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Partnerships in Service to Society, 1994-1995 Annual Report
A Message From NSF Director Neal Lane

Photo of Neal Lane

Dr. Neal Lane
NSF Director

On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the National Science Foundation, we look with pride at the variety of contributions the Foundation has made and continues to make in every facet of the natural and social sciences, mathematics, and engineering. Over the last several years, we have seen astonishing advances in some long-standing NSF projects. One example is the Internet, which grew out of experimental networks funded by NSF and other federal agencies, and now attracts the interest and excitement of millions of new users. Another example is biotechnology, especially the recent major advances in the mapping of plant genomes, that will lead to the creation of larger, healthier, and more nutritious agricultural products.

In last year's Annual Report message, I described some of the ways in which NSF is moving beyond business as usual, in response to changes in society's rationale for investment in science and engineering. One of these ways, as outlined in the White House report, Science in the National Interest, is to stimulate partnerships among government, universities, and industry that promote investment in fundamental research and education.

This year, I am expanding upon that theme in recognition of the enormous benefits that NSF's partnerships have yielded since the Foundation's inception in 1950. These partnerships are an integral part of NSF's strategic plan, NSF in a Changing World, our blueprint for succeeding in the current era of increasing expectations and tightening budgets. In the plan, we outlined the following goals:

  • First, enable the United States to uphold a position of world leadership in all aspects of science, mathematics, and engineering;

  • Second, promote the discovery, integration, dissemination, and employment of new knowledge in service to society; and

  • Third, achieve excellence in U.S. science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education at all levels.

We recognize that NSF cannot attain any of these goals single-handedly. Rather, we see NSF as playing a catalytic role-working in concert with partners in every sector of society to provide the tools, the programs, and the funding to make these goals a reality.

NSF's partnerships include collaborative efforts with the academic community, with industry, with elementary and secondary schools, with state and local governments, with other federal agencies, and with nations and international bodies. Partnerships are perhaps most effective when the partners bring distinct capabilities and expertise to the table, so that they can do together what cannot be accomplished alone. The forms that these collaborations take can range from funding individual research projects to multidisciplinary centers.

ACHIEVEMENTS AT THE CUTTING EDGE

Small and individual research efforts are the fundamental unit of cutting-edge science and the backbone of NSF's mission. From nucleic acids to hurricanes, the emphasis of over 100,000 students, teachers, and researchers supported by NSF each year is on understanding how the world works and furthering scientific knowledge. Examples abound. Stanley Williams from Arizona State University helped design an NSF-funded aircraft instrument that measures the chemical composition of volcanos, in an effort to understand the conditions that lead to volcanic eruptions. Rola Idriss of New Mexico State University, the 1994 winner of a five-year NSF Young Investigator Award, focused her research on non-destructive ways of detecting early signs of structural danger to highway bridges that often are missed in visual inspections. NSF grantees Charles Peskin and David McQueen of New York University created the first computer model of a human heart that is realistic enough to be used in research in place of an actual human heart.

NSF has a long tradition of partnerships with other federal agencies. For example, UNOLS, an academic research fleet of 27 ships, is a nationwide resource for oceanographic research. UNOLS (the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System) has been jointly funded with the Office of Naval Research for two decades; other agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, have participated at various periods as well.

More than 500 collaborative efforts supported by NSF involve U.S. researchers with their international counterparts. The Arabidopsis Genome Research Project is an international scientific collaboration formed to thoroughly understand the physiology, biochemistry, growth, and development of a single flowering plant--the mustard plant--Arabidopsis thaliana. Already the project has generated an extraordinary string of scientific achievements, including the first molecular identi- fication of a plant hormone receptor, the first production of biodegradable plastic in transgenic plants, and the first control of flower development using transgenic plants. Within the past year, researchers have made significant advances that could revolutionize the development of disease-resistant plants.

At the other extreme of size and scope, NSF's Antarctic Program is a multifaceted research attempt to explore the unique biology, ecology, and geology of the Antarctic, and to use these insights to further scientific understanding in other areas, such as the global climate system. In one of many projects, investigators from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland are working together to resolve a major question of glacial geology-whether the huge terrestrial ice sheet in East Antarctica remained stable or collapsed some two to five million years ago when the climate was warmer than now, and what processes were involved in the ice sheet's response to global climate change.

Fifteen years ago, the Foundation was just beginning to establish research centers to bring together academic and industrial researchers to work on multidisciplinary problems. Today, NSF-sponsored centers number more than 160, including 21 Engineering Research Centers, 24 Science and Technology Centers, as well as supercomputer centers, Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers, Minority Research Centers of Excellence, and Long-Term Ecological Research sites. These centers offer a synergistic atmosphere enabling researchers from different disciplines to come together to solve large, complex problems, only part of which may be related to an individual researcher's expertise. The mixing of disciplines and researchers is critical to success.

