Guide to Programs Splash Page Skip Navigation Search Guide to Programs    NSF   Questions   NSF E-Bulletin   OLPA Home   NSF Site Map   NSF Home

This document has been archived. For current NSF funding opportunities, see

NSF Crosscutting Investment Strategies
NSF Priority Areas

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) investments in priority areas are focused on frontiers of knowledge, where discovery and innovation are likely to produce significant progress. NSF works with other government agencies to identify and support these multidisciplinary areas.

The priority areas in this section address NSF’s three strategic goals:

  1. People – A diverse, internationally competitive and globally engaged workforce of scientists, engineers, and well-prepared citizens.
  2. Ideas – Discovery at and across the frontier of science and engineering, and connections to its use in the service of society.
  3. Tools – Broadly accessible, state-of-the-art, and shared research and educational tools.

1. Biocomplexity in the Environment

The environment is a subject of profound national importance and scientific interest, making it a strategic priority for NSF. The goals of NSF’s investment in environmental research and education include enhancement of fundamental research in all relevant disciplines and in interdisciplinary and long-term research; creation of educational opportunities that build scientific and technological capacity; discovery of innovative methods that avoid environmental harm and inform the decision-making process; and support for advanced physical, technological, informational, and international infrastructure.

A centerpiece of NSF’s Environmental Research and Education portfolio is the Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE) competition. Initiated in fiscal year (FY) 1999, this special competition promotes comprehensive, integrated investigations of environmental systems using advanced scientific and engineering methods.

Biocomplexity refers to the dynamic web of interrelationships that arise when living things at all levels--from molecular structures to genes to organisms to ecosystems--interact with their environment. Investigations of biocomplexity in the environment are intended to provide a more complete and synthetic understanding of natural processes, human behaviors and decisions in the natural world; and ways to use new technology effectively to observe the environment and sustain the diversity of life on Earth. By placing biocomplexity studies in an environmental context, the Biocomplexity in the Environment competition emphasizes research with the following characteristics: highly interdisciplinary; explicit consideration of nonhuman biota and humans; and focus on challenging systems with high potential for exhibiting nonlinear or highly coupled behavior.

Five interdisciplinary areas are emphasized again in FY 2004:

  • Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human (CNH) Systems—Emphasizes quantitative interdisciplinary analysis of relevant human and natural systems processes and the complex interactions among human and natural systems at diverse scales, with special emphasis given to studies of natural capital; landscapes and land use; and uncertainty, resilience, and vulnerability.
  • Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles (CBC)—Focuses on the interrelation of biological, geochemical, geological, and physical processes at all temporal and spatial scales, with particular emphasis on understanding linkages between chemical and physical cycles and the influence of human and other biotic factors on those cycles.
  • Genome-Enabled Environmental Science and Engineering (GEN-EN)—Encourages the use of genetic and information technology approaches to gain novel insights into environmental questions and problems.
  • Instrumentation Development for Environmental Activities (IDEA)—Supports the development of instrumentation and software that relies on and takes advantage of microelectronics, photonics, telemetry, robotics, sensing systems, modeling, data mining, and analysis techniques to bring recent laboratory instrumentation advances to bear on the full spectrum of environmental biocomplexity questions.
  • Materials Use: Science, Engineering, and Society (MUSES)—Supports projects directed toward reducing adverse human impact on the total interactive system of resource use; designing and synthesizing new materials with environmentally benign impacts on biocomplex systems; and maximizing the efficient use of individual materials throughout their life cycles.

2. Information Technology Research (ITR)

Sustained leadership in the United States in information technology requires an aggressive federal program to create new knowledge in a variety of areas. The U.S. economy’s robust growth has resulted in part from new ideas that became the basis for new products. For example, NSF contributed greatly to the development of today’s Internet. NSF’s investments--in ideas, people, and tools--have benefited greatly from the application of information technology.

NSF faces two major challenges and opportunities with respect to information technology. The first challenge is to support the people, ideas, and tools that will create and advance knowledge in all areas of information science and engineering. Wholly new computational approaches are needed for problems arising from the science and engineering disciplines and the development of new learning technologies for use in education.

The second challenge is to upgrade the computational and computing infrastructures for all fields that NSF supports. Researchers and educators in many areas need to incorporate information technology and, in some cases, revolutionize their experimental and collaborative processes to attain new effectiveness and greater efficiency. In addition, the United States must address a range of access and workforce issues. Overcoming inequities will require innovative educational technologies, such as highly interactive computer science courseware that is both multicultural and multimedia.

NSF is the lead agency for a multiagency 5-year research initiative in information technology. Each agency participating in the initiative will define specific programs in keeping with that agency's mission. NSF is primarily responsible for basic research to advance knowledge and for education and workforce development activities. The multiyear Information Technology Research investment by NSF will lead to the following outcomes:

  • Advancement of fundamental knowledge in techniques for computation, the representation of information, the manipulation and visualization of information, and the transmission and communication of information.
  • Enhanced knowledge about how to design, build, and maintain large, complex software systems that are reliable, predictable, secure, and scalable.
  • New knowledge about distributed and networked systems and interactions among component parts, as well as the interaction of systems with both individuals and cooperating groups of users. Such networks can empower a broadly distributed scientific community to participate fully in frontline research.
  • Development of a significantly advanced high-end computing capability needed to solve myriad important science and engineering problems.
  • Increased understanding of the societal, ethical, and workforce implications of the information revolution.
  • A strong information technology workforce and a citizenry capable of using information technology effectively.

