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.