The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for supporting fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering (the National Institutes of Health [NIH] is its counterpart for medical research). NSF funds approximately 20% of research programs conducted at colleges and universities. In some fields, such as mathematics, computer science, economics and the social sciences, the NSF is the main source of financial backing. Working with the 24-member National Science Board, the NSF’s director and deputy director work to plan, budget for and carry out daily operations of the foundation. The National Science Board (NSB) determines NSF’s policies.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) was established when the National Science Foundation Act was signed in 1950. The National Science Foundation Act was signed to “advance the national health, prosperity and welfare, and to secure the national defense.”
In the years prior to World War II, scientific research was not considered part of the federal government’s responsibilities. Private contributions and charitable foundations provided much of the funding for scientific experimentation. During WWII, American military success brought about greater awareness of the need for continued scientific and engineering research, and Congress began to consider funding initiatives in these areas.
In 1945, the head of the federal government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development gave a report to President Harry S. Truman. Called “Science, the Endless Frontier,” the report laid out a strong case for having the federal government fund ongoing scientific research. It characterized the rich rewards society would reap from such research, including better health care, a more robust economy and a stronger national defense. The report concluded with a suggestion to create a new federal agency to administer these efforts.
During the next five years, there was much debate on the future of such an agency, but no real consensus. Finally, on May 10, 1950, President Truman signed Public Law 507, which created the National Science Foundation. The law provided for a National Science Board to be comprised of 24 part-time members, a director and deputy director, all of whom would be appointed by the president. In 1951, Truman nominated Alan T. Waterman, the chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research, to become the agency’s first director. At first, little funding was approved because the Korean War was absorbing the bulk of the nation’s available capital.
By 1952, the first few research grants were awarded, but the agency’s budget was still only $3.5 million, which was about 10% of the amount requested. The launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on October 5, 1957, made science research a lot more important in the minds of Americans, who did not want to lose the space race to the Communists. For 1959, Congress increased the NSF’s budget to $134 million, nearly $100 million more than the previous year. This would grow to nearly $500 million by 1968.
In 1959, the first national observatory was established at Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Arizona. This site became a research center that made state-of-the-art equipment, especially telescopes, available to a larger pool of researchers. Over the next few years, several additional observatories, including the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the National Solar Observatory, the Gemini Observatory and the Arecibo Observatory, were created. The astronomy program forged an ongoing relationship with NASA, which handles U.S. space-based astronomy (NSF handles the country’s ground-based astronomy). That same year also brought about a treaty between the United States and the other nations operating in Antarctica to ensure the continuance of peaceful and scientific research.
The 1960s witnessed a good deal of NSF growth, based around international scientific and technological competition. The Institutional Support program, designed to fund research infrastructure at American universities, was established. The number of grants reached 2,000 per year. Additionally, the Deep Sea Drilling Project was begun. The project revealed brand new information about continental drift, sea floor spreading and the general usefulness of the ocean basins. Several other countries joined in this project in a cooperative way.
In the 1970s, the NSF became engaged with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and encouraged physicists, chemists, engineers, and metallurgists to cross-existing departmental boundaries in order to solve larger problems. Many NSF laboratories expanded into a nationwide network of Materials Research and Science and Engineering Centers. A biennial report on Science and Engineering Indicators is sent to the president and Congress.
DARPA and NSF created the first “Internet” in 1977. NSF scientists organized this loose collection of networks into a three-tiered system of internetworks managed by several universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. By the mid-1980s, the NSF assumed financial support for this growing project.
Throughout the 1980s, the agency budget increased, topping out at more than $1 billion for the first time in 1983. The NSF helped to deliver ozone sensors to the South Pole to help researchers measure stratospheric ozone loss. In the 1990s, NSF’s appropriation passed $2 billion for the first time. Some of the foundation’s new initiatives included development of curricula devised by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. These standards were widely adopted by school districts over the next decade, but they also launched a controversy popularly called the “math wars” that brought complaints that schools were skipping teaching of basic skills in favor of this new math curriculum.
In 1991, the NSFNET, as the fledgling Internet was called, was altered to allow commercial traffic. By 1995, NSF decommissioned NSFNET, making way for public use of the Internet. In 1993, students and staff at the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) developed Mosaic, which was the first available browser to load World Wide Web pages with both graphics and text. It became the browser of choice for more than a million users within 18 months of its release.
