A Brief History
Manufacturingbecause it is a multifaceted endeavor depending on the integration of many ideas, techniques, and processesdraws largely on the skills of engineers, a group that has not always felt entirely welcome at NSF. Vannevar Bush, head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote a major report for President Harry Truman that led to the establishment of NSF in 1950. In that report, Bush warned that while America was already preeminent in applied research and technology, "with respect to pure sciencethe discovery of fundamental new knowledge and basic scientific principlesAmerica has occupied a secondary place."
As a result of this view, many came to see engineering,
rightly or wrongly, as a quasi-applied science that,
says historian Dian Olson Belanger, "was always
alien to some degree" within the historically basic
science culture of NSF.
This attitude began to change during the post-Sputnik years and continuing through the Apollo moon landing, when engineering gradually assumed a more prominent role at NSF. President Lyndon Johnson amended the NSF charter in 1968 specifically to expand the agency's mission to include problems directly affecting society. Now "relevance" became the new by-word, embodied in the 1969 launch of a new, engineering-dominant program called Interdisciplinary Research Relevant to Problems of Our Society (IRRPOS), which funded projects mostly in the areas of the environment, urban problems, and energy.
IRRPOS gave way in 1971 to a similar but much expanded program called Research Applied to National Needs (RANN). And within RANN, an NSF program officer named Bernard Chern began to fund pioneering research in computer-based modeling, design, and manufacturing and assembly processes.
"It is fair to say that Chern's early grantees
set the character of much of American automation and modeling research for almost a decade," says Herbert Voelcker, former deputy director of DMII and now an engineering professor at Cornell University. But despite its successes, RANN remained controversial among those concerned that NSF not lose sight of the importance of curiosity-driven research. Still, by the time RANN was abolished in 1977, it had built a substantial beachhead within NSF for problem-oriented and integrative R&D.
In 1981, NSF was reorganized to establish a separate Directorate for Engineering. As part of its mandate to invest in research fundamental to the engineering process, the directorate includes specific programs devoted to design and manufacturing issues. Today such issues are the province of the Division of Design, Manufacture, and Industrial Innovation, whose mission is to develop a science base for design and manufacturing, help make the country's manufacturing base more competitive, and facilitate research and education with systems relevance.