NSF is an independent federal agency created by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (P.L. 81-507). Its aim is to promote and advance scientific progress in the United States. The idea of such a foundation was an outgrowth of the important contributions made by science and technology during Word War II. From those first days, NSF has had a unique place in the Federal government: It is responsible for the overall health of science and engineering across all disciplines. In contrast, other federal agencies support research focused on specific missions, such as health or defense. The Foundation is also committed to ensuring the Nation's supply of scientists, engineers, and science educators.

NSF funds research and education in science and engineering. It does this through grants and contracts to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, and other research institutions in all parts of the United States. The Foundation accounts for about 25 percent of Federal support to academic institutions for basic research.

NSF receives approximately 30,000 new proposals each year for research, graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, and math/science/engineering education projects; it makes approximately 10,000 new awards. These typically go to universities, colleges, academic consortia, nonprofit institutions, and small businesses. The agency operates no laboratories itself but does support National Research Centers, certain oceanographic vessels, and Antarctic research stations. The Foundation also supports cooperative research between universities and industry and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

The Foundation is led by a Presidentially-appointed Director and governed by the National Science Board (NSB). The Board is composed of 24 members, representing a cross section of American leadership in science and engineering research and education; appointed by the President to 6-year terms, with one third appointed every 2 years; and selected solely on the basis of established records of distinguished service. The NSF Director is a member ex officio of the Board. In addition to governance of the Foundation, the Board serves the President and the Congress as an independent advisory body on policies affecting the health of U.S. science and engineering and education in science and engineering.

NSF is structured much like a university, with grants-making divisions for the various disciplines and fields of science and engineering and science education. NSF also uses a formal management process to coordinate research in strategic areas that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. The Foundation is helped by advisors from the scientific and engineering community and from industry who serve on formal committees or as ad hoc reviewers of proposals. This advisory system, which focuses on both program direction and specific proposals, involves more than 59,000 scientists and engineers a year. NSF staff members who are experts in a certain field or area make award recommendations; applicants get anonymous verbatim copies of peer reviews.

Awardees are wholly responsible for doing their research and preparing the results for publication; the Foundation does not assume responsibility for such findings or their interpretation.

NSF welcomes proposals on behalf of all qualified scientists and engineers and strongly encourages women, minorities, and people with disabilities to compete fully in its programs. In accordance with federal statutes and regulations and NSF policies, no person on grounds of race, color, age, sex, national origin, or disability shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving financial assistance from NSF.