The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent agency of the United States government
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 US$
8.3 billion (fiscal year 2020), the NSF funds approximately 25% 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
, 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 president-appointed members of the National Science Board
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 is Sethuraman Panchanathan
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."
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
Since the technology boom of the 1980s, Congress has generally embraced the premise that government-funded basic research
is essential for the nation's economic health and global competitiveness, and for national defense. That support is manifested in an expanding budget—from $1 billion in 1983 to $8.28 billion for FY 2020. 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 NSF has focused on obtaining high return on investment
from their spending on scientific research.
Various bills have sought to direct funds within the NSF. In 1981, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
introduced a proposal to reduce the NSF social sciences directorate's budget by 75%.
[Moffitt, Robert A. "In Defense of the NSF Economics Program." ''The Journal of Economic Perspectives'', vol. 30, no. 3, 2016, pp. 213–233. ''JSTOR'', JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43855708.]
Economist Robert A. Moffit suggests a connection between this proposal and Democratic Senator William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award
series criticizing "frivolous" government spending—Proxmire's first Golden Fleece had been awarded to the NSF in 1975 for granting $84,000 to a social science project investigating why people fall in love. Ultimately, the OMB's 75% reduction proposal failed, but the NSF Economics Program budget did fall 40%.
In 2012, political science
research was barred from NSF funding by the passage of the Flake
[Uscinski, Joseph E., and Casey A. Klofstad. "Determinants of Representatives' Votes on the Flake Amendment to End National Science Foundation Funding of Political Science Research." ''PS: Political Science and Politics'', vol. 46, no. 3, 2013, pp. 557–561. ''JSTOR'', JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43284388.]
breaking the precedent of granting the NSF autonomy to determine its own priorities.
Legislation requiring specific appropriations for various directorates was approved by the House of Representatives in May 2015.
Pre–World War II
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. Academic research in science and engineering occasionally received federal funding. Within University laboratories, almost all support came from private contributions and charitable foundations. In industrial laboratories, the concentration of workers and funding (some through military and government programs as a result of Roosevelt
's New Deal
) would eventually raise concern during the wartime period. In particular, concerns were raised that industry laboratories were largely allowed full patent rights of technologies developed with federal funds. These concerns, in part, led to efforts like Senator Harley M. Kilgore
's "Science Mobilization Act".
Amidst growing awareness that US military capability depended on strength in science and engineering, Congress considered several proposals to support research in these fields. Separately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
sponsored creation of organizations to coordinate federal funding of science for war, including the National Defense Research Committee
and the Office of Scientific Research and Development
both from 1941 to 1947. Despite broad agreement over the principle of federal support for science, working out a consensus on how to organize and manage it required five years.
The five-year political debate over the creation of a national scientific agency has been a topic for academic study, understood from a variety of perspectives.
Themes include disagreements over administrative structure, patents and inclusion of social sciences,
[B.L.R. Smith 1990: 40, cited in Daniel Kleinman ''Politics on the Endless Frontier'']
as well as the roles of political parties, Congress, and President Truman
Commonly, this debate is characterized by the conflict between New Deal
Senator Harley M. Kilgore
head Vannevar Bush
Narratives about the National Science Foundation prior to the 1970s typically concentrated on Vannevar Bush and his 1945 publication Science—The Endless Frontier.
In this report, Vannevar Bush, then head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development
which began the Manhattan Project
, addressed plans for the postwar years to further foster government commitment to science and technology.
Issued to President Harry S. Truman in July 1945, the report made a strong case for federally-funded 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. It proposed creating a new federal agency, the National Research Foundation.
The NSF first appeared as a comprehensive New Deal Policy proposed by Sen. Harley Kilgore of West Virginia.
In 1942, Senator Kilgore introduced the "Science Mobilization Act" (S. 1297), which did not pass.
Perceiving organizational chaos, elitism, over-concentration of funds in elite universities, and lack of incentives for socially applicable research, Kilgore envisioned a comprehensive and centralized research body supporting basic
and applied research
which would be controlled by members of the public and civil servants rather than scientific experts.
