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Agency Profile

Science and engineering have reshaped society and enabled the United States to become the most productive nation in the world. The returns on investments in science and engineering have been enormous. New industries have emerged—in communications, biotechnology, agriculture, and other sectors—and have brought with them new employment opportunities, increased economic prospects, and a quality of life beyond anything imagined 50 years ago. Indeed, it has been estimated that up to half of the economic growth since 1950 is a result of technological innovation. Americans enjoy more opportunities today because of research funded years ago. The research that NSF invests in today will produce even more opportunities in the future.

The Internet, plant genomics, nanotechnology and biocomplexity are but a handful of examples of NSF-supported research that has revolutionized, or is about to revolutionize how we live, work, and play.

  • Initial funding by NSF nearly two decades ago led to the creation of the Internet. In turn, this new mode of communication has permanently opened a new door to information and knowledge that has no apparent boundaries.

  • Today’s plant genomics research could lead to more environmentally-friendly farming practices and crops with improved traits, resistant to flood, drought or frost, and with high nutritional value.

  • The potential application of nanotechnology—the ability to work at the atomic, molecular and macromolecular levels—in medicine, manufacturing, and information technology could usher in the world’s next industrial revolution.

  • Finally, a better understanding of biocomplexity—the complex interdependencies among living organisms and the environments they live in—will allow us to make better decisions about the planet our children will inherit.

The NSF Mission: Investing in the Nation’s Future
NSF was the outgrowth of the important role of science and technology in World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, recognizing the potential contribution of the science and engineering enterprise to the postwar world, asked Vannevar Bush, then head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, to develop a plan by which the federal government could nurture and maintain the science and engineering research and education enterprise. Bush’s seminal work, Science—the Endless Frontier, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

On May 10, 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed P.L. 810-507, which created NSF and set forth its mission: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes." The Act directs the Foundation to initiate and support basic scientific research and research fundamental to the engineering process; programs to strengthen scientific and engineering research potential; and education programs at all levels in all fields of science and engineering. The Act also authorizes the establishment of an information base for science and engineering appropriate for development of national and international policy.

Since the passage of that legislation 50 years ago, NSF has endeavored to maintain American leadership in scientific discovery and the development of new technologies. In contrast to other federal agencies that have mission-oriented research objectives such as energy, biomedicine, or space, NSF stands alone as the only federal agency charged with supporting and strengthening all research disciplines and providing leadership across the frontiers of scientific and engineering knowledge.

A Catalyst for Progress: What NSF Does and How We Do It

Proposals and Awards

NSF does not conduct research or operate laboratories. Instead, NSF’s role is that of a catalyst—seeking out and funding the best ideas and most capable people, making it possible for these researchers to pursue new knowledge, discoveries, and innovation.

Each year NSF receives almost 30,000 proposals for research and educational projects. Given NSF’s available resources and rigorous review criteria, only about one in three proposals are funded. Among the projects that NSF funds are national research centers and state-of-the art research facilities and instrumentation, such as the National Astronomy Centers, oceanographic research ships, and Antarctic research stations. NSF also supports cooperative research between universities and industry as well as U.S. participation in international scientific efforts. Education and training activities supported by the Foundation benefit students from kindergarten through the post-doctoral level, including funding of about 900 new graduate and postdoctoral fellowships each year.

Funding Rate for all Competitive ProposalsNSF supports research and education via grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements to about 1,600 colleges, universities, K-12 schools, academic consortia, nonprofit institutions, small businesses and other research institutions in all parts of the United States. While NSF’s budget accounts for only about three percent of the total federal expenditure on research, the Foundation provides half of the federal support to academic institutions for non-medical basic research.

Number of People Directly Engaged in NSF ActivitiesNSF awards directly engage nearly 200,000 research scientists, engineers, mathematicians, teachers and students, ranging from K-12 to post-doctoral associates. Recipients of NSF funds are wholly responsible for conducting their project activities and preparing the results for publication.

Merit Review: The Cornerstone of Excellence
At NSF, funding decisions are made largely through the process of merit review, including expert evaluation by selected peers. NSF’s merit review process is critical to fostering the highest standards of excellence and accountability—standards for which NSF is known the world over. More than 200,000 merit reviews are conducted each year to help NSF program officers evaluate the proposals submitted. In 1998, the National Science Board (NSB), with responsibility for overseeing the policies of the Foundation, put into place two new merit review criteria in an effort to simplify and align NSF’s merit review criteria with NSF’s strategic plan. Reviewers now focus on two primary questions regarding proposals for funding: (1) What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity? (2) What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

NSF’s Business—Research and Education
NSF support is directed at investments in Research and Education. In FY 1999, on a full cost accounting basis as indicated in the Statement of Net Cost, Research Activities totaled $2.8 billion and Education Activities totaled $614.7 million. Given the integrative nature of research and education, however, research activities often include an education component.

Research and education activities

Research activities include the support of research projects, research centers and multi-user state-of-the-art facilities and instruments. NSF supports individual investigators and small groups engaged in both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary areas. Research centers address complex scientific and engineering questions through multidisciplinary, long-term coordinated efforts of many researchers. Research facilities are characteristically complicated and expensive infrastructures that provide scientists and engineers access to the most advanced capabilities, including instruments that provide research opportunities in totally new directions. Support is focused on far-reaching areas of science and engineering that hold great promise for breakthrough discoveries.

