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NSF & Congress

Hearing Testimony

Dr. Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Science
Research Subcommittee
June 12, 2003

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Johnson, and members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on this important topic - Plant Biotechnology and Research in Africa. Since its creation the National Science Foundation has recognized the central role international partnership plays in achieving America's research and development objectives. For over fifty years we have been engaged with the global scientific community through collaborative partnerships. In recent years we have witnessed a dramatic growth in the connectivity of the world's scientific and engineering community - which offers enormous opportunities and challenges.

Of particular importance to the Foundation and to me personally are NSF's partnerships with scientists and engineers in the developing world. In the developing world there are scientific challenges and scientific expertise that are important to the U.S. Our partnership with the developing world holds the potential for growth in many areas. My own research career has built strongly on collaborative work with scientists in Bangladesh. Traditionally, NSF has worked with developing countries through its own programs and in the past, through partnerships with USAID.

The Foundation's approach to collaborative work in the developing world has built on our principles of quality, merit review, and the integration of research and education. Our potential lies in our ability to mobilize and support the U.S. scientific and engineering community. We are able to support the movement of students and researchers who travel to Africa and participate in seminars and research. These American researchers function as collaborators and in some cases, trainers. American students who travel to Africa expand their own training, share their evolving expertise and contribute to research advances. In the past 4 fiscal years, we estimate that NSF has expended approximately $63 million on research with and about sub-Saharan Africa.

In the past strong partnerships across institutions and countries have resulted in important progress. The successful sequencing of the rice genome was the result of collaboration and investment by several partners - the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID (through its contributions to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), NSF, USDA, DOE and the funding agencies of many of our international partners. The current efforts in rice functional genomics are coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Additionally, we have partnered with USAID, to work on the important topic of biodiversity in the developing world.

Based on these experiences and the importance of these efforts we want and plan to do more. We have heightened our activity with our interagency partnerships, and are currently having discussions with both USAID and the World Bank. The interagency process for coordination of efforts is underway. We will continue to seek to develop partnerships that bring to bear the resources of the development agencies for capacity building that will mobilize and support the best scientists and engineers in the U.S. and its international partners.

Efforts to Establish a Plant Biotechnology Partnership for the Developing World

Recognizing the readiness of the research community and the scientific opportunities available, NSF, through the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council's Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomes, has initiated discussions with USAID, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Department of Energy (DOE) to support research collaborations between scientists from U.S. academic institutions and developing countries in plant biotechnology.

The key interest is in greater engagement with developing countries in plant biotechnology research. We agree that plant genome research provides an ideal opportunity to work together toward this goal. A joint activity under discussion will link U.S. researchers with partners from developing countries to address developing country needs with the most current and appropriate technologies available, and to establish long-term relationships between participating scientists. It is important that exchange of ideas and people are reciprocal, and should be built on equal partnerships between the U.S. and scientists of developing nations.

Although we are still early in the stages of these efforts, NSF is moving in the direction provided for in the National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-368), and many of NSF's ongoing programs in plant genome research will prove instrumental in meeting the Committee's interests in these areas.

Currently NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering is exploring how we can build on our existing investments and develop innovative programs with developing world scientists. We currently support workshops and collaborative efforts throughout the developing world. However, to expand these efforts and establish stronger partnerships which address some of the capacity needs in the developing world, we will need to continue to partner with other agencies that are able to provide significant funds to institutions in the developing world. As you know we must focus NSF resources on funding U.S. scientists and institutions. However, through partnerships with other agencies, such as USAID, we will be able to develop programs that address critical research topics, engage the U.S. scientific and engineering community, build collaborative projects with developing country scientists and contribute to capacity building in the developing world.

Coordination of Plant Biotechnology Research Activities

The National Plant Genome Initiative (NPGI) was established in 1998 as a coordinated national plant genome research program by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Plant Genomes, under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council, with representatives from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Energy (DOE), National Institute of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). USAID joined the IWG in 2002.

Under the NPGI, genomics has transformed plant research in the United States. It has changed the way research is conducted in plant biology; it has attracted a new generation of scientists into the field; and it has contributed new information and knowledge to science. The NPGI has built a foundation on which the scientific community can advance research, not only in plant genomics but also in diverse disciplines ranging from fundamental biological sciences to biotechnology.

