CPP Task Force on Transformative Research
"...the Board shall establish the policies of the Foundation, within the
framework of applicable national policies as set forth by the President and the
Congress." (SEC. 4.(a))
The National Science Board (NSB, the Board) should consider new policies
that would enhance the ability of the National Science Foundation (NSF,
the Foundation) to identify, evaluate, and fund innovative, "transformative"
research, defined as research that has the potential to revolutionize
an existing discipline through a paradigm shift or create a new one.
In July 1999, the NSB noted a need to revitalize a commitment to innovative
research (NSB-00-39). In October 2000, the former NSB Chair, stated to
the Committee on Science's Subcommittee on Basic Research, "industry
is increasingly dependent on the Federal government to support long term
and high risk research at the same time that the Federal share of the
U.S. R&D enterprise is declining." At the February 2003 retreat,
the Board itself discussed ways in which it could help NSF develop new
and more effective approaches to reviewing and funding both multidisciplinary
and innovative research that has the potential to transform disciplines.
The August 2004 report of the NSF Advisory Committee for Government
Performance and Results Act Performance Assessment (AC/GPA) concluded
that no obvious formula exists to guide NSF as to the fraction of the
portfolio that should be "high risk" (or "bold").
However, the Advisory Committee also stated "... without hesitation
that it is vital that the overall portfolio contain an appropriate amount
of "bold" research and that the definition of such research
must be clear and widely understood by NSF's key stakeholders".
They recognized that there is always a tension between funding such research
and funding other priorities, and where possible, they suggested that
NSF should do more. The Committee concluded by stating that it "...believes
that this issue is important enough to warrant attention by the National
The Board's ad hoc Task Group on High-Risk Research (now
referred to as transformative research) has conducted an initial review
of current practices that NSF and other funding organizations use to identify
and support potentially transformative research. The NSB Office developed
a white paper that provided an overview of the variety of current approaches
to identify and fund such research. The Task Group also convened a workshop
at the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico (22-23 September 2004)
to solicit the individual views of members of the scientific community
on NSF's approaches to funding transformative research and their
suggestions for improvements. Several major issues were identified during
the course of the workshop that affect NSF's ability to identify,
evaluate, and fund potentially transformative research:
There is a lack of common definitions of "high-risk" or
There is a need to develop criteria within NSF for flagging potentially
There is a need to establish appropriately higher failure rates,
as well as extended time-frames, for potentially transformative research.
There is a need to establish a different and possibly higher target
funding rate for potentially transformative research than for research
with a more certain outcome.
There is a need to develop ways of tracking potentially transformative
research through the NSF system and of evaluating outcomes over an extended
Workshop participants also discussed aspects of the peer review process
that militate against selection of potentially transformative research
and identified key variables in the review and funding processes that
could enhance NSF's ability to identify and support truly pioneering
researchers at an early stage in the development of transformative concepts:
A markedly greater emphasis on selection of individuals, rather than
A different view of panels, including the possible constitution of
separate and different panels for evaluating potentially transformative
research and researchers.
Developing mechanisms that would permit applicants to respond to
questions during the review process in written form, in real-time electronic
form, and in person.
Expanding funding specifically for the support of transformative
research irrespective of discipline to encourage the influx of new ideas.
Increasing the ability of program officers to identify and champion
such research through better training, greater autonomy, and rewards.
Increasing awareness and confidence in the scientific community that
NSF welcomes transformative concepts, research and researchers.
Establishing ways of measuring and tracking both the success of potentially
transformative proposals within the NSF system and the long-term outcome
of funding them.
The ad hoc Task Group recommends that the Board approve the
creation of a formal Task Force on Transformative Research under the Committee
on Programs and Plans (CPP). The following issues will be analyzed and
discussed before constructive policy recommendations are brought to CPP
and the full Board.
- Definition of "transformative/high risk" research
- An acceptable "failure" rate for transformative research
Review process modifications to improve identification of potentially
- Appropriate funding mechanism amount and duration
Mechanisms for assessing success in identifying and supporting transformative/high
The Task Force will bring together NSF staff, NSB members, and members
of the scientific community. The NSB Office will serve as the focal point
for coordination and implementation of all Task Force activities, including
liaison with NSF staff, Task Force members, and external contractors.
A series of workshops will be held during 2005, some internal and some
external, to address the issues identified above. In addition, the Task
Force will convene such working groups as it deems necessary to obtain
relevant information about the success rate and fate of "transformative"
proposals within the current NSF system, using external contractors as
It is anticipated that the Task Force will produce a final report that
synthesizes the contributions from its own deliberations, workshops and
working groups and presents recommendations for the NSB to consider in
formulating policy on soliciting, identifying, supporting and tracking
potentially transformative research within the NSF framework. Printed
copies of an NSB report will be widely distributed and available on the
NSB Web site for the public, universities, the Congress, various special
interest groups, and the broad scientific community. The Task Force expects
to conclude its activities with 2 years from the date that formation of
the Task Force is approved.