The Promise of Science and Engineering:
An Investment in the Future


A Message From NSF Director Rita R. Colwell

Photo of NSF Director Rita R. Colwell
NSF Director Rita R. Colwell

At the close of the 20th century, America stands on the threshold of a new era of discovery-an era in which we will expand our understanding of the origins of the universe, discover new states of matter, command crops to grow and medicines to heal, and produce significant progress in efforts to protect our environment and make it safer for ourselves and future generations. The scientific inquiry that paves the way for these advances receives support from many sectors, including agencies of the federal government. Prominent among government supporters is the National Science Foundation (NSF), a major sponsor of much of today's fundamental research in science, mathematics, engineering, technology, and education.

The research funded by NSF ultimately improves the lives of the citizens who provide financial support through their tax dollars. The Foundation ensures societal benefits as part of its role as a steward of the nation's science and engineering enterprise. In this, my first annual report message, I would like to describe some of the investments in science and engineering that we are making now to assure that the United States maintains its pre-eminent position into the 21st century. It seems a fitting thing to do. The year 2000 will mark the 50th anniversary of NSF. Since it was created in 1950, the Foundation has had as its mission the promotion and advancement of progress in science and engineering research and education. Our strategic plan, NSF in a Changing World, published in 1995, sets forth three fundamental goals underlying this mission:

  • Enable the United States to uphold a position of world leadership in all aspects of science, engineering, and mathematics. World leadership affords our nation the broadest possible range of options in determining the course of our economic future and national security.

  • Promote the discovery, integration, dissemination, and employment of new knowledge in service to society. This goal emphasizes the connection between world leadership in science and engineering and the contributions that these fields make to the country's well-being.

  • Achieve excellence in U.S. education at all levels in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. A scientifically literate society is essential if the nation is to gain the maximum benefit from the research it sponsors.

Dividends from Basic Research

The importance to our Nation's future of support for basic science and engineering research and education cannot be overemphasized. According to economists, up to half of all U.S. economic growth during the past 50 years has come from technology and the science that supports it. Several of the fastest-growing sectors of today's U.S. economy have emerged directly from basic research supported by NSF. Areas of enterprise--such as biotechnology, advanced software, high-speed communications, and medical imaging--all have deep roots in NSF-funded projects. The pay-offs from our investments in these areas have led to: higher crop yields and more environmentally friendly production practices; a better understanding of how people make decisions and solve practical problems; an ongoing revolution in the way people communicate; and digital technologies that aid in treating patients with life-threatening illnesses.

As NSF invests in promising new research and education, we will continue to expand the possibilities for dramatic advances in all areas of science and engineering. Our approach to making investments is similar to that of a venture capitalist. NSF does not conduct research itself, nor does it operate labs. Rather, the Foundation awards grants and other financial assistance to support scientists and engineers in their quest to discover new knowledge, and to support educators and researchers in their efforts to train the workforce of the future and discover new truths about the very process of learning. We support the best ideas and the most capable people in their pursuit of new knowledge and innovation. To assist us in determining the best and the most capable, NSF uses merit review by thousands of experts from various fields who volunteer their time to evaluate competitive proposals.

The Foundation's investments in people and ideas have resulted in world-class, award-winning research. For example, NSF-supported researchers have collected approximately 100 Nobel Prizes over the years, receiving recognition for their contributions to the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, and economics. The year 1996 was particularly gratifying for NSF. Six of the seven Americans who won Nobel prizes that year had received Foundation support:

  • Richard Smalley and Robert Curl of Rice University, who shared the 1996 chemistry prize with Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex in England, were recognized for their joint 1985 discovery of a new molecular form of carbon, named the buckminsterfullerene in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the architect and designer of geodesic domes. This molecule, whose 60 carbon atoms configure themselves into a soccer ball-like shape, could prove to be the key to extremely strong building materials, solar cells, and superconductors.

  • David Lee, Robert Richardson, and Douglas Osheroff won the 1996 physics prize. While at Cornell University in 1971, they conducted NSF-funded research that helped to characterize helium-3. In addition to detailing the nature of a different state of matter, their work opened the door to new studies in low-temperature physics.

  • William Vickrey of Columbia University shared the 1996 economics prize with James Mirrlees of England's Cambridge University. Vickrey carried out NSF-supported research on incentives under asymmetric information. His contributions to the field included new ways of thinking about fair forms of taxation and practical approaches to pricing transportation and utilities.

In October 1996, Smalley, Curl, Richardson, Osheroff, and Lee accepted NSF's invitation to discuss their work at several public events in Washington, DC. Besides talking about the research that led to their Nobel prizes, they underscored the importance of public investments in science and engineering to their work and to society. As David Lee said during a National Press Club Newsmaker program, "The Government has a very large program to fund interstate highway systems, and this is a facility which is used by everyone. Now, the basic research enterprise can be thought of in the same way. It provides a facility of new discoveries, and those discoveries are accessible to all industry." Lee went on to point out two major challenges to public support for research, noting that "the time horizons are rather long. It also turns out that the basic research enterprise is a rather broad enterprise and only certain small parts of it--and very unpredictably--are going to lead to extremely important technological breakthroughs. But when those breakthroughs do come, they can have vast implications for our society -- for example, the