In 1994, the NSF and DARPA launched the Digital Library Initiative. At Stanford University, two graduate students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin received an NSF grant and began to develop a search engine using links between web pages as a ranking method. Later, they commercialized their discovery under the name Google.
By 1996, NSF-funded research revealed that the chemistry of the atmosphere above Antarctica was abnormal, and that levels of key chlorine compounds were greatly elevated. This eventually became known as the “hole in the ozone layer” and spurred more research into global warming. Other NSF-funded research found that the expansion of the universe was speeding up due to a previously unknown force, now called “dark matter.” As a result, many galaxies are being pushed apart as never before.
In the new millennium, the NSF joined with other federal agencies in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which directed funds toward research into matter at the molecular and atomic levels. The agency’s appropriation continued to grow, passing $4 billion, then $5 and $6 billion. Although the NSF’s Survey of Public Attitudes Toward an Understanding of Science and Technology revealed that the public had a positive attitude but poor understanding of science, the agency continued to press forward with its plans. In 2005, NSF’s deployment of “rapid response” research teams in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina helped to undercover why levees and other human-designed protective measures failed to protect citizens. That same year, the NSF partnered with the National Endowment for the Humanities in a program to document the more than 3,000 endangered languages around the world.
In 2009, an international team of 47 scientists—funded by the NSF and other organizations—completed the reconstruction of “Ardi,” the oldest known Hominid skeleton, a 4.4-million-year-old two-legged female that lived in trees and was a common ancestor of the chimp and the human.
The National Science Foundation (NSF is responsible for furthering research and education in the non-medical fields of science and engineering. It does this largely by distributing funds to universities and colleges across the nation. The NSF receives approximately 42,000 proposals each year and funds around 28% of those proposals. The reviews are conducted by panels of independent scientists, engineers, and educators who are experts in relevant areas of study. To avoid conflict of interest issues, these scientists cannot work for NSF or for any institution employing the proposing researchers. NSF grants support researchers and research facilities, as well as science, engineering, and mathematics education from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. Undergraduates can receive funding through Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer programs, and graduate students are supported through Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeships (IGERT) and Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) programs, as well as through the Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF-GRFP).
NSF organizes its research and educational support through seven divisions, each of which oversees a variety of scientific disciplines:
The NSF also supports scientific research through several offices within the Office of the Director, including:
The NSF has also launched a number of crosscutting projects coordinating the efforts of experts across an array of disciplines. A few of the current projects include: Nanotechnology, cloud computing, explosives and related threats, and climate change education.
Some Noteworthy NSF-Funded Studies
From the NSF Web Site:
The National Science Foundation FY 2013 Budget Request to Congress (pdf) outlines these planned disbursements of funds from its proposed $7.373 billion budget:
Research & Related Activities $5,983,280,000
Education & Human Resources $856,100,000
Agency Operations & Award Management $299,400,000
Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction $196,170,000
Office of Inspector General $14,200,000
National Science Board $4,440,000
Total Budget $7,373,100,000
The NSF spent $16.6 billion on nearly 180,000 transactions this decade. According to USASpending.gov, the agency paid for a variety of services, from operation of government-owned facilities ($1.286 billion) to professional services ($1.194 billion), ADP and telecommunications ($951.5 million), and building maintenance ($676 million).
The top five contractors were as follows:
1. Raytheon Company $1,258,789,721
2. Lockheed Martin Corporation $430,729,371
3. Miscellaneous Foreign Contractors $430,672,002
4. Joint Oceanographic Institutions Inc. $266,314,701
5. Hewlett-Packard Company $203,059,209
NSF’s largest contractor is the Raytheon Company, which is best known for its work with the U.S. military on guided missiles, engineering, night vision equipment, radar equipment, and defense missile and space systems. In Centennial, Colorado, Raytheon operates a research & development center for the National Science Foundation. According to the National Science Foundation’s Web site, Raytheon oversees the Raytheon Polar Services Company, which provides services for researchers at the South Pole through NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.
In addition to spending money on contractors, the NSF distributes millions of dollars in grants to support research. The foundation’s Active Funding Opportunities details projects for which organizations can submit proposals. It also reports on centers (pdf) that NSF has funded.
