Recalibrating expectations for U.S. science

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Spoiler alert: this is not an upbeat post, although it does offer a few hopeful spots… As many in the ecological community already know, obtaining monetary support for conducting research is tough.  The number one federal agency that supports fundamental research in ecology is the National Science Foundation (NSF), funding about 65 percent of ecological research conducted at U.S. research institutions.  Many other agencies, from the Forest Service to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also play important roles in supporting ecological science, although mostly through their own agency scientists. At NSF, the Biology Directorate has long been one of the most competitive, with a grant proposal success rate that now hovers around only 10 percent.  Ecologists have enjoyed support from other federal agencies, but those budgets are also sloping downhill.  Foundations, which also have provided support to the ecological community, are themselves facing financially harder times.  Things have gotten to the point that some older ecologists are candidly saying that they can’t in good faith recommend to students to go into the field of ecology due to the bleak outlook for making a decent living.  The situation seems unlikely to get better anytime soon. As anyone following recent policy developments knows, a gloomy budget environment is clouding outlooks in Washington, DC.  Although many agencies, including NSF, have managed to keep their budgets fairly intact for the current fiscal year, the specter of cuts is getting closer—when the Budget Control Act kicks in to slash both defense and civilian budgets. Yesterday’s, ScienceLive featured a chat with two long-time Washington science policy insiders, Michael Stephens (Association of Schools of Public Health) and Joel Widder (The Oldaker Law Group), who shared their opinions of what might be in store and responded to online questions.  Both said that NSF and the National Institutes of Health, as agencies supporting basic research, enjoy support by both Congress and the Administration.  But Stephens and Widder acknowledged that a world in which flat or declining budgets become the norm will present federal agencies with serious challenges on how to allocate their limited resources. In response to a question about the role of politics in science, Widder stated that: “As long as the federal government is going to spend in excess of $130 billion on research and development annually, and taxpayers will be the ultimate source of that money, politics will be an inherent part of the science funding enterprise.”  Stephens pointed out that overall the amount of “political meddling” in science is minimal and that with a few exceptions, science remains well respected.  “And I...

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New grants promote greater understanding of infectious disease

This post contributed by Lindsay Deel, a Ph.D. student in geography at West Virginia University and Intern with ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Infectious diseases won’t know what hit them. A massive new collaborative effort between funding sources in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) takes aim at infectious diseases from ecological and social perspectives, reported the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a recent press release. The overall goal of the suite of eight projects is to improve understanding of the factors affecting disease transmission, said NSF, but a major focus will also be on building models to help predict and control outbreaks. Each of these projects examines different themes within the global context of infectious disease. For example, Tony Goldberg (Professor of Epidemiology, University of Wisconsin–Madison) and colleagues will investigate the spread of HIV from its origin in monkeys to humans by examining similar viruses that are currently impacting wild monkeys in Uganda. This project will also study human social factors – such as awareness, beliefs, and behaviors – surrounding the transmission of such diseases. Another project helmed by David Rizzo (Professor of Plant Pathology, University of California–Davis) will explore how interacting forest disturbances – such as fire and drought – may control the emergence, persistence, and spread of invasive pathogens using the case of sudden oak death – a disease caused by a non-native pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum. “Over the past 10 years, potentially millions of trees in California and Oregon coastal forests have died as a result of this emerging disease,” explains Rizzo. “The goal of this new grant is [to] link this new disturbance agent (sudden oak death) with pre-existing disturbance agents (fire, drought) in coastal forests.” Samantha Forde (Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California – Santa Cruz) will lead a project using a simplified laboratory system of E. coli bacteria and its viruses as a model to study why some viruses have evolved the ability to infect multiple host species, while others can only infect one.  “This will further a general understanding of the dynamics of disease in natural systems and help to improve public health initiatives,” she says. From the modeling perspective, Armand Kuris (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of California at Santa Barbara) and colleagues will delve into the complexity of ecological systems and how the level of complexity might influence disease dynamics.  Kuris and colleagues hope to bring the role of infectious diseases into the core of ecological thinking, comparable to the roles of predation, competition, disturbance and resource quality. Joseph Tien (Professor of Mathematics, Ohio State University) will examine the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti. ...

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National Academies report: A “New Biology”

This post was contributed by ESA’s Director of Public Affairs, Nadine Lymn. Tony Janetos, a panelist at today’s National Academies briefing. Today the National Research Council, a division of the National Academies, released a report that calls for a new biology initiative to tackle some of the nation’s most pressing challenges, including food and energy production, environmental degradation, and human health.  The report, “A New Biology for the 21st Century“, calls for the collaboration of biological, physical, and social scientists, mathematicians and engineers, using recent advances in biology to address some of society’s most pressing problems.  This ambitious national initiative, according to the report, should be on par with America’s quest to put a man on the moon in the 20th Century. Committee participants Phillip Sharp of MIT, Anthony Janetos  of the Joint Global Change Research Institute and Keith Yamamoto of UC-San Francisco gave an overview of the report this morning at the National Academies.  Among their messages:  we need an increased investment in the life sciences to address some of society’s most pressing problems, and we have a unique opportunity for cross-discipline integration with the physical, computational, and other sciences to address some of our most urgent problems. The thread of ecology weaves through each of the four major challenges identified by the report.  The food challenge is to achieve sustainable, local food production and understand crops as ecosystems.  The environmental challenge is to halt and reverse ecosystem damage from pollution, over-harvesting, habitat fragmentation, and climate change.  The energy challenge is to develop a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, and the health challenge is individualized health surveillance and care, including an individual’s environment, history, micro-biome, genotype and physiology. The report makes four recommendations: (1)  Launch a National New Biology Initiative to achieve solutions to societal challenges in food, energy, environment, and health. (2)  Make the Initiative an interagency effort with a 10-year timeline and funding in addition to current agency budgets. (3)  Develop information sciences and technologies that are critical to the New Biology. (4)  Develop interdisciplinary curricula, graduate and educator training needed to create and support New Biologists. The report’s release is exciting to many who for years have been advocating for greater support for collaborative research and tools needed to address major society challenges.  The panelists noted that they have already had conversations with White House officials about the report. Biologists have a great opportunity to get engaged and help move the ideas of this report forward with their fellow scientists, Congress, and the Obama Administration. The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy supported the report. Read the full report...

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