Seal of the National Science Foundation
Flag of the National Science Foundation
|May 10, 1950; 67 years ago (1950-05-10)|
|Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.|
|Where Discoveries Begin|
|$7.8 billion for 2018|
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a United States government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. Its medical counterpart is the National Institutes of Health. With an annual budget of about US$7.0 billion (fiscal year 2012), the NSF funds approximately 24% of all federally supported basic research conducted by the United States' colleges and universities. In some fields, such as mathematics, computer science, economics, and the social sciences, the NSF is the major source of federal backing.
The NSF's director and deputy director are appointed by the President of the United States, and confirmed by the United States Senate, whereas the 24 presidentially appointed members of the National Science Board (NSB) do not require Senate confirmation. The director and deputy director are responsible for administration, planning, budgeting and day-to-day operations of the foundation, while the NSB meets six times a year to establish its overall policies. The current NSF director, confirmed in March 2014, is astronomer France A. Córdova, former president of Purdue University.
Grants and the merit review process
The NSF seeks to fulfill its mission chiefly by issuing competitive, limited-term grants in response to specific proposals from the research community. The NSF also makes some contracts. Some proposals are solicited, and some are not; the NSF funds both kinds. The NSF does not operate its own laboratories, unlike other federal research agencies, notable examples being the NASA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NSF receives over 50,000 such proposals each year, and funds about 10,000 of them. Those funded are typically projects that are ranked highest in a 'merit review' process, the current version of which was introduced in 1997. Reviews are carried out by ad hoc reviewers and panels of independent scientists, engineers, and educators who are experts in the relevant fields of study, and who are selected by the NSF with particular attention to avoiding conflicts of interest. For example, reviewers cannot work at the NSF itself, nor for the institution that employs the proposing researchers. All proposal evaluations are confidential: the proposing researchers may see them, but they do not see the names of the reviewers.
The first merit review criterion is 'intellectual merit', the second is that of the 'broader societal impact' of the proposed research; the latter has been met with opposition from the scientific and policy communities since its inception in 1997. In June 2010, the National Science Board (NSB), the governing body for NSF and science advisers to both the legislative and executive branches, convened a 'Task Force on Merit Review' to determine "how well the current Merit Review criteria used by the NSF to evaluate all proposals were serving the agency." The task force reinforced its support for both criteria as appropriate for the goals and aims of the agency, and published a revised version of the merit review criteria in its 2012 report, to clarify and improve the function of the criteria. However, both criteria already had been mandated for all NSF merit review procedures in the 2010 re-authorization of the America COMPETES Act. The Act also includes an emphasis on promoting potentially transformative research, a phrase which has been included in the most recent incarnation of the 'merit review' criteria.
Most NSF grants go to individuals or small groups of investigators, who carry out research at their home campuses. Other grants provide funding for mid-scale research centers, instruments, and facilities that serve researchers from many institutions. Still, others fund national-scale facilities that are shared by the research community as a whole. Examples of national facilities include the NSF’s national observatories, with their giant optical and radio telescopes; its Antarctic research sites; its high-end computer facilities and ultra-high-speed network connections; the ships and submersibles used for ocean research; and its gravitational wave observatories.
In addition to researchers and research facilities, NSF grants also support science, engineering and mathematics education from pre-K through graduate school. Undergraduates can receive funding through Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer programs. Graduate students are supported through Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeships (IGERT) and Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) programs and through the Graduate Research Fellowships, NSF-GRF. K-12 and some community college instructors are eligible to participate in compensated Research Experiences for Teachers programs. In addition, an early career-development program (CAREER) supports teacher-scholars that most effectively integrate research and education within the mission of their organization, as a foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions.
Scope and organization
The NSF's workforce numbers about 1,700, nearly all working at its Alexandria headquarters. That includes about 1,200 career employees, 150 scientists from research institutions on temporary duty, 200 contract workers, and the staff of the National Science Board office and the Office of the Inspector General, which examines the foundation's work and reports to the NSB and Congress.
The NSF relocated its headquarters to Alexandria, Virginia in 2017 from Arlington, Virginia.