The Center for Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington, for example, has worked with more than 20 firms to develop new and rapid techniques for large-scale DNA sequencing, a technology critical for genetic mapping and DNA "fingerprinting." In Louisiana, a three-year collaborative effort of universities and businesses has just been launched to put the new, highly-specialized technology of micromanufacturing into operation. And at the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science at the University of Michigan, researchers are working with individual companies to develop applications of the revolutionary ultrafast technologies in fields as diverse as high-speed computing, medicine, fiber-optics, and biotechnology.

TECHNOLOGY AND THE MARKETPLACE

Well-conceived partnerships help our nation harvest the fruits of science and engineering. University activities supported by NSF focus on the development of new knowledge and new ways of critical thinking and problem solving, and the education and training of tomorrow's science and technology workforce. NSF has established ten State/Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers as a means of furthering scientific and technological development relevant to states' interests in encouraging economic growth. Developed jointly with the National Governors' Association's Science and Technology Council of the States, these centers emphasize the use of fundamental research to enable new technologies that will have a high potential for commercialization, job creation, and economic development. One example is the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval in Amherst, MA, which has developed a probabilistic-based information retrieval engine called INQUERY. Already, the Library of Congress is using INQUERY to make legislative information available to the public over the Internet.

Partnerships also can play an important role in disseminating the fruits of science and technology to small businesses. For example, the Science and Technology Center for Cement-Based Materials at Northwestern University has joined with the State of Illinois to set up the Illinois Small Business Partnership, offering small businesses access to the Center's faculty and participation in Center symposia.

Sometimes research in one area can lead to innovations in another. Research on the fundamental nature of fluids passing through small openings involves a host of problems related to pressure, viscosity, flow rates, particle deflection, and dispersal patterns. At the Engineering Research Center at Purdue University, the industrial partner initially most interested in this line of research was involved in spray painting. But a major benefactor of the research was Cummins Engine, a company that makes diesel engines, because the same fundamental principles are important for fuel injection systems. Cummins was able to use this research to improve its own engines, as well as to develop fuel injection systems that now are used by overseas engine manufacturers.

In addition to stimulating research and accelerating the commercialization of products, the educational benefits of some university-industry partnerships are equally important. Today, each of NSF's centers has a teaching and outreach component that brings scientists into schools, and invites high school students and teachers into the centers. For many students, work at a center might be their first contact with an industrial perspective. For industry, the benefits of these contacts begin with the immediate knowledge gained from the research and they continue for years into the future. Students who have participated in joint research activities gain a perspective on industrial needs and a respect for careers in industry that in the past often were missing from the academic experience.

A recent addition to our "partnership portfolio" is GOALI--Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry--which aims to increase the application of university research and education and to synergize university-industry partnerships. Beginning with engineering projects in 1994, the GOALI initiative is having an important educational impact on faculty, students, and industrial researchers. The mechanisms of collaboration can take a variety of forms; for example, a professor and student or postdoctoral fellow might work on-site in a company laboratory for up to one year. Or, an industry scientist might come to the university to teach or develop a new educational program. Alternatively, collaborative projects might be undertaken with co-principal investigators from industry and the university.

Already, GOALI is spawning research in new areas-polymer molding in conjunction with AT&T, metal flow with Alcoa, smart fluids at Ford, advanced fluidized beds at Exxon, materials handling at Du Pont. A collaboration between the Otis Elevator Company and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has led to the development of new dispatching controls, based on "fuzzy logic," that reduce waiting time for elevators. In each case, the goal is for the university to conduct generic research and make it accessible to society for application and further development.

INCREASING THE REPRESENTATION OF MINORITIES AND WOMEN

Underrepresented minorities receive fewer than three percent of the total doctoral degrees awarded in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology; women earn fewer than one third of science doctorates and only nine percent of engineering doctorates. Women represent 45 percent of all workers in the U.S. but only 18 percent of the science and engineering workforce. As Dr. Anne Petersen, Deputy Director of NSF, speaking at a pathbreaking NSF conference on Women and Science held in December 1995, noted, "Percentages that low make you think we're talking about the 1950s, not the 1990s."

Science literacy must not be limited only to certain groups in our society. A scientifically literate citizenry and a technologically sophisticated workforce will strengthen the nation's global competitiveness and economic well-being. With these objectives in mind, NSF has undertaken a number of collaborative efforts with universities, high schools, and other institutions to increase the participation of women and minorities in the technical workforce and in teaching science and mathematics.

