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Enhancing Support of Transformative Research at the National Science Foundation
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nsb0732 Document Number: nsb0732
Author: National Science Board
Published: May 7, 2007
Keywords: Transformational Research, Basic Research, scientific advances, Rising Above the Gathering Storm
Available Formats: PDF
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Abstract
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Science progresses in two fundamental and equally valuable ways. The vast majority of scientific understanding advances incrementally, with new projects building upon the results of previous studies or testing long-standing hypotheses and theories. Less frequently, scientific understanding advances dramatically, through the application of radically different approaches or interpretations that result in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. This progress is revolutionary, for it transforms science by overthrowing entrenched paradigms and generating new ones. Truly revolutionary advances in science today may need particular nurturing, especially at the proposal stage. Although basic research that has the potential to be transformational is inherently less predictable in its course and eventual outcomes, it is, nonetheless, absolutely essential for our national advancement and for the advancement of science as a whole.


Executive Summary
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Science progresses in two fundamental and equally valuable ways. The vast majority of scientific understanding advances incrementally, with new projects building upon the results of previous studies or testing long-standing hypotheses and theories. This progress is evolutionary - it extends or shifts prevailing paradigms over time. The vast majority of research conducted in scientific laboratories around the world fuels this form of innovative scientific progress. Less frequently, scientific understanding advances dramatically, through the application of radically different approaches or interpretations that result in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. This progress is revolutionary, for it transforms science by overthrowing entrenched paradigms and generating new ones. The research that comprises this latter form of scientific progress, here termed transformative research, is the focus of this report.

In practice, distinguishing between innovative and transformative research is difficult at best and, some would argue, only possible in hindsight. Indeed, the two forms of scientific progress do exist side-by-side and, often, proceed hand-in-hand and overlap each other. For example, Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, which significantly transformed concepts of our world, required decades of innovative research to prove its validity. Undoubtedly, there are many pathways to transformative breakthroughs. This report, however, is interested in a particular pathway, in our view, the one less traveled. This pathway is marked by its challenges to prevailing scientific orthodoxies. Albert Einstein, Barbara McClintock, and Charles Townes are just three modern examples of scientists who chose this path. Their discoveries, and many others, not only fundamentally transformed science and engineering, but also shaped the quality of our lives by paving the way for new frontiers and new technologies in industry, in commerce, and in national security. Although defining such breakthroughs a priori is difficult, attempts to do so are not in vain because history unequivocally records the essential benefits to mankind.

Truly revolutionary advances in science today may need particular nurturing, especially at the proposal stage. Recently, two reports articulated a concern about the current decline in support of research. In its 2005 report Assessment of Department of Defense Basic Research, the National Research Council found a general decline in support of basic research over the past decade as well as a recent de-emphasis on "unfettered exploration, which historically has been a critical enabler of the most important breakthroughs in military capabilities." Similarly, in its "roadmap" for medical research in the 21st century, the National Institutes of Health also recognized a need to stimulate "high-risk/high-impact" medical research with the potential to result in groundbreaking discoveries.

The underlying concern of these reports and, indeed, of this one is that failure to encourage and to support revolutionary ideas will jeopardize not only our Nation's ability to compete in today's and tomorrow's global economy, but also the progress of science as a whole. This concern is articulated best in the much publicized and widely heralded 2005 report from The National Academies Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. The authors identify factors that contribute to the United States' eroding competitiveness in the global economy; the recent decline in support of "high-risk or transformative research," particularly in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences is identified as one major factor. The authors state that "reducing the risk for individual research projects increases the likelihood that breakthrough, 'disruptive' technologies will not be found-the kinds of discoveries that yield huge returns." As testimony to both the strength and the urgency of the report's findings and recommendations, President George W. Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, announced the American Competitiveness Initiative in order to encourage greater scientific innovation and to strengthen the United States' ability to compete in the global economy. A leading component of the President's comprehensive strategy is the support of "groundbreaking ideas generated by innovative minds" through a doubling of the Federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences during the next 10 years.

Although basic research that has the potential to be transformational is inherently less predictable in its course and eventual outcomes, it is, nonetheless, absolutely essential for our national advancement and for the advancement of science as a whole. How the National Science Foundation (NSF, Foundation) can enhance the solicitation and support of such research is the focus of this report.


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