Supporting Research in Strategic Areas of National Importance

Supporting Research in Strategic Areas of National Importance

Part of NSF's leadership role is identifying and supporting those areas of research and education with the potential for contributing to national needs. NSF has a long tradition of supporting research in areas with intrinsic scientific interest, and the Foundation has a renewed commitment to supporting areas with the potential for social and economic benefits for the nation. Like other federal agencies involved in science and engineering, NSF interacts with its partners in academia, industry, state and local governments, private foundations, and other sectors of society to determine issues of national importance that would benefit from investments in research and education. These agencies work together through the President's National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to identify these areas and coordinate their support through federal programs. NSF's internal process for setting priorities operates within the NSTC framework to provide an appropriate balance of support among research areas of strategic national importance, science and engineering education, and research along the frontier of knowledge.

High Performance Computing and Communications

The Federal High Performance Computing and Communications Program, begun in 1991, is an interagency program coordinated through the President's National Science and Technology Council. The program's intent is to increase the nation's capacity for computing and computer networking in order to spur productivity, build economic competitiveness, support research that requires high levels of computing power, promote innovation in software design, and create education and training opportunities for individuals of all ages.

An award from NSF's Academic Research Infrastructure Program to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, supported RPI's acquisition of a parallel supercomputer system as a centralized campus resource. Modern research is increasingly dependent on computer systems that can assist in the visualization, modeling, simulation, and analysis of complex technical phenomena. RPI's Scientific Computation Research Center now provides campus-wide access to an IBM parallel computer and servers, several very high performance visualization systems, and 20 advanced desktop graphics workstations. These instruments are being used by scientists, engineers, and their students in a number of university departments for research in manufacturing, materials and design, the environment, and other areas of strategic importance.


Maintaining the quality of our environment while sustaining economic growth is a global dilemma. This interdisciplinary NSF research initiative encompasses projects involving the geochemistry of near-surface environments, the role of biodiversity in maintaining the health of the environment, and the development of technologies for preventing and remedying environmental damage, among others.

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks has received support from NSF's Academic Research Infrastructure Program for the purchase of a bench-top mass spectrometer. This instrument measures stable isotopes which provide important information for a variety of environmental research problems. Isotopes are useful in studying the mechanisms used by plants to take up nutrients, particularly carbon and nitrogen. Tracing the movement of these nutrients through nature yields important information on plant productivity, the biological and geological cycling of these nutrients, and the impact of these cycles on the environment. These impacts include the effects of variations in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, on other aspects of the environment. The new spectrometer is portable and has been used for shipboard aquatic studies by undergraduate student interns drawn from Alaska's diverse population.

Advanced Manufacturing Technology

U.S. factories are changing dramatically, and research in manufacturing will provide new knowledge and develop advanced technologies that can significantly improve many U.S. industries. This NSF initiative supports the development of intelligent (sensor- based) manufacturing systems, the integration of computer-based tools for design, and the development of environmentally conscious technologies. Research in these areas can lead to faster production, lower production costs, decreased environmental impact, and greater economic competitiveness.

NSF's Academic Research Infrastructure Program has provided instrumentation support to the Microelectronics Facility of Brown University's Center for Advanced Materials Research. Researchers at the facility need access to sophisticated instruments that provide extremely fine control over the deposition of layers for the growth of compounds in microelectronic and optical devices. Investigators rely on these instruments to develop and test new approaches to fabricating ever-smaller semiconductors, as well as optoelectronic devices (such as solar cells) with greater capabilities. The research performed on these new instruments has potential industrial applications and could increase the nation's competitiveness in the manufacturing domain.

Global Change

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, begun in 1987, is an interagency effort coordinated through the President's National Science and Technology Council. The program is designed to increase our understanding of the earth's intricately interwoven physical, geological, chemical, biological, and social processes. Climate change, ozone depletion, greenhouse warming, the impact of human behavior on earth processes, and other global change research topics represent issues of national and international importance. Progress on these pressing issues would be impossible without advanced instrumentation.

An award from the Academic Research Infrastructure Program to Purdue University will create a unique and specialized research facility that advances global change research. The Purdue Rare Isotope Measurement Laboratory (PRIME Lab), using accelerator mass spectrometry, will be able to analyze radioisotopes in very small samples of earth materials with unprecedented accuracy. Researchers from a variety of disciplines in the earth sciences will use the NSF- funded instruments in the PRIME Lab to increase our understanding of important processes involving the biosphere, geosphere, and climate.


The rapidly emerging field of biotechnology enlists living organisms to make or modify a product, improves particular aspects or functions of plants or animals, or develops microorganisms for specific use. Biotechnology is already producing benefits in the form of new pharmaceuticals, better crop species, and new ways to remove hazardous waste such as oil spills. Biotechnology also includes computationally intensive research in areas such as neuroscience and molecular biology. The NSF biotechnology initiative focuses support on areas of opportunity for U.S. economic development and competitiveness. For example, research in environmental, marine, and agricultural biotechnology, and the social and economic implications of biotechnology, are all topics of national importance.

The Academic Research Infrastructure Program has provided support to the Mellon-Pitt-Carnegie Corporation, a nonprofit organization facilitating joint research activity between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, for the acquisition of a massively parallel computer for research in biotechnology. Using sophisticated and computation-intensive hardware and software resources, researchers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon are developing and testing highly complex computer simulations of neuron activity in the human brain. These models help test and refine our understanding of human cognition, which includes such processes as reading and learning.

Advanced Materials and Processing

This NSF research initiative is committed to improving the manufacture and performance of advanced materials and to bridging the gap between research and the application of that research. Materials are classified as "advanced" due to their strategic importance and their wide range of potential applications. Biomaterials, ceramics, composites, electronic and magnetic materials, metals and alloys, polymers, and superconductors are examples of advanced materials that are important in our society. NSF support for research on advanced materials can help decrease the time needed to move an experimental material from the laboratory to the marketplace.

NSF's Academic Research Infrastructure Program has provided support to the University of California-Berkeley for expansion of the molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) chamber located in the university's Microfabrication Facility. MBE chambers are used to fabricate material structures on the scale of hundreds of nanometers (less than 1/1,000th of a millimeter) that improve control over the flow of electrons in semiconductors. Three new vacuum chambers will enable research on fabrication and processing of small-scale materials structures and research training of students using a wider variety of microelectronic structures. Many industries depend on ever-smaller electronic devices to remain competitive, and the expansion of this research instrument will help create and test new materials and processes with potential commercial application.

Civil Infrastructure Systems

The management of the nation's civil infrastructure -- its roads, bridges, buildings, and tunnels -- will dramatically benefit from science and engineering research. Research investments that produce new designs, more reliable and long-lasting materials, and better testing and maintenance protocols will yield social and economic dividends for a long time to come. This NSF initiative supports research on how materials break down and wear out; techniques for monitoring, evaluating, and replacing structures; decision-making processes related to public infrastructure; and a variety of interdisciplinary topics.

The Academic Research Infrastructure Program has provided support for testing instruments used for civil infrastructure research to the Constructed Facilities Center at the University of West Virginia. These instruments will increase our understanding of how construction materials behave in roads and bridges and will test the utility of new materials -- especially composite materials -- for infrastructure projects. For example, a new thermal chamber will allow research on materials during freeze-thaw cycles and at high temperatures. New instruments will allow materials to be monitored and tested in the field under normal use conditions. Research using these instruments has the potential for increasing the safety and decreasing the cost of our nation's infrastructure.