3. Nanoscale Science and Engineering

Nanoscale science and engineering promises to produce a dominant technology for the 21st century. Control of matter at the nanoscale level underpins innovation in critical areas from information and medicine to manufacturing and the environment.

One nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is a unique point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the largest molecules of living systems. Biological cells such as red blood cells have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers. Micro systems with nanoscale components are now approaching this same scale. This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.

Sixteen federal agencies have joined together to promote advances in nanotechnology. NSF’s nanoscale science and engineering program is a multiyear investment whose goals include the following:

  • discovery of novel phenomena, material structures, processes, and tools;
  • enhanced methods for the synthesis and processing of engineered, nanometer-scale building blocks for materials and system components;
  • new device concepts and system architecture appropriate to the unique features and demands of nanoscale engineering;
  • manufacturing and environmental processes at the nanoscale;
  • development of a new generation of skilled workers who have the multidisciplinary perspective necessary for rapid progress in nanotechnology;
  • increased understanding of societal, ethical, and workforce implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology; and
  • convergence of nano-, bio-, information, and cognition-based technologies.

4. Mathematical Sciences

Today’s discoveries in science, engineering, and technology are inextricably intertwined with advances across the mathematical sciences, which provide both powerful tools for insight and a common language for science and engineering. Underlying recent progress in such areas as genomics, information technologies, and climate science are new mathematical and statistical tools that enable scientists and engineers to tackle a broad range of scientific and technological challenges long considered intractable. The goal of the Mathematical Sciences priority area is to advance frontiers in three interlinked areas:

  • fundamental mathematical and statistical sciences;
  • interdisciplinary research involving the mathematical sciences with science and engineering; and
  • critical investments in mathematical sciences education.

Fundamental research themes cut across all areas of the mathematical and statistical sciences. To enhance research in these areas, NSF will provide support through focused research groups, individual investigator grants, and institute and postdoctoral training activities.

The success of the mathematical sciences in producing new analytical, statistical, and computational tools has increased the demand both for further development of new tools and for research teams capable of applying these techniques. A new cadre of researchers who are broadly trained is needed to tackle the increasingly complex interdisciplinary research topics that confront society. Three broad research themes have been identified for initial emphasis:

  • Mathematical and Statistical Challenges Posed by Large Data Sets—Challenges arise in such areas as large genetic databases; the explosion of data from satellite observation systems, seismic networks, global oceanic and atmospheric observational networks, and large astronomical surveys; situations in which privacy and missing data are major concerns; massive data streams generated by automated physical science instruments; and data produced by modern engineering systems.
  • Managing and Modeling Uncertainty—Predictions of phenomena, with measures of uncertainty, are critical for making decisions in areas from public policy to research. Challenges include improving methods for assessing uncertainty and enhancing our ability to forecast extreme or singular events, thus increasing the safety and reliability of such systems as power grids, the Internet, and air traffic control. Other applications include forecasting the spread of an invasive species, predicting genetic change, evaluating the likelihood of complex climate change scenarios, and improving the utility of forecasts of market behavior.
  • Modeling Complex Nonlinear Systems—Advances in mathematics are necessary for a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms underlying interacting complex systems and will be essential for further development of modern physical theories of the structure of the universe at the smallest and largest scales. Challenges include the analysis and prediction of emergent complex properties from social behaviors to brain function, and from communications networks to multi-scale business information systems.

NSF support in this area will encompass interdisciplinary focused research groups, interdisciplinary programs that link innovative training activities with research, and partnership activities with other federal agencies.

Education efforts will focus on innovative projects centered on these research agenda. Activities in this context will include teacher preparation and professional development, curriculum development, undergraduate research participation, and research on how mathematics is learned. Investments will include support for undergraduate and graduate education as well as postdoctoral training coupled with curriculum reform.

5. Human and Social Dynamics

Uncertainty and change have become inescapable facts of life for people today. Economic, social, technological, and environmental change provide new opportunities as well as major challenges. Understanding the human and social dynamics of change in our contemporary world is essential for our nation's continued progress. Multi-scaled, multi-disciplinary approaches, many of which have been made possible by recently acquired knowledge and new technologies, can bring about this understanding.

To address contemporary problems and to advance fundamental knowledge and the welfare of the nation, the National Science Foundation will develop and apply these approaches through a new Human and Social Dynamics (HSD) priority area.

The goals of the HSD priority area are:

  • to develop a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to understanding human and social dynamics;
  • to exploit the convergence in biology, engineering, information technology, and cognition to advance the understanding of behavior and performance at both the individual and social levels;
  • to refine knowledge about decision making, risk, and uncertainty and to learn how to translate this knowledge into improved decision making;
  • to develop the broad range of infrastructure needed to support transformative interdisciplinary research; and
  • to create relevant large-scale data resources and advance methodological frontiers, such as agent-based modeling, complex network analysis, non-linear dynamics, computer-assisted qualitative analysis, multi-level, multi-scalar analysis, and measurement research and technologies.

HSD will be developed over the next five years, with the involvement of all of NSF's directorates. The Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences along with the other research directorates and offices will run a special competition during fiscal year 2004 (FY 04). NSF expects that the scope of competitions and the level of funding will increase in later fiscal years.

Six broad areas will be emphasized and supported during the FY 04 competition pending availability of funds. These areas are:

  • Agents of Change
  • Enhancing Human Performance
  • Decision Making and Risk
  • Spatial Social Science
  • Modeling Human and Social Dynamics
  • Instrumentation and Data Resource Development
Back to top
The National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-5111, FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090