After World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a world with a brighter future than the preceding decades — one in which science and technology could create more productive, more fulfilling lives for all Americans. To plan that scientific future, the nation’s first science agency was created to transition the wartime R&D experience — which yielded new discoveries such as penicillin, radar, and the atom bomb — to peacetime. In 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Science Foundation Act to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes” to continue this legacy.

Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency located in Alexandria, VA that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. NSF is responsible for nonmedical research in all fields of science, engineering, education, and technology. That mission is fulfilled by issuing limited-term grants — with an average duration of three years — to fund specific research proposals that have been judged the most promising by a merit-review system.

In the past few decades, NSF-funded researchers have discovered many of the fundamental particles of matter, analyzed the cosmic microwaves left over from the earliest epoch of the universe, developed carbon-14 dating of ancient artifacts, decoded the genetics of viruses, and created an entirely new state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate.

NSF also funds equipment that is needed by scientists and engineers but is often too expensive for any one group or researcher to afford. Examples include giant optical and radio telescopes, Antarctic research sites, high-end computer facilities and ultra-high-speed connections, ships for ocean research, sensitive detectors of very subtle physical phenomena, and gravitational wave observatories.

NSF is tasked with keeping the United States at the leading edge of discovery in a wide range of scientific areas, from astronomy to geology to zoology. In addition to funding research in traditional areas, the agency also supports “high-risk, high-payoff” ideas — novel collaborations and projects that may seem like science fiction today but that the public will take for granted tomorrow.

Unlike many other federal agencies, NSF does not hire researchers or directly operate its own laboratories or similar facilities. Instead, it supports scientists, engineers, and educators directly through their own institutions. Similarly, NSF funds facilities and equipment through cooperative agreements with research consortia. NSF’s job is to determine where the frontiers are, identify the leading U.S. pioneers in these fields, and provide money and equipment to help them continue.

A humble carbon nanotube may be just the device to make solar panels — and anything else that loses energy through heat — far more efficient. NSF-funded scientists at Rice University designed arrays of aligned single-wall carbon nanotubes to channel heat and greatly raise the efficiency of solar energy systems. This scanning electron microscope image shows submicron-scale cavities patterned into films of the carbon nanotubes. The cavities trap thermal photons and narrow their bandwidth, turning them into light that can then be recycled as electricity. (Credit: Naik Lab/Rice University)

NSF is divided into seven directorates that support science and engineering research and education:

  • Biological Sciences

  • Computer and Information Science and Engineering

  • Engineering

  • Geosciences

  • Mathematical and Physical Sciences

  • Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences

  • Education and Human Resources

Biological Sciences – The Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) supports research to advance understanding of the principles and mechanisms governing life. Research studies extend across systems that encompass biological molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems up to and including the global biosphere. BIO-supported researchers identify the basic rules that determine how life on Earth has thrived and diversified. Their work leads to new ways to prevent and treat diseases, improve agricultural practices, and conserve natural resources. Outcomes from BIO-funded research transform human health, food security, conservation of biodiversity, and more.

Computer and Information Science and Engineering – From the Internet and assistive robotics to driverless cars and machine learning applications, fundamental research supported by CISE has created the scientific and engineering foundations for breakthrough technologies. CISE-supported activities include exploring the integration of physical infrastructure — such as transportation networks and the energy grid — with cyber capabilities.

NSF-funded scientists at Rutgers University used artificial intelligence to control a robotic arm that provides a more efficient way to pack boxes, saving businesses time and money. The researchers developed software and algorithms and used visual data and a simple suction cup that doubles as a finger for pushing objects. Sensor data pulls objects toward a targeted area and pushes objects together. (Rahul Shome/Rutgers University-New Brunswick)

Education and Human Resources – The mission of EHR is to achieve excellence in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels and in all settings (both formal and informal) in order to support the development of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians, and educators.

Engineering – Research funded by NSF’s Engineering Directorate (ENG) includes the fields of chemical engineering, biotechnology, bioengineering, and environmental engineering. Specific technology areas are chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, forest products, metals, petroleum, natural gas, food, textiles, energy utilities, alternative energy sources, microelectronics, and other sectors. The ENG also advances manufacturing technologies, the design of materials and building technologies, and tools and systems for robotics and controls.

With NSF-funded technology by Vanderbilt University, the simplest home medical tests might look like a deck of various silicon chips coated in special film — one could detect drugs in the blood, another for proteins in the urine indicating infection, and another for bacteria in water. Add the bodily fluid to be tested, take a picture with a smartphone, and a special app indicates if there’s a problem. (Vanderbilt University/Heidi Hall)

Geosciences – GEO funds research that advances knowledge of natural processes of the land, oceans and atmosphere, and at the poles, including better prediction and understanding of earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, drought, and solar storms. Support is provided for interdisciplinary studies that contribute directly to understanding, adapting to, and mitigating the impacts of global change.

Mathematical and Physical Sciences – MPS supports fundamental research in astronomy, chemistry, materials, the mathematical sciences, and physics and covers areas such as sustainable energy and food supplies, instrumentation and sensors, new materials, and threat detection.

Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences – Nearly every major challenge the U.S faces — from protecting the nation from natural disasters and terrorism, to helping children learn — requires understanding the causes and consequences of people’s behavior. SBE-funded scientists study the relationship between the brain and behavior, including how the brain produces cognition, language, emotion, and action.

