Excellence in Higher Education
The longest running education program offered by the National Science Foundation is the Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides funds and national recognition to university students working toward careers in science or engineering. In 1952, NSF's first fully budgeted year, almost half of the agency's $3.5 million appropriation$1.5 millionwas disbursed in the form of research fellowships to 573 graduate students, 32 of them women.
From the start, awardees considered the NSF fellowships prestigious and career-making. More than one member of the class of 1952 has kept the telegram that brought the news of his or her good fortune. World-famous biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson recalls that "the announcements of the first NSF pre-doctoral fellowships fell like a shower of gold on several of my fellow [Harvard] students in the spring of 1952. I was a bit let down because I wasn't amongst them." Wilson's spirits lifted the following Monday when he got his own, albeit belated, notice.
Of the thousands of young scientists who have received fellowships over the years, many have made significant contributions in a wide variety of fields and eighteen have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Says Donald Holcomb, professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University and a 1952 graduate research fellowship recipient, "I do think it is fair to say that the coincidence of the career spans of me and my contemporaries with the life span of the National Science Foundation created a symbiosis which has profited both us as individuals and American science at large."
Graduate research fellows todayand, in fact, all science and engineering studentshave a large number of superior colleges and universities that they can attend, almost anywhere in the U.S. But it wasn't always so. NSF's science development programsbetter known as the Centers of Excellencewere created in 1964 in response to several national concerns: the growing population of college and university students, the explosion of scientific and engineering knowledge, and the fact that the country's top-notch research schools were concentrated in only a few regions of the country. Through such programs as the University Science Development Grants, the Departmental Science Development Grants, and Special Science Development Grants, NSF helped degree-granting institutions all around the U.S. strengthen the quality of their science-related research and education activities during the 1960s and 1970s.
"NSF provided the seed money for the development of institution-wide master plans, and also helped to fund the implementation of those plans," says Judith Sunley, NSF interim assistant director for education and human resources. "Then the universities took over, providing the funds to maintain excellence over the long haul."
The first grants were announced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. By 1972, when the last science development awards were made, NSF had distributed $233 million in 115 grants to 102 public and private institutions in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Institutions used the grants primarily to recruit strong faculties, support postdoctoral scientists and graduate students, acquire sophisticated equipment and materials, and construct, modernize, and renovate laboratories, libraries, and other special facilities for research and teaching.
NSF's Centers of Excellence program resulted in stronger science and engineering departments across the United States. The program's impact continues to be felt by succeeding generations of science and engineering students.