The public would own the rights to all patents funded by public monies and research monies would be equitably spread across universities. Kilgore's supporters included non-elite universities, small businesses, and the Budget Bureau.
His proposals received mixed support.
Vannevar Bush opposed Kilgore, preferring science policy driven by experts and scientists rather than public and civil servants.
Bush was concerned that public interests would politicize science, and believed that scientists would be the best judges of the direction and needs of their field. While Bush and Kilgore both agreed on the need for a national science policy,
Bush maintained that scientists should continue to own the research results and patent
s, wanted project selection limited to scientists, and focused support on basic research, not the social sciences, leaving the market to support applied projects.
Sociologist Daniel Kleinman divides the debate into three broad legislative attempts. The first attempt consisted of the 1945 Magnuson bill (S. 1285), the 1945 Science and Technology Mobilization Bill, a 1945 compromise bill (S. 1720), a 1946 compromise bill (S. 1850), and the Mills Bill (H.B. 6448). The Magnuson bill was sponsored by Senator Warren Magnuson
and drafted by the OSRD, headed by Vannevar Bush. The Science and Technology Mobilization bill was promoted by Harley Kilgore. The bills called for the creation of a centralized science agency, but differed in governance and research supported.
The second attempt, in 1947, included Senator H. Alexander Smith
's bill S. 526, and Senator Elbert Thomas
's bill S. 525. The Smith bill reflected ideas of Vannevar Bush, while the Thomas bill was identical to the previous year's compromise bill (S. 1850).
After amendments, the Smith bill made it to President Truman's desk, but it was vetoed. Truman wrote that regrettably, the proposed agency would have been "divorced from control by the people to an extent that implies a distinct lack of faith in the democratic process".
[Truman, cited in Daniel Kleinman's ''Politics on the Endless Frontier''.]
The third attempt began with the introduction of S. 2385 in 1948. This was a compromise bill cosponsored by Smith and Kilgore, and Bush aide John Teeter had contributed in the drafting process. In 1949, S. 247 was introduced by the same group of senators behind S. 2385, marking the fourth and final effort to establish a national science agency. Essentially identical to S. 2385, S. 247 passed the Senate and the House with a few amendments.
It was signed by President Truman on May 10, 1950. Kleinman points out that the final NSF bill closely resembles Vannevar Bush's proposals.
In 1950 Harry S. Truman
signed Public Law 507, or 42 U.S.C. 16 creating the National Science Foundation. which provided for a National Science Board
of twenty-four part-time members. In 1951 Truman nominated Alan T. Waterman
, chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research
, to become the first Director. With the Korean War underway, the agency's initial budget was just $151,000 for 9 months. After moving its administrative offices twice, NSF began its first full year of operations with an appropriation from Congress of $3.5 million, far less the almost $33.5 million requested with which 28 research grants were awarded. After the 1957 Soviet Union orbited Sputnik 1
, the first ever man-made satellite, national self-appraisal questioned American education, scientific, technical and industrial strength and Congress increased the NSF appropriation for 1958 to $40 million. In 1958 the NSF selected Kitt Peak
, near Tucson, Arizona
, as the site of the first national observatory, that would give any astronomer unprecedented access to state-of-the-art telescopes; previously major research telescopes were privately funded, available only to astronomers who taught at the universities that ran them. The idea 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. The NSF's astronomy program forged a close working relationship with NASA
, also founded in 1958, in that the NSF provides virtually all the U.S. federal support for ground-based astronomy, while NASA's responsibility is the U.S. effort in space-based astronomy. In 1959 the U.S. and other nations concluded the Antarctic Treaty
for peaceful and scientific research, and a presidential directive gave the NSF responsibility for virtually all U.S. Antarctic operations and research in form of the United States Antarctic Program
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Leland John Haworth
as the second director of the NSF
. During the 1960s, the impact of the Sputnik Crisis
spurred international competition in science and technology and accelerated NSF growth
. The NSF initiated a number of programs that support institution-wide research during this decade including the Graduate Science Facilities program (started in 1960), Institutional Grants for Science (started in 1961), and Science Development Grants, better known as Centers of Excellence program (started in 1964)
. Notable projects conducted during this decade include creation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research