The NSF organizes its research and education support through seven directorates, each encompassing several disciplines:
- Biological Sciences (molecular, cellular, and organismal biology, environmental science)
- Computer and Information Science and Engineering (fundamental computer science, computer and networking systems, and artificial intelligence)
- Engineering (bioengineering, environmental systems, civil and mechanical systems, chemical and transport systems, electrical and communications systems, and design and manufacturing)
- Geosciences (geological, atmospheric and ocean sciences)
- Mathematical and Physical Sciences (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and materials science)
- Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (neuroscience, management, psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, science of science policy and economics)
- Education and Human Resources (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at every level, pre-K to grey)
Other research offices
The NSF also supports research through several offices within the Office of the Director:
- Office of Cyberinfrastructure
- Office of Polar Programs
- Office of Integrative Activities
- Office of International Science and Engineering
NSF also has three overseas offices, to promote collaboration between the science and engineering communities of the United States and other continents' scientific communities:
In addition to the research it funds in specific disciplines, the NSF has launched a number of projects that coordinate the efforts of experts in many disciplines, which often involve collaborations with other U.S. federal agencies. Examples include initiatives in:
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
NSF's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) gathers data from surveys and partnerships with other agencies to offer official data on the American science and engineering workforce, graduates of advanced U.S. science and engineering programs, and R&D expenditures by U.S. industry. NCSES is one of the principal U.S. statistical agencies.
History and mission
The NSF was established by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. Its stated mission is "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense."
Some historians of science have argued that the result was an unsatisfactory compromise between too many clashing visions of the purpose and scope of the federal government. The NSF was certainly not the primary government agency for the funding of basic science, as its supporters had originally envisioned in the aftermath of World War II. By 1950, support for major areas of research had already become dominated by specialized agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (medical research) and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (nuclear and particle physics). That pattern would continue after 1957 when U.S. anxiety over the launch of Sputnik led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (space science) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (defense-related research).
The NSF's scope has expanded over the years to include many areas that were not in its initial portfolio, including the social and behavioral sciences, engineering, and science and mathematics education. The NSF is the only U.S. federal agency with a mandate to support all non-medical fields of research.
Budget and performance history
The NSF has come to enjoy strong bipartisan support from Congress. Especially after the technology boom of the 1980s, both sides of the aisle have generally embraced the notion that government-funded basic research is essential for the nation's economic health and global competitiveness, and for national defense. That support has manifested itself in an expanding budget—from $1 billion in 1983 ($2.19bn in 2010 dollars) to just over $6.87 billion by FY 2010, (fiscal year 2011 request and 2010 enacted level) stagnating since with $6.9 billion for FY 2013 NSF has published annual reports since 1950, which since the new millennium have been two reports, variously called Performance Report and Accountability Report or Performance Highlights and Financial Highlights; the latest available FY 2013 Agency Financial Report was posted December 16, 2013, and the 6 page FY 2013 Performance and Financial Highlights was posted March 25, 2013. Recently, the organization has been focusing on obtaining high return on investment from their spending on scientific research.
In the midst of World War II US policymakers became convinced that something had to be done with America's scientific infrastructure. Although the federal government had established nearly 40 scientific organizations between 1910 and 1940, the US relied upon a primarily laissez-faire approach to scientific research and development. Growing rubber shortages and other war-related bottlenecks led many to rethink America's decentralized and market-driven approach to science. Despite a growing consensus that something had to be done, there was no consensus on what to do. Two primary proposals emerged, one from New Deal Senator Harley M. Kilgore and another from Vannevar Bush.