Senator Accuses NSF of Frivolous Research
Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), a crusader against government waste, accused the National Science Foundation (NSF) in May 2011 of spending billions of dollars on unnecessary research.
A report prepared for Coburn claimed the NSF wasted nearly $3 billion on such things as
a robot folding laundry and other needless developments.
Representatives of the science lobby rejected Coburn’s assertions. Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, characterized the attacks on “silly grants” as “irresponsible.” He also said the senator’s report was filled with errors and questionable analyses.
Coburn’s report was not entirely critical of the NSF. It credited the NSF with making “worthwhile investments,” including research that helped develop the Internet, magnetic resonance imaging, bar codes and retinal implants.
Senator's Criticism of Science Foundation Draws Fire (by Jeffrey Mervis, Science Insider)
Critical Report Stokes Debate Over National Science Foundation (by Julian Spector, UWire)
NSF Board Report Omits Evolution, Big Bang Theory
Scientists and the White House were taken aback in March 2010 when a report by the National Science Board (NSB), which oversees the National Science Foundation, left out data on Americans’ knowledge of evolution and the big bang.
The censored information, obtained by Science Insider, showed that Americans were far less likely than people in other countries to accept that humans evolved from apes and that the universe began after a great explosion.
Members of the NSB said they chose to omit the data because it originated from source questions that asked respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs.
The explanation did not satisfy many scientists who were outraged by the board’s actions. Aides to President Barack Obama, who reviewed the draft report before it was edited, also were miffed, saying the deletions were done without their knowledge.
Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report (by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Science Insider)
Intellectual Malpractice: Covering Up American Ignorance of Evolution (by Austin Cline, About.com)
NSF Survey Reveals Widespread Belief in Alternative Medicine
In response to a 2001 NSF survey, an overwhelming majority of people (88%) agreed that “there are some good ways of treating sickness that medical science does not recognize.” The American Medical Association defines alternative medicine as any diagnostic method, treatment, or therapy that is “neither taught widely in U.S. medical schools nor generally available in U.S. hospitals.” However, at least 60% of U.S. medical schools devote classroom time to the teaching of alternative therapies, generating controversy within the scientific community. Many scientists believe that alternative therapies such as homeopathy and herbs are untested and unregulated treatments that are not beneficial to people. Among the 16 therapies included, the largest increases between 1990 and 1997 were in the use of herbal medicine (a 380% increase), massage, megavitamins, self-help groups, folk remedies, energy healing, and homeopathy.
Controversy About Privatization of the Internet
From 1987 to 1995, Internet stakeholders expressed concern that when NSFNET opened up the Internet, IBM, and MCI were given a perceived competitive advantage in “leveraging” federal research money to gain ground in fields in which other companies previously held a competitive advantage. The Cook Report on the Internet became the largest critic of this unfair advantage.
An Inconvenient Truth Refused by Science Teachers
In 2001, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), made up of 53,000 educators across the country, declined an offer of 50,000 free DVD copies of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Although NSTA Director Dr. Gerry Wheeler said that the organization does not distribute third-party products, the film’s producer, Laurie David, wrote a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post, accusing the NSTA of accepting money from Exxon-Mobil, among other gas and oil companies, which had tried to discredit the science behind the film before it was released. The NSTA is funded by Congress and affiliated with the NSF in its educational programs.
An Inconvenient Controversy (Living on Earth)
Science a la Joe Camel (by Laurie David, Washington Post)
Movement to Change Science Curriculum to Include Intelligent Design
In 2005, a movement arose to include “intelligent design” as a subject matter in public school science classes and/or to label evolution as “simply a theory.” On one side of the argument were scientists who claimed that religious belief systems had no place in the classroom, and on the other were religious communities that want their belief systems reflected in current public school curriculum. The Theory of Evolution through natural selection is currently used by biologists, medical researchers, pharmaceutical developers, anthropologists, chemists, biochemists, geologists, and many other researchers. In contrast, the theory of intelligent design holds that life is too complex to have happened by chance and that, therefore, some sort of intelligent designer must be responsible.