(1960), creation of the Division of Environmental Sciences (1965), deep sea exploration endeavors Project Mohole
(1961) and the Deep Sea Drilling Project
(1968-1983), the Ecosystems Analysis Program (1969), and ownership of the Arecibo Observatory
. In 1969, Franklin Long was tentatively selected to take over directorship of the NSF
. His nomination caused some controversy due to his opposition to the current administration's antiballistic missile
program and was ultimately rejected by President Richard Nixon
. William D. McElroy instead took over as the third director of the NSF in 1969
. By 1968, the NSF budget had reached nearly $500 million
In 1972 the NSF took 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. The NSF expanded these laboratories into a nationwide network of Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers
. In 1972 the NSF launched the biennial "Science & Engineering Indicators" report
to the US president and Congress, as required by the NSF Act of 1950. In 1977 the first interconnection of unrelated networks was developed, run by DARPA
During this decade, increasing NSF involvement lead 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 was assumed by the NSF.
In 1983, NSF budget topped $1 billion for the first time. Major increases in the nation's research budget were proposed as "the country recognizes the importance of research in science and technology, and education". The U.S. Antarctic Program
was taken out of the NSF appropriation now requiring a separate appropriation. The NSF received more than 27,000 proposals and funded more than 12,000 of them in 1983. In 1985, the NSF delivered ozone sensors, along with balloons and helium, to researchers at the South Pole so they can measure stratospheric ozone loss. This was in response to findings earlier that year, indicating a steep drop in ozone over a period of several years. The Internet project continued, now known as NSFNET
In 1990 the NSF's appropriation passed $2 billion for the first time. NSF funded the development of several curricula based on the NCTM standards
, devised by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
. These standards were widely adopted by school districts during the subsequent decade. However, in what newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal
called the "math wars", organizations such as Mathematically Correct
complained 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 was both lauded and criticized for favoring the standards. In 1991 the NSFNET acceptable use policy
was altered to allow commercial traffic. By 1995, with private, commercial market thriving, NSF decommissioned the NSFNET, allowing for public use of the Internet. In 1993 students and staff at the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications
(NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, developed 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. In 1994 NSF, together with DARPA
, launched the Digital Library Initiative. One of the first six grants went to Stanford University
, where two graduate students, Larry Page
and Sergey Brin
, began to develop a search engine that used the links between Web pages as a ranking method, which they later commercialized under the name Google
. In 1996 NSF-funded research established beyond doubt that the chemistry of the atmosphere above Antarctica was grossly abnormal and that levels of key chlorine compounds are greatly elevated. During two months of intense work, NSF researchers learned most of what is known about the ozone hole
. In 1998 two independent teams of NSF-supported astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe was actually speeding up, as if some previously unknown force, now known as dark energy
, is driving the galaxies apart at an ever-increasing rate. Since passage of the Small Business Technology Transfer Act of 1992 (Public Law 102–564, Title II), NSF has been required to reserve 0.3% of its extramural research budget for Small Business Technology Transfer awards, and 2.8% of its R&D budget for small business innovation research.
NSF joined with other federal agencies in the National Nanotechnology Initiative
, dedicated to the understanding and control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale. NSF's roughly $300 million annual investment in nanotechnology research was still one of the largest in the 23-agency initiative. In 2001, NSF's appropriation passed $4 billion. The NSF's "Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology" revealed that the public had a positive attitude toward science, but a poor understanding of it.
During 2004–5 NSF sent "rapid response" research teams to investigate the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster
and Hurricane Katrina
. An NSF-funded engineering team helped uncover why the levees failed in New Orleans
. In 2005, NSF's budget stood at $5.6 billion, in 2006 it stood at $5.91 billion for the 2007 fiscal year (October 1, 2006 through September 30, 2007), and in 2007 NSF requested $6.43 billion for FY 2008.
