The National Science Foundation (NSF)
is a United States government agency
that supports fundamental research
in all the non-medical fields of science
. Its medical counterpart is the National Institutes of Health
. With an annual budget of about $6.02 billion (fiscal year 2008), NSF funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research
conducted by the United States' colleges and universities
. In some fields, such as mathematics
, computer science
and the social sciences
, NSF is the major source of federal backing.
The NSF's director, its deputy director, and the 24 members of the National Science Board (NSB) are appointed by the President of the United States, and confirmed by the United States Senate. 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 is Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr., and the current deputy director is Dr. Kathie L. Olsen.
Grants and the merit review process
Although many other federal research agencies operate their own laboratories—notable examples being the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) and the National Institutes of Health
(NIH)—NSF does not. Instead, it seeks to fulfill its mission chiefly by issuing competitive, limited-term grants in response to specific proposals from the research community. (NSF also makes some contracts.) Some proposals are solicited, and some are not; NSF funds both kinds.
NSF receives about 40,000 such proposals each year, and funds about 10,000 of them. Those funded are typically the projects that are ranked highest in a merit review process. These reviews are carried out by panels of independent scientists, engineers and educators who are experts in the relevant fields of study, and who are selected by NSF with particular attention to avoiding conflicts of interest. (For example, the reviewers cannot work at 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).
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 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 REU summer programs. Graduate students are supported through IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeships) and AGEP (Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate) programs and through the Graduate Research Fellowships, NSF-GRF. 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
NSF’s workforce numbers about 1700, nearly all working at its Arlington, Virginia headquarters. That includes about 1200 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.
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, psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and economics)
- Education and Human Resources (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at every level, pre-K to grey)
Other research offices
NSF also supports research through several offices within the Office of the Director
In addition to the research it funds in specific disciplines, NSF has launched a number of crosscutting
projects that coordinate the efforts of experts in many disciplines. Examples include initiatives in:
In many cases, these projects involve collaborations with other U.S. federal agencies.
History and mission
The NSF was established by the National Science Foundation Act
of 1950. Its stated mission
- 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. 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).
Nonetheless, 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. Today, as described in its 2003–2008 strategic plan, NSF is the only U. S. federal agency with a mandate to support all the non-medical fields of research.
In the process, moreover, the foundation 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, as well as for the national defense. That support has manifested itself in an expanding budget—from $1 billion in 1983 to just over $6.02 billion by FY 2008. (fiscal year 2007).
Pre-World War II : Academic research in science and engineering is not considered a federal responsibility; almost all support comes from private contributions and charitable foundations. Governmental research into science and technology was largely uncoordinated; military research is compartmentalized to the point where different branches are often working on the same subject without realizing it. World War II : There is a growing awareness that America's military capability owes a great deal to the nation's strength in science and engineering. Congress considers several proposals to provide federal support for research in these fields. Separately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
sponsors the creation of several organizations to coordinate federal funding of science for the purposes of war, including the National Defense Research Committee
and the Office of Scientific Research and Development
. 1945 : Vannevar Bush
—head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, intimately connected with the Manhattan Project
, and personal acquaintance of the President—was asked by President Roosevelt in 1944 to write a report on the what should be done in the postwar to further foster government commitment to science and technology. Bush issued his report to President Harry S. Truman
in July 1945, entitled Science—The Endless Frontier.
The report lays out a strong case for having the federal government fund scientific research, arguing that the nation would reap rich dividends in the form of better health care, a more vigorous economy, and a stronger national defense. The report also proposes creating a new federal agency, the "National Research Foundation," to administer this effort. 1945–1950 : Although there is broad agreement in Washington with the principle of federal support for science, there is far less agreement on exactly how that effort should be organized and managed. Thrashing out a consensus requires five years of negotiation and compromise. 1950 : On May 10, President Truman signs Public Law 507, creating the National Science Foundation. The act provides for a National Science Board of twenty-four part-time members and a director as chief executive officer, all appointed by the president. 1951 : In early March, Truman nominates Alan T. Waterman
, the chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research
, to become the first Director of the fledgling agency. With the Korean War underway, money is tight: the agency's initial budget is just $151,000. 1952 : After moving its administrative offices twice, NSF begins its first full year of operations with an appropriation from Congress of just $3.5 million, a figure far less the almost $33.5 million requested. Twenty-eight research grants are awarded. 1957 : On October 5, the Soviet Union orbits Sputnik 1
, the first ever man-made satellite. The successful rocket launch forces a national self-appraisal that questions American education, scientific, technical and industrial strength. For 1959, Congress increases the NSF appropriation to $134 million, nearly $100 million higher than the year before. By 1968, the NSF budget will stand at nearly $500 million. 1958 : NSF selects Kitt Peak
, near Tucson, Arizona
, as the site of the first national observatory, a research center that would make state-of-the-art telescopes available to every astronomer in the nation. (Prior to this time, there was no equal access; major research telescopes were privately funded, and were available only to the astronomers who taught at the universities that ran them.) Today, that idea has expanded to encompass the National Optical Astronomy Observatory
, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory
, the National Solar Observatory
, the Gemini Observatory
and the Arecibo Observatory
, all of which are funded in whole or in part by NSF. Along the way, moreover, NSF's astronomy program has forged a close working relationship with that of NASA, which was also founded in 1958: just as NASA has responsibility for the U. S. effort in space-based astronomy, NSF provides virtually all the U. S. federal support for ground-based astronomy. 1959 : The United States and other nations operating in Antarctica
conclude a treaty that reserves the continent for peaceful and scientific research. Shortly thereafter, a presidential directive based on the treaty gives NSF the responsibility for virtually all U.S. operations and research on the continent; the U.S. Antarctic Program continues to this day. 1960 : Emphasis on international scientific and technological competition further accelerates NSF growth. The Foundation starts the Institutional Support Program, a capital funding program designed to build a research infrastructure among American universities; it will be the single largest beneficiary of NSF budget growth in the 1960s. NSF's appropriation is $152.7 million; 2,000 grants are made. 1968 : The Deep Sea Drilling Project begins. Over the years, the project reveals much new evidence about the theories of continental drift, sea floor spreading and the general usefulness of the ocean basins. The program also becomes a model of international cooperation as several foreign countries join the operation. 1972 : NSF takes over management of twelve interdisciplinary materials research laboratories from the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA). These university-based laboratories had taken a more integrated approach than did most academic departments at the time, encouraging physicists, chemists, engineers, and metallurgists to cross departmental boundaries and use systems approaches to attack complex problems of materials synthesis or processing. NSF begins to expand these laboratories into a nationwide network of Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers
1972 : NSF launched the biennial Science & Engineering Indicators report to the President of the United States and U.S. Congress. Founded in 1968 as a research institution in bibliometrics and patent analytics ipIQ dba The Patent Board has provided patent indicators and science literature analysis since the intitial report in 1972. 1977 : The first "Internet
" is developed. This interconnection of unrelated networks is run by DARPA
. Over the next decade, increasing NSF involvement leads to a three-tiered system of internetworks managed by a mix of universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. By the mid-1980s, primary financial support for the growing project is assumed by the NSF. 1983 : The agency budget tops $1 billion for the first time. Major increases in the nation's research budget are proposed as the country recognizes the importance of research in science and technology, as well as education. A separate appropriation is established for the U.S. Antarctic Program
NSF receives more than 27,000 proposals and funds more than 12,000 of them. 1985 : In November NSF delivers ozone sensors, along with balloons and helium, to researchers at the South Pole so they can measure stratospheric ozone loss. The action is taken in response to findings made in May of that year, indicating a steep drop in ozone over a period of several years. The Internet project, now known as NSFNET
, continues. 1990 : NSF's appropriation passes $2 billion for the first time. 1990s : NSF funds the development of several curricula based on the NCTM standards
, devised by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
These standards are widely adopted by school districts during the subsequent decade. However, in what newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal
later call the "math wars", organizations such as Mathematically Correct
complain that some elementary texts based on the standards, including Mathland
, have almost entirely abandoned any instruction of traditional arithmetic in favor of cutting, coloring, pasting, and writing. During that debate, NSF is both lauded and criticized for favoring the standards. 1991 : In March, the NSFNET acceptable use policy
is altered to allow commercial traffic. By 1995, with the private, commercial market thriving, NSF decommissions the NSFNET, allowing for public use of the Internet. 1993 : Students and staff working at the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications
(NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, develop Mosaic
, the first freely available browser to allow World Wide Web
pages that include both graphics and text. Within 18 months, NCSA Mosaic becomes the Web browser of choice for more than a million users, and sets off an exponential growth in the number of Web users. 1994 : NSF, together with NASA and DARPA, launches the Digital Library Initiative
One of the first six grants goes to Stanford University
, where two graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, begin to develop a search engine that uses the links between Web pages as a ranking method. They will later commercialize their search engine under the name Google
. 1996 : NSF-funded research establishes beyond doubt that the chemistry of the atmosphere above Antarctica is grossly abnormal and that levels of key chlorine compounds are greatly elevated. During two months of intense work, NSF researchers learn most of what we know today about the ozone hole. 1998 : Two independent teams of NSF-supported astronomers discover that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up, as if some previously unknown force, now known as dark energy
, is driving the galaxies apart at an ever increasing rate. 2000 : NSF joins with other federal agencies in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, dedicated to the understanding and control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale. Today, NSF's roughly $300 million annual investment in nanotechnology research is still one of the largest in the 23-agency initiative. 2001 : NSF's appropriation passes $4 billion.
- The NSF's Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology reveals that the public has a positive attitude toward science but a poor understanding of it. 2004–5 : NSF sends "rapid response" research teams to investigate the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina An NSF-funded engineering team helps uncover why the levees failed in New Orleans. 2005 : NSF's budget stands at just over $5.6 billion. 2006 : NSF's budget stands at $5.91 billion for the 2007 fiscal year that began on October 1, 2006 and runs through September 30, 2007. 2007 : NSF requests $6.43 billion dollars for FY 2008. (NSF Budgets).
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
. Recent surveys indicate that elsewhere in the world, including Japan and Europe, public interest in S&T is lower than in the United States, with China
a notable exception. A preponderance of Americans (54%) have heard "nothing at all" about nanotechnology
Science and Engineering Indicators, published by the National Science Board, provides a broad base of quantitative information on the U.S. and international science and engineering enterprise.