NSF is committed to supporting the nation’s efforts to improve the quality of science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SMET) education at all levels, as well as general scientific and mathematical literacy. As society becomes increasingly technology-oriented, more jobs require higher SMET skill levels. America must have a technically-skilled labor force in order to maintain its technological leadership in the world. Education and training activities supported by NSF span from pre-school through professional levels, in all regions of the country. Focused on developing new initiatives and instituting change, the range of activities include: student-centered programs, curriculum and instructional materials development, informal science education, advanced technological training, teacher and faculty enhancement, and comprehensive systemic improvement efforts at the pre-college and undergraduate levels.

NSF also provides support for activities aimed at improving public science literacy and activities designed to enhance the diversity and the preparation of the nation’s present and future cadre of scientists, mathematicians and engineers. In FY 1999, NSF initiated the Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education program to fund scholarships to graduate students and advanced undergraduate students who work in K-12 classrooms to provide supplemental math and science activities for students and content expertise for classroom teachers. The program’s goals are to increase the student achievement levels and to focus on the importance of teaching in the research community. The program has been well received in schools across the country.

NSF’s Organizational Structure
NSF is headed by a Director who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve a six-year term. NSF’s current director, distinguished biologist Dr. Rita R. Colwell, became NSF’s eleventh director in 1998. Dr. Colwell holds the distinction of being the first woman to head the Foundation.

The National Science Board oversees the policies and programs of the Foundation. The Board consists of 24 members who represent a cross-section of American leadership in science and engineering research and education and are selected solely on the basis of established records of distinguished accomplishments. Members are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. NSB members serve six-year terms, with one-third of the Board’s membership appointed and approved every two years. The NSF Director is a member ex officio of the Board. The NSB also serves the President and the Congress as an independent advisory body on policies affecting the health of U.S. science and engineering in research and education.

NSF Organization

NSF is structured much like an academic institution, with divisions organized by disciplines and fields of science and engineering, and for science, math, engineering, and technology education. There are seven operating directorates, an Office of Polar Programs and two management offices. More detailed information is provided in the Appendix, Description of NSF Directorates and Management Offices.

NSF is funded primarily by Congressional appropriation—$3.7 billion in FY 1999—and maintains a staff of about 1,200 (full-time equivalents). To ensure that science and engineering funded by the Foundation remains at the frontier of the research enterprise, NSF utilizes the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) and Visiting Scientists, Engineers and Educators (VSEE) programs to regularly recruit outstanding scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to serve short-term periods, who bring with them new and innovative ideas.

NSF is one of the federal government’s most cost-effective agencies. Its internal operations consume about four percent of its total budget, leaving more than 96 percent for investment in scientific research and education. As a leading proponent of streamlined business and management practices, the agency has been recognized as a leader in the use of advanced information technologies to improve internal operations and business transactions with the research and education communities. In its pursuit of a paperless environment, NSF developed the "FastLane" system to enable the Foundation and its customer community to conduct and facilitate business transactions and exchange information electronically, using the Internet. FastLane allows NSF to respond more promptly and accurately to grantee requests, and the grantee community is able to initiate and better manage their NSF business transactions. In FY 1999, more than 90 percent of NSF’s grantees used FastLane.

During FY 1999, NSF implemented a new Project Reporting System that allows researchers to submit project reports electronically via the Internet. In its first year of use, the system has already provided NSF with a wealth of information to which previously there was no easy access. In FY 1999, nearly 12,000 project reports were submitted through the new Project Reporting System.

NSF, under sponsorship of the U.S. Chief Financial Officers Council, also provides custodial services for "FinanceNet," the government’s Internet website for federal financial management information. FinanceNet was originally developed by the National Performance Review in 1994, and has become the repository for information used daily by the federal financial management community, including financial regulations and guidelines, best practices as well as information related to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and CFO legislation. In FY 1999, there were nearly 30 million hits on the FinanceNet website.

GPRA: The Challenge of Assessing Research Activities
FY 1999 was the Foundation’s first year of implementation of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), although NSF staff have been engaged in GPRA-related activities over the last several years. In 1995, NSF and the NSB published its strategic plan entitled NSF in a Changing World. In 1997, to comply with GPRA requirements, the Foundation developed a GPRA Strategic Plan to provide operational implementation of NSF in a Changing World. NSF’s GPRA Strategic Plan includes concrete goals that tie with the outcomes of NSF’s grants for research and education in science and engineering, as well as goals that focus on NSF’s investment process and management practices. An FY 1999 Annual Performance Plan was developed in conjunction with the development of the Foundation’s FY 1999 Budget, linking programmatic activities to the achievement of NSF’s GPRA Strategic Plan goals.

The implementation of GPRA has been a particular challenge for agencies like NSF with responsibility for research activities. NSF has developed an "alternative format" that has been approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for assessing and reporting research outcomes, using external expert review panels and a qualitative scale. See the next section for a more detailed explanation of the alternative format included in the discussion of program performance in FY 1999.

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