Recognizing that science is global, the NPGI actively encourages international partnerships. During the past five years, U.S. researchers and their international partners have formed the Cereal Genome Initiative, the International Genome Research Organization for Wheat; the International Rice Functional Genomics Consortium; and the Global Musa (banana and plantain) Genomic Consortium, to conduct and coordinate research on crops grown in Africa and worldwide.

One of the scientific thrusts of the NPGI five-year plan is "Translational Plant Genomics." As functions are assigned to genes in a few key model plant species, this information can be used to explore basic plant biology and to develop technologies to enhance the yields of crops of economic value. These technologies will be especially valuable for addressing issues associated with crops grown in developing countries.

NSF's Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP) and Plant Biotechnology in Africa

A regional drought in the Horn of Africa has created a food crisis affecting 15 million people in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. As a result, chronic child malnutrition is dangerously high and is creeping higher. In addition, substantial seed shortages exist that may inhibit recovery even if the rains materialize.

While the issue is a complex one, many assert that science and technology can help bring food stability to regions like the Horn of Africa. In July 2002, the Nobel laureate and "father" of the "Green Revolution", Dr. Norman Borlaug, said he believes the world has the technology - either available now or well advanced in the research pipeline - to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people.

To achieve this goal, U.S. and international organizations, such as USAID, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the Rockefeller Foundation have been working to bring the latest scientific knowledge to the developing world.

NSF's Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP) can play a pivotal role by bringing together scientists from the U.S. and developing countries, and by developing long-term partnerships. The PGRP supports research on many of the crops grown in Africa as well as on plant traits that are important to agriculture in Africa.

Cereal crops grown in Africa include rice (African varieties) grown in Western Africa, wheat and barley in Northern Africa, Maize in sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum which originated in Africa, and millet in the Sahelian Zone of Africa. In addition to grains for food, Africans utilize straws (stalks) of cereal plants for animal feed, building materials or fuels. Food legumes grown in Africa include chickpea, cowpea, beans, lentil, pigeonpea and soybean: Oil crops include coconut and groundnut. Other important crops grown in Africa are coffee, spices, cassava, potato, sweet potato, yam, banana and plantain.

NSF also supports plant biotechnology research that holds significant promise to improve food security and foster sustainable agriculture in Africa. Examples include: the interactions between Striga (the number one weed pest in Africa) and host plants; tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought and salinity; insect resistance; and resistance to fungal and viral diseases.

Research supported under the PGRP can contribute to identifying valuable genetic resources in native germplasm and marker-assisted breeding of African crops. More importantly, new and unexpected ways to improve plants or to use native plants will occur over time.

Clearly, the NSF-supported researchers are poised to work with scientists in developing countries to collaborate on translational plant genomics, which will contribute to sustainable food security in developing countries.

Revolutionary advances in plant genomics can accelerate the process of knowledge transfer for the benefit of developing countries. A genomic-based revolution in world agriculture, equaling the success of the Green Revolution that doubled the yield of cereal crops, is a real possibility, and could help alleviate the suffering of millions of people.

Concluding Remarks

Mr. Chairman, NSF's ongoing efforts in these areas are consistent with the recommendations contained in the National Science Board's 2001 report, "Toward a More Effective Role for the U.S. Government in International Science and Engineering" which observed that:

    "...NSF can contribute significantly to the improvement of scientific capabilities in a number of developing countries through its support of global- and regional-scale research, and by promoting increased interaction among U.S. scientists and engineers and those in developing countries."

The Board went on to recommend that:

    "NSF should take a more active role in facilitating cooperation in international S&E and higher education. It should work closely with other Federal technical agencies and multilateral scientific organizations that have S&E interests in the developing countries, and with domestic and international development assistance organizations in seeking out opportunities, identifying goals and targets, and developing cooperative projects in partnerships."

NSF and the NSF-supported research community are poised to expand our work with scientists in developing countries in realizing the potential of plant genomics to its fullest on a global scale. We are excited to participate in this extremely important endeavor and will bring our resources to bear. We are already working with our sister agencies through the established and successful National Plant Genome Initiative. I would like to close by again quoting Dr. Borlaug:

    "It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion gross tons per year. Within 25-30 years, we will have to nearly double current production again. This cannot be done unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yielding crop-production methods as well as new biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields, dependability and nutritional quality of our basic food crops."

Thank you Mr. Chairman for this opportunity to testify, and for your continued strong support of NSF. I would be happy to respond to any questions you might have.