What do that MRI you had after damaging your knee while running, knowing whether to bring an umbrella to work, and antifreeze in Antarctic fish have in common?MRIs, the Doppler radar, and the identification of “antifreeze” glycoproteins in Antarctic fish were made possible through research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In addition to its 66-year history of promoting scientific progress, the NSF funds 24 percent of federally-supported research at colleges and universities across the nation. The 24-member National Science Board (NSB) leads NSF and meets five times per year, most recently on November 8 and 9. NSF Director Dr. France Córdova opened the meeting by touting some of the agency’s monumental successes in 2016, including six NSF-supported scientists winning Nobel Prizes and 213 teachers being awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
The Committee on Strategy and Budget (CSB) reviewed the funding outlook for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 (Congress returns this week to determine federal funding levels for the remainder of the fiscal year; the current short-term continuing resolution expires December 9). The Senate Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017 (S. 2837), calls for a slight increase from FY 2016’s $7.46 billion budget to $7.50 billion, while the corresponding House bill, H.R. 5393, would slightly decrease agency funding to $7.39 billion. CSB also provided an update on NSF’s strategic plan for 2018-2022, which is being finalized. Since the last meeting, NSB requested feedback online and asked for input during the meeting. Suggestions include explicitly recognizing in the vision statement that NSF aims to better understand the world and its inhabitants and highlighting the uniqueness of NSF’s mission (because of its ability to deal with interdisciplinary and complementary science).
NSF’s merit review process, which Dr. Suzanne Iacono (Head of the Office of Integrative Activities (OIA), NSF) stated is well established and referred to by “many around the globe … as the gold standard,” was also discussed. Merit-reviewed research is at the receiving end of the overwhelming majority of NSF’s budget, and the agency has been continually working to ensure the highest caliber proposals are funded. For example, to keep reviews objective and informative, a new pilot program would provide proposal reviewers with a webinar-based orientation to inform them on conflict of interest and confidentiality policies as well as criteria.
The Board also reported on steps they are taking to convey the agency’s value to Congress and the administration. The Congressional Engagement Working Group has developed a list of congressional leaders and offices to visit and engage over the coming year, and the agency is finalizing a memo to the new administration. NSB Chairwoman Dr. Maria Zuber (E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, Vice President for Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) stated that the memo “articulates the value of NSF within the U.S. and science technology enterprise” and “urges the expeditious appointment of a science advisor.” NSF’s role in innovation and discovery cannot be underestimated. Without their merit-review process and support for fundamental research, the U.S. would be lacking in critical research and development in areas such as tumor detection, DNA fingerprinting, and volcanic eruption detection and would be far behind in global leadership in research and education.