Regarding Public School Science Classes and Intelligent Design Creationism (Teaching about Religion)
More Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Science Classrooms (National Science Board)
Antarctica Ice Highway Runs into Difficulty
The National Science Foundation’s plans to build a so-called Ice Highway in Antarctica ran into trouble when the Antarctica and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), an alliance of 230 environmental groups in 49 countries, raised concerns about the 1,014-mile road across the continent’s pristine wilderness. Explorer Sir Edmund Hillary even entered the fray, saying the Ice Highway was “an abomination.” Builders contend that the road is necessary to facilitate scientific experimentation and sharing of information among countries currently doing research in Antarctica.
USA's Science-Driven “Ice Highway” Hitting Rough Sledding in Antarctica (by Jack Lyne, Site Selection)
Change Criteria for Grants to Meet National Goals
Researchers seeking funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) would have to show how their work meets national benchmarks in order to qualify for grants, under reforms discussed in 2011.
Before the proposed changes, researchers merely had to show the NSF how their research would benefit society through education, outreach, or other means. But the reforms, developed by the National Science Board, linked funding to meeting one nine “national goals,” such as bolstering national security or economic competitiveness.
Some scientists complained the new goals seemed arbitrary. They also said NSF review panels “would be forced to prioritize these goals since they will be presented with proposals that are equally meritorious, but advancing different goals,” according to Science Insider.
Researchers Question NSF's Changes to Merit Review Criteria (by Natalie Villacorta, Science Insider)
NSB Releases Report on NSF’s Merit Review Criteria (The Computing Community Consortium Blog)
Creationism vs. Evolution
In June 2008, four NSF studies addressing basic questions about how life originated and has evolved tried to help resolve long-standing controversies about evolution and fundamental biological responses to environmental changes, such as global warming. Some of this research was in response to an ongoing public debate about whether the Theory of Evolution, which has been accepted as scientific and taught in public schools for several decades, should continue unchallenged. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) defends the teaching of evolution, to the exclusion of “intelligent design,” which has also been called “scientific creationism.”
As part of this debate:
Louisiana’s Latest Assault on Darwin (Editorial, New York Times)
Louisiana governor signs creationist bill (National Center for Science Education)
Anti-evolution incidents (National Center for Science Education)
Supporters of the Theory of Evolution
Supporters of evolution argue that humans evolved from apes over thousands of years. The landmark 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, in which Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution from a book by Charles Darwin, had established that state-funded public schools had to teach that man had descended from God’s original creation.
Scopes’ attorney, Clarence Darrow, argued that Scopes was within his rights as an employee of the state, under the separation of church and state as guaranteed by the Constitution. Although Scopes was found guilty of teaching disallowed material and ordered to pay a fine of $100, the case influenced several other evolution/creationist cases over the succeeding decades. The Butler Act of 1925, the original statute that had been broken by Scopes, remained on the books in Tennessee until it was repealed by the state legislature in 1967.
Opponents of Evolution in Favor of Intelligent Design
During the Scopes trial, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan argued that Scopes was bound by law to teach the state-mandated curriculum that restricted anything that denied the story of the “Divine Creation of Man.” Believers in intelligent design argue that life is too complex to have happened as the result of chance. Instead, some sort of intelligent designer, or God, had to have been responsible for creating it. Defenders of this thought were outraged by a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Louisiana law that prohibited the teaching of evolution unless equal time was given to creationism. But victory was attained in 1999 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to delete evolution from the state’s science standards.
Over the past decade, controversy over the teaching of evolution has emerged in Kansas and nearly 20 other states. Proponents of Intelligent Design want to introduce it in science classrooms as a viable alternative to evolution, and to add disclaimers about evolution in science textbooks going forward.
Creationism vs. Evolution: Origins of a Controversy (by Gail Becker, John F. Haught, Stephen Low and Dennis Wint, Museum News)
Evolution Vs. Creationism: Study Reveals Public School Science Lagging (Huffington Post)
Top 20 Web Forums: Creationism vs. Evolution (Theology Degrees)
Teachers still in discord over creationism vs. evolution (by Cory Shaffer, The Lantern)
Evolution: what’s wrong with ‘teaching the controversy’ (by Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch, National Center for Science Education, Trends in Ecology & Evolution) (pdf)
Most recently the dean of the engineering school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Subra Suresh has been nominated by President Barack Obama to run the National Science Foundation, which supports fundamental research and education in science and engineering with an annual budget of $7 billion. Obama announced his choice of Suresh on June 2, 2010.