A former patent clerk named Albert Einstein sketched notes on the theory of relativity in 1905. More than a century later, the long-standing theory was validated when the Laser Interferometer Gravitation-Wave Observatory detected gravitational waves originating from the collision of two black holes. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which makes possible scientific discovery from space observations to human genetics to volcanic influence on sea level.
Since its creation by Congress in 1950, NSF has served as the federal agency charged with promoting the progress of science; securing national defense; and advancing American health, prosperity, and welfare. Roughly 24 percent of all federally-supported fundamental scientific research at U.S. universities is funded by NSF, and the agency’s reach extends to students, policy makers, and the public. The 24-member National Science Board (NSB), which establishes overall priorities for NSF, held their quarterly meeting last week. NSB provided an overview of NSF activities and plans for the future with a particular focus on NSF’s budget and merit-based review.
NSF receives its funding from the federal government under the annual Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The enacted Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 NSF budget was $7.46 billion, and the administration requested an increase to nearly $8 billion for FY 2017. While both chambers’ committee-passed bills fall short of the president’s request, the Senate’s Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, S. 2837, would marginally increase funding from the enacted FY 2016 level to $7.50 billion, while the House bill, H.R. 5393, would slightly decrease the agency’s budget to $7.39 billion.
For ocean scientists, funding for the sea-going missions is critical. The current fleet of NSF research vessels is operating at capacity; it uses 97 percent of available research time. The fleet is also aging (the R/V Endeavor and R/V Oceanus are 40 years old), and Dr. Richard Murray (Director, Division of Ocean Sciences, NSF) explained, “Older ships cost more and are less efficient.” While some ship-based research projects are currently undertaken using existing cooperative agreements, making up the ship time needed in the future using commercial vessels is not always a viable solution since research requirements necessitate specific equipment not available on most vessels. The president’s budget request and S. 2837 include funding for two and three additional research vessels, respectively.
Approximately 93 percent of NSF’s budget goes toward merit-reviewed research. Budgetary constraints force NSF to only fund a small portion of the 40,000 proposals submitted annually. Identifying the highest merit proposals is critically important to the agency’s mission; however, many highly ranked proposals remain unfunded. In an effort to strengthen the merit-based review process, a pilot program was initiated to eliminate proposal deadlines in NSF’s Earth Sciences: Instrumentation and Facilities Program. This pilot found a 50 percent decrease in the number of submitted proposals, indicating that deadlines yield rushed submission of under-prepared proposals destined for rejection. Another experimental plan worked to streamline the review process, which traditionally involves review by three ad-hoc peers and a panel of experts. In the highly praised new approach, ad-hoc reviews occurred quickly, and only those proposals that received positive comments went on to panel review. This information was presented by Dr. Steve Meacham (Senior Staff Associate, Directorate for Geosciences, NSF) as part of NSF’s FY 2015 Merit Review Report. He also identified that disproportionately few proposals were submitted by women (26 percent), under-represented minorities (less than 10 percent), or persons with disabilities (1.6 percent).
NSF Director France Córdova made note of the “food-energy-water nexus” as an overarching topic of interest as she introduced NSF’s ten intersecting and overlapping ‘big ideas’ in ongoing research and directional aims for the future. The agency’s statutorily-mandated biennial Science and Engineering Indicators Report compiles data on scientists and research trends for policy makers, national and international researchers, educators, students, and journalists. Dr. Beethika Khan (Program Director, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics) described this as “a key vehicle by which the [National Science] Board informs the science and technology policy dialogue.” Indicators was published online this year, which NSB Chairwoman Maria Zuber (E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, Vice President for Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) believes has increased its value to everyone ranging from Congress to educators.
NSF also has educational research programs designed to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education; their reach includes 171,000 school-age children and 41,000 teachers. Ms. Amanda Greenwell (Head of Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, NSF) discussed her office’s activities toward promoting science and education surrounding NSF’s initiatives to engage the public and generate STEM literate populace, including a new strategic plan, television, web videos, and the Science360 application for smartphones and tablets. Widely promoting NSF could lead toward increased science funding and support, not to mention increased science literacy of the public.
Our understanding of the world around us requires scientific research and innovation, and the ongoing training of a science-literate workforce is what keeps the U.S. competitive globally. Without NSF’s efforts to provide a fair and just merit-based review process, scientific advancement would be stunted. We need NSF and scientists to ensure U.S. security, food, lives, and livelihoods.