Technologies

Do you spend time texting, tweeting, talking, or browsing on a mobile device? Smartphones are packed with technologies generated from NSF-funded basic research. Cars, planes, the cyberworld, and the outside world are safer because of NSF-funded fundamental research that has translated into improved child safety seats, plane deicing, hacker alerts, and weather radar and storm-resistant structures.

Arizona State University (ASU) and Mayo Clinic researchers, using NSF funding, found that one type of clay — Oregon blue clay — may help fight disease-causing bacteria in wounds including treatment-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). (Credit: Lynda Williams, ASU)

The Internet – Drawing on DARPA’s pioneering support for early computer networking projects and the development of Internet protocols, NSF funds catalyzed the creation of the commercial Internet. Starting in 1985, NSF support created a major infrastructure backbone that would eventually link to smaller regional networks, spreading connectivity across the country and overseas. NSF leveraged public-private partnerships to broaden access to the network and to make it easier to navigate, including managing domain name creation and the development of one of the first Internet browsers, Mosaic.

Google – When the Internet first began, it had fewer than 100 websites but searching even this small number was not a straightforward task. NSF led the multi-agency Digital Library Initiative (DLI), a project in which two graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, created a new way to search the Web. They used a page ranking system built on foundational NSF-supported work in economics and sociology. In 1998, Page and Brin launched an Internet search website called Google that used that system. Today, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is valued at $739 billion.

Josie Fraticelli examines the 3D-printed prosthetic created for her by Virginia Tech assistant professor Blake Johnson and his team. The NSF-funded project integrated electronic sensors with personalized 3D-printed prosthetics — a development that could one day lead to more affordable electric-powered prosthetics.

Smartphones – From the liquid crystal display and multi–touch screen zoom, to the lithium battery and mapping software and GPS, NSF supported research essential to the creation of many technologies contained in smartphones.

Nanotechnology – Since 1991, NSF has invested nearly $10 billion in research to discover the fundamental mechanisms responsible for driving activity at the level of individual atoms and molecules. This science helps build better technologies and materials that touch nearly all aspects of daily life, from medical imaging to protective gear for first responders.

Additive Manufacturing – 3D printing has revolutionized manufacturing by offering a more efficient way to create prototypes or products by printing them from scratch, rather than cutting an object from an existing block of material. Early research by NSF-funded engineers played a pivotal role in developing 3D printing techniques.

American Sign Language – William Stokoe of Gallaudet University received his first NSF grant in 1960 for a study of the “linguistic structure of sign language.” At that time, linguists did not consider sign language a true language like oral languages. Stokoe’s research determined that sign language shared the same characteristics as oral languages and was indeed a language in the fullest sense. His work revolutionized deaf education in the U.S. and lead to the first Dictionary of American Sign Language.

Weather Radar – Meteorologists use radar to track storms and precipitation as they move through the atmosphere. Through the years, NSF-funded research has helped improve the capabilities of the national radar network, which produces weather forecasting and provides advanced warning of impending storms. Such improvements have led to better rainfall estimations, the ability to track hailstorms, as well as the ability to track debris associated with tornados.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – One of the most widely used imaging techniques in medicine, MRI provides critical details on blood flow and the structure of internal organs. Since 1950, NSF has provided a significant part of the basic research infrastructure scientists used while developing the MRI technique.

Kidney Exchanges – According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant and 13 people die every day waiting for a kidney. Many kidney patients who need a donation rely on a relatively small pool of potential donors among their friends and family. While game theory and market dynamics may seem unrelated to kidney transplants, they have become the backbone of a nationwide lifesaving kidney match program. With NSF support, researchers created software that matches kidney recipients to compatible donors regardless of whether they know one another, greatly widening the donor pool.

DNA Analysis – Two NSF-funded scientists isolated a heat-tolerant microorganism from a sample of pink bacterium collected from a spring in Yellowstone Park. Twenty years later, scientists discovered that it produced an enzyme that was crucial in allowing DNA to reproduce rapidly, creating a simple way to make unlimited copies of DNA fragments. This enzyme is used in DNA amplification, which is the cornerstone of modern genetic analysis used in fields such as medical diagnostics and forensic science.

The mold of Fraticelli's hand that was scanned during the development of the personalized prosthetic. (Photos by Logan Wallace/Virginia Tech)

CAD-CAM – NSF-funded research in solid modeling led to widespread use of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM), which has revolutionized much of the manufacturing processes in the U.S. NSF-supported research continues to provide the foundation for new manufacturing technologies that increase efficiency and allow U.S. firms to be globally competitive.

Retinal Implant – NSF has supported research to develop a retinal implant that could bring vision back to some of the 6 million Americans who suffer from retinal degenerative diseases. The artificial vision system can electronically capture and transmit images to the brain to create sight. NSF-funded University of Southern California’s retinal prosthesis includes electrodes implanted in the human retina along with external components. The prosthesis picks up images from an array of photosensors and translates them into electrical signals sent to nerve cells in the retina. The external components include a camera, image processing units, electronics, and a multichannel electrode array. The camera transmits the image to the computer chip, which is connected to tissue in the retina and then transmits the signals to the brain.

Industrial Partnerships

The Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships (IIP) invests in high-tech small businesses and collaborations between academia and industry to transform discoveries into innovative commercial technologies with societal benefits.

Partnerships for Innovation (PFI), one of the NSF’s technology translation programs, helps commercialize new intellectual property derived from NSF-funded research, create new or broader collaborations with industry including increased corporate sponsored research, license NSF-funded research to third parties, form startup companies, and provide entrepreneurship training for future leaders in innovation.

For more information, contact PFI Director, Jesus Soriano, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. visit here .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the November, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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