President Obama requested $7.373 billion for fiscal year 2013. Due to the October 1, 2013 shutdown
of the Federal Government, and NSF's lapse in funding, their website was down "until further notice," but was brought back online after the US government passed their budget. In 2014, NSF awarded rapid response grants to study a chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water of about 300,000 West Virginia residents. In early 2018, it was announced that Trump would cut NSF Research Funding by 30% but quickly rescinded this due to backlash. As of May 2018, Heather Wilson, the secretary of the Air Force, signed that letter of intent with the director of NSF initiating partnership for the research related to space operations and Geosciences
, advanced material sciences
, information and data science
s, and workforce and processes.
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 and establishing cooperative agreements with research organizations.
It does not operate its own laboratories, unlike other federal research agencies, notable examples being NASA
and the National Institutes of Health
(NIH). The NSF uses four main mechanisms to communicate funding opportunities and generate proposals: dear colleague letters, program descriptions, program announcements, and program solicitations.
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 reflects a broader global trend for funding agencies to demand evidence of research 'impact' and 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
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
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 is broadly organized into four offices, seven directorates, and the National Science Board
It employs about 2,100 people in permanent, temporary and contractual positions at its headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia
. Prior to 2017, its headquarters were located in Arlington, Virginia
In addition to around 1,400 permanent employees and the staffs of the NSB office and the Office of the Inspector General
, the NSF workforce includes some 200 scientists on temporary duty and 450 contract workers.
Scientists from research institutions can join the NSF as temporary program directors, called "rotators", overseeing the merit review process and searching for new funding opportunities. These assignments typically last 1–2 years, but may extend to 4.
The NSF also offers contracting opportunities. As of May 2018, the NSF has 53 existing contracts.
* Office of the Director
* Office of the Inspector General
* Office of Budget, Finance, and Award Management
* Office of Information & Resource Management
The NSF also supports research through several offices within the Office of the Director, including the Office of Cyberinfrastructure,
Office of Polar Programs,
Office of Integrative Activities,
and Office of International Science and Engineering.
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
and materials science
* Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (neuroscience
, science of science policy
* Education and Human Resources (science
and mathematics education
at every level)
Prior to October 2018, NSF maintained three overseas offices to promote collaboration between the science and engineering communities of the United States and other continents' scientific communities:
for Europe, formerly based in Paris
(established 1984; relocated to Brussels in 2015)
for East Asia, except China (established 1960)
All three overseas offices were shut down in October 2018, to reflect the agency's move to a more nimble international posture. Rather than maintain dedicated offices, NSF will dispatch small teams to specific international institutions. Teams may work for up to a week on-site to evaluate research and explore collaborations with the institution.
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:
* The science of learning
* Digital libraries
* The ecology of infectious diseases
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
. It is a part of the NSF's Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE).
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.
U.S. House Backs New Bid to Require ‘National Interest’ Certification for NSF Grants
February 11, 2016, retrieved July 12, 2017
Some historians of science have argued that the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 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
* American Association for the Advancement of Science
* Capital Jury Project
, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education, an NSF Science and Technology Center
* International Council on Nanotechnology
* Mid-InfraRed Technologies for Health and the Environment
(MIRTHE) (largely based at Princeton University
in the US)
* National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program
* National Digital Library Program
* Research council
* Scientific literacy
* Science and Technology Policy Institute
, online database for sediment geochemistry
* U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation
* United States National Academy of Sciences
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.
* Mark Solovey. 2020. ''Social Science for What?: Battles over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences" at the National Science Foundation''. MIT Press.
Official WebsiteNational Science Foundation
in the Federal Register
IGERTTerraFly Autopilot Walk from Metro to NSF offices
* Historic technical reports from the National Science Foundation (and other federal agencies) are available in thTechnical Report Archive and Image Library (TRAIL)"U.S. lawmakers unveil bold $100 billion plan to remake NSF", Science (May, 26, 2020)
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