NSF's Alliances for Minority Participation (AMP) is a multidisciplinary and comprehensive undergraduate program designed to remove barriers that prevent full participation by individuals from certain minority groups (African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians) that are underrepresented in the science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) workforce. For the 15 AMP partnerships receiving more than one year of support from NSF, the average increase in baccalaureate degree completion rates of minority students in SMET fields is 15 percent per year. AMPs also have implemented summer "bridge" programs for incoming freshmen, research experiences for undergraduates, curriculum reform activities for "gateway" courses, and collaborative learning supplemental sessions for SMET courses.

To increase the participation of women in the sciences, we must begin early and provide continuing reinforcement for science education. The National Science Partnership for Girl Scouts and Science Museums is a nationwide collaboration of science museums, Girl Scout councils, and NSF to help make science fun and exciting for girls through training and hands-on science kits. NSF's ultimate aim is to reach all 2.3 million Girl Scouts and their 780,000 leaders in the United States.

NSF's support helped start a project known as WISE, or Women in Science Excel, at Stony Brook, the State University of New York. The project focuses on six crucial years in the educational pipeline--9th grade through sophomore year in college. We know now that these are the years when a disproportionate number of well-qualified girls and women give up on potential careers in science and engineering, not because of a lack of good grades or ability, but because of a continuing absence of role models, mentoring, and encouraging attitudes. WISE is one of many projects seeking to make a difference.

For women who have selected or are exploring a career path in science and engineering, NSF tries to help clear systemic hurdles in their path towards research achievements, a key factor in career advancement in science and engineering. Visiting Professorships for Women, a university partnership program, gives experienced female scientists and engineers the opportunity to conduct advanced research at academic institutions of their choice, where they have access to other prominent scientists in their fields.

PROVIDING A BROADER EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE THAN CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION ALONE

Education is at the core of NSF's mission. The Foundation has programs to educate and inspire teachers and faculty, to develop exciting curriculum materials, to provide children with early hands-on science experiences, and to enrich informal education in museums and other contexts. At the heart of our efforts is also the understanding that long-lasting and much-needed change in science education requires the mobilization of entire communities. We must bring together schools, teachers, parents, administrators, boards of education, mayors, governors, members of the business community, and other citizens to improve dramatically the quality of science education in each community.

NSF has recently begun providing significant support to improve undergraduate engineering education. The emphasis is on teaching our future engineers to find solutions from a wide range of disciplines, and to work in teams rather than singly. In one project that is part of an Engineering Education Coalition, the instructors assigned their students the task of designing a low-cost, portable shelter that will keep homeless people warm on winter nights. This kind of project can infuse a sense of service into undergraduate education, and teach students how to put their skills to work in ways that benefit the larger community.

As is the case with other professionals, scientists and engineers are likely to change jobs several times during their careers. These changes may involve moves among academia, industry, and government. NSF must continue to be creative in helping students understand that science is a useful preparation for a broad array of professional careers. The study of science teaches the path of critical thinking-a vehicle for informed judgment that applies in every occupation, every walk of life, and that prepares students for an unpredictable, dynamic job market. Students facing the difficult decision of whether to devote their careers to science and engineering deserve top priority in our thinking. As we design new partnerships and evaluate existing ones, we need to think about ways to maximize the benefits to the largest number of students.

CONCLUSION

Cooperation. Collaboration. Partnership. As in most human relationships, there is no single formula for creating or sustaining a partnership. But at the core is the need to build on mutual interests to achieve an overarching goal. The variety of partnerships that NSF has entered into, over a period of decades, is indicative of the interconnectedness of government, academia, and industry in advancing this nation's research and education effort--an effort that serves as the engine of economic sustainability and of the nation's health, security, and well-being.

Over the last 50 years, science and technology have in large part defined what we think of as the American Dream--a dream of expanding opportunities and a continually improving quality of life. Today, the scientific community must become ever more visible in educating and explaining to our citizens and policy-makers how science and technology contribute to our lives, our aspirations, and our national goals. A strong commitment to the furthering of scientific and technological knowledge remains our best hope for keeping the American Dream healthy and secure for the next 50 years.

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The 1994-1995 Annual Report originally was published as a special section of the July/August 1996 issue of Frontiers.

Return to July/August 1996 Frontiers home page   Other Contents of July/August 1996 Frontiers
Visit Other Frontiers Issues page   Other Frontiers Issues
Visit Other NSF Publications page   Other NSF Publications
Visit Office of Legislative and Public Affairs page   Office of Legislative and Public Affairs

 

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