The Promise of Science and Engineering:1996-1997 ANNUAL REPORT
An Investment in the Future
At Work for America's Future
The returns on NSF's support of science and engineering research and education vary widely. Some projects produce fundamental knowledge that expands our understanding of our world. Others lead to observations that can have a more direct effect on our daily lives. The following examples of NSF funded projects for FY 96-97 exemplify NSF's philosophy of investing in the best ideas with the greatest potential for lasting impact.
- In 1997, astronomers using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in Socorro, New Mexico first observed radio signals from gamma ray bursts. These bursts are remarkably energetic events of unknown origin that occur in the far reaches of space. The VLA observations may contribute to solving a major mystery of cosmology by helping to determine the nature of the bursts. Other groundbreaking work supported by NSF is taking place closer to homežin our solar system. Another astronomy project, the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG), carried out a series of observations of the Sun, using sound waves rather than light. By understanding the inner workings of the Sun, researchers will learn more about how our star affects the planet on which we live.
- The SHEBA (Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean) project is also expected to yield significant benefits for society. Started in September 1997, a drifting science station was established in the Arctic Ocean to gather data on the Arctic's canopy of pack ice. SHEBA researchers obtained new information on how the sun, clouds, air, ice and ocean interact and affect the annual melting and refreezing of the Arctic ice cap. This data, much of it posted to the Internet, is improving our understanding of the role of the Arctic in the global climate system.
- NSF's Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) provide environments in which academic and industrial scientists and engineers can focus on next-generation advances in complex engineering systems. The ERCs aim to build effective partnerships with industry, to develop shared infrastructure, and to increase the ability of engineering and science graduates to contribute to the nation's competitive edge. An illustration of ERC program value to industry and society is the Emerging Cardiovascular Technologies center at Duke University. It led to the world's first commercially available instruments that can acoustically image a living heart noninvasively. The first two instruments were shipped to the National Institutes of Health and the Cleveland Clinic in 1997. Another ERC project set a new standard in the aviation industry: an integrated analysis tool, developed by the Mississippi State University ERC in cooperation with NASA's Langley Research Center. The Boeing Company used this tool to redesign the wings of its 747 aircraft. Within the past year, such companies as AlliedSignal Inc., General Electric Company, and Pratt & Whitney have bought and used the simulation package.
- What we know today as the Internet grew from predecessors in the 1980s and earlier, notably ARPANET and NSFNet. The NSFNet was a research and education network linking universities to NSF supercomputer centers. In the same decade, scientists from NSF's supercomputer center at the University of Illinois developed the first web browser. That browser moved the Internet from the realm of university research to public communication and commerce. Today the Internet links 37 million computers and over 150 million users. Individuals around the world who use the Internet do research, exchange information and conduct business. As the number of commercial transactions, data transfers, and other activities that rely on the Internet increases, however, the medium has become noticeably slower. Anticipating the need for a faster and more efficient version of the Internet, NSF has supported research on the vBNS (very high performance Backbone Network Service). The vBNS is an experimental platform that enables scientists and engineers to bypass the bottlenecks in today's information superhighway and push the boundaries of networking research in search of technology and applications that will benefit all Internet users. This new platform connected NSF's supercomputer sites when it went into operation in April 1995. It expanded in 1996 and 1997 to link more than 20 academic and research sites at speeds four times those available through commercial servers. The speed makes possible such computing-intensive applications as three-dimensional simulations of ecosystems and studies of the impact of rapid fluctuations on weather patterns.
- Another program supported by NSF has made impressive progress since it was launched in 1990. The Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis Genome Project is moving steadily toward its goal of sequencing the entire genome of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant in the mustard family, by the year 2000. In September 1996, NSF and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy collaboratively funded three groups of researchers who, along with other international groups, are sequencing the Arabidopsis genome. The sequencing has already led to conceptual advances in several areas of plant biology. These advances include understanding the mechanisms of hormone action in plants, interactions of plants with environmental factors, plant pathology, developmental pathways, and complex metabolic pathways. When the project ends, scientists will have a complete catalogue of all the genes involved in the life cycle of a typical plant. The catalogue will help researchers develop new varieties of plants for agriculture, for novel industrial raw materials, and for purposes not yet imagined.
- NSF-funded research in the geosciences focuses on the Earth's geological record from the past; current studies of the earth, ocean, and atmosphere; and the development of predictive climate models. In 1996 and 1997, two teams of NSF-supported researchers unearthed new evidence that supports the theory that a meteorite struck the Earth in the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago and contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. A team from Rutgers University, Queens College, and the New Jersey Geological Survey drilled sediments that contained a layer 1,260 feet deep rich in glass beads that formed as a result of the heat generated by the impact. This layer is located precisely at a stratigraphic level that has been identified as the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. A second team, led by a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, used the JOIDES Resolution (the drillship of the international Ocean Drilling Program) to retrieve sediment cores that revealed a continuous record not only of the cataclysmic upheaval of the impact but also the post-impact recovery of life in the ocean. These cores will allow scientists to conduct further research on geochemical and paleontological characteristics of the re-population of the oceans.
- On yet another frontier, social and behavioral research is revealing new information about how people think and how they handle the information they receive. One important area of activity is the exploration of the many factors that influence jurors' decisions in court cases. Research studies look at preconceptions that people bring to court and how the presentation of evidence and other information can influence perceptions and decisions. New knowledge of this type promises increased understanding of behaviors and institutions important to us all.
- Information technologies, such as the Internet, not only provide schools with access to scientific resources and information for the classroom, but also with opportunities for students to learn and understand complex material. The use of technology to expand and enrich educational opportunities for all students has the potential to revolutionize instruction and learning in classrooms, schools, and entire school systems. An NSF-sponsored project at the University of California, Berkeley, is using the Internet as a means to instill in middle school students a lifelong love of science and scientific research. The project, Knowledge Integration Environment (KIE), combines scientific content, pedagogical supports for teachers, and software to form a powerful instructional framework. Augmented with Internet resources, the project guides students in developing a cohesive, linked, and integrated understanding of scientific phenomena, from the nature of light to the evolution of dinosaurs. KIE learners develop scientific ideas from personal experience, school instruction, Internet exploration, and other activities. KIE software includes a World Wide Web database of science information; tools for organizing evidence and constructing arguments; and a variety of other management and help tools.
These are just a few examples of how NSF-funded scientists and engineers have gone exploring, in search of new knowledge that ultimately serves society. For more information on the broad range of activities we support, see our website (http://www.nsf.gov)