Narratives about the National Science Foundation typically concentrated on Vannevar Bush and his 1945 publication Science-The Endless Frontier. This began to change in the late 1970s when scholars looked closer at the historical record, discovering that the NSF first appeared as a comprehensive New Deal Policy proposed by Sen. Harley Kilgore of West Virginia. Swept into office on the wave of new deal politicians, Kilgore was a small businessman with a deep distrust of monopolies. Looking about the landscape of wartime research Kilgore was concerned about the largely laissez-faire approach to producing technologies and products. He was also concerned about the lack of coordination between the federal government and private firms, believing that organizational chaos would lead to a failure in technology production. He was distressed by the concentration of research activities in the hands of a few elite universities and a few private firms. He feared that monopolistic industries had no incentives to develop the products needed for war and postwar economic and social welfare. His solution was to propose a comprehensive and centralized research body that would be responsible to many stakeholders and that would be in charge of producing both basic and applied research. According to this vision, research would no longer be driven by the invisible hand of the market. Research projects would be selected by the public. This public would be represented by a committee of stakeholders including commuting members, industry, and academia. Research results and products would not be owned by private interests, instead the public would own the rights to all patents funded by public monies. Rather than let the market pursue applied research, the proposed agency would pursue both basic and applied research that would support science direct economic and social importance. Responding to his worry about concentration, research monies would be equitably spread across universities.
Kilgore's proposals met mixed support. Non-elite universities as well as small businesses supported his proposals. The Budget Bureau also supported him. Opponents feared that the policy would take research out of the hands of scientists. Others suggested that the policy would socialize a large and independent section of the economy. Another opponent was Vannevar Bush, who was the liaison between Congress and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He recognized some of the same problems as Kilgore highlighted, and liked some things in Kilgore's proposals, but he thought that the proposed federal science agency should have a much different form. Bush did not like the idea of letting social interests and community members drive science policy. He feared that the selection of research projects would become politicized, and he also had complete faith in the ability of scientists to pick the best possible projects. Furthermore, in contrast to Kilgore, he felt that the agency should have the narrower mandate of pursuing only basic science, rather than basic and applied science. Unlike Kilgore, he believed the public should not own research results and products, instead responsible researchers should own the research results. Broadly speaking, Bush's vision was significantly more narrow than Kilgore's proposal. It maintained the status quo in patenting arrangements, it limited project selection to scientists, and it narrowed projects to basic research.
Kilgore first introduced his policy in 1942 under the title the Technology Mobilization Act. After failing multiple attempts, the NSF Act passed in 1950. The final bill mostly took on the character of Vannevar Bush's proposal. Broadly speaking it brought about a fragmented or pluralistic system of federal funding for research. During the eight years between initial proposal and final passage, new and existing agencies claimed pieces from the original proposal, leaving the science foundation with limited responsibilities. In the end the final policy represented a failure for those who believed in popular control over research resources, and those who believe that planning and coordination could be extended to the sphere of science policy. Conversely the final policy represented a victory for business interests who feared competition from the government in the area of applied research and who saw Kilgore's patent law proposal as a threat to their property rights and for scientists who gained control of what would later become an important source of resources and professional autonomy.
Public attitudes and understanding
NSF surveys of public attitudes and knowledge have consistently shown that the public has a positive view of science but has little scientific understanding. The greatest deficit remains the public's understanding of the scientific method. Comparison surveys elsewhere in the world, including Japan and Europe, have indicated public interest in science and technology is lower than in the US, with China a notable exception. A majority of Americans (54%) had heard "nothing at all" about nanotechnology in 2008.
In May 2011, Republican Senator Tom Coburn released a 73-page report, "National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope", receiving immediate attention from such media outlets as The New York Times, Fox News, and MSNBC. The report found fault with various research projects and was critical of the social sciences. It started a controversy about political bias and a Congressional Inquiry into federally sponsored research. In 2014, Republicans proposed a bill to limit the NSF Board´s authority in grant-writing.
In 2013, the NSF had funded the work of Mark Carey at University of Oregon with a $412,930 grant, which included a study concerning gender in glaciological research. After its January 2016 release, the NSF drew criticism for alleged misuse of funding.
- Oral history interview with Bruce H. Barnes, 26-Sep-1990 - Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota. Barnes describes his duties as a program director at NSF. He provides brief overviews and examples of NSF's support of research in theoretical computer science, computer architecture, numerical methods, software engineering, and the development of networking. He describes NSF's support for the development of computing facilities through the 'Coordinated Experimental Research Program'.
- Science and Engineering Indicators published biannually since 1972 by the National Science Board, provides quantitative information on the U.S. and international science and engineering enterprise.
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