of Health and DARPA. As a result, the Biological Sciences Directorate—in cooperation with other NSF Directorates (SBE, MPS, CISE, and ENG) —initiated Understanding the Brain, a unique program for fundamental research in neural circuits and neurotechnology, which draws together NSF’s ongoing activities in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience and new BRAIN Initiative activities.
Understanding the Brain aims to generate the tools needed to explore healthy brain function and to establish a comprehensive understanding of how thoughts, memories, and actions emerge from the dynamic activities of the brain. As Congressman Fattah stated at the briefing, “There is so much for us to learn!”
Dr. Scott Thompson, Chair of the Public Education and Communication Committee for the Society for Neuroscience, and Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, agreed with the Congressman that there is an exciting future ahead for neuroscience and he emphasized the value of training and research for undergraduate students.
Another highlight of the event was watching an introduction to the new video series, “Mysteries of the Brain,” co-produced by NSF and NBC Learn. This series eloquently communicates the value and excitement of fundamental brain research and I hope you will find time to watch these terrific videos online.
After the video, we enjoyed three dynamic presentations from scientists at the forefront of brain research. Dr. Gary Lynch from the University of California, Irvine, has uncovered deep connections between learning and memory and his team’s work has played a key role in forming the modern theory of how synapses—the gaps between adjacent nerve cells—encode memory. Dr. Lynch has received multiple grants for basic brain research from the National Science Foundation with potential applications to education and human health. Recently, Dr. Lynch has been using a novel class of drugs in an attempt to reverse the negative effects of aging on the anatomy and physiology of brain cells.
Dr. Spencer Smith joined us from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he runs a neuroscience and neuroengineering laboratory. Dr. Smith is working to understand neural circuits to expand our understanding of how the brain processes information. Dr. Smith and his multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers are developing novel optical systems to create high resolution images of nerve cell activity, for which he and his colleagues received one of the first BRAIN EAGER grants from the National Science Foundation.
Finally, we were privileged to hear from Dr. Aude Oliva from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Oliva has also received support from the National Science Foundation, including a Faculty Early Career Development Program grant for her work categorizing and identifying visual scenes. Dr. Oliva’s work combines state-of-the-art methods in neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer science to discover and model how perception and cognition are realized both in human and in artificial minds.
These three speakers discussed new, key, discoveries about the organ we think of today as more efficient than a 20-Watt ultrahigh performance supercomputer—the brain. They shared new insights about everything from how individual neurons operate to how distant parts of the brain work together, enabling us to learn, see and do almost everything we do. It was so exciting to hear how science is finally unlocking the secrets to how memories are made and retained, and how we are developing new high-tech tools for seeing the brain in action. It was evident some of this research will be the foundation for future treatments for degenerative brain diseases and traumatic brain injuries.
On behalf of the National Science Foundation and the Biological Sciences Directorate, I want to thank everyone involved in this event. It was a great day for science!
The National Academies recently released the report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science. This report was co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Elsevier. The goal of this consensus study was to examine the science of team science, or the collaborative process by which “large and small scientific teams, research centers, and institutes organize, communicate, and conduct research.”1 Some of the outcomes of this study are relevant to the NSF as a funding agency; for example, the study committee recommends that:
Public and private funders foster a culture within the scientific community that supports those who want to undertake team science through:
funding, white papers, training workshops, and other approaches.
Funders should work with the scientific community to:
encourage the development and implementation of new collaborative models (e.g., research networks, consortia),
develop incentives for team science, and
provide resources (e.g., information repositories, training modules).
Funding programs should support research on the effectiveness of science teams and larger groups, which will require community effort (e.g., new topics and new research methods).
The ideas and recommendations in the report led me to consider the role of team science and single-Principal Investigator (PI) science in light of how BIO-funded researchers can contribute to understanding the rules of life. As a neuroscientist, I “grew up” in a world of single-PIs, but the next generation in neuroscience–my postdocs and grad students–are all part of big team science, in part due to the sheer complexity of the problem of understanding the brain. Thinking across biology, however, we see a more diverse picture. Though there are pieces of understanding the rules of life that require a team approach–for instance, when mapping out the wiring diagram of the brain (the connectome)–there are many problems that are beautifully amenable to single-PI science. For example, individual researchers may work toward understanding and enhancing photosynthesis, or sequencing Archaea from deep in the ocean to investigate the evolution of eukaryotic cells. Other projects may be a hybrid state of affairs between single-PI research and team science.
I think that there has always been a healthy balance at NSF between our experience and excellence in running big team science programs, facilities, and centers and our commitment across the Foundation to the Core Programs and single-PI research, and this serves the Foundation well. Some areas of research, like neuroscience, may be existence proofs for the effectiveness of team science; however, it is worth examining the science of team science within the various disciplines and sub-disciplines that contribute to our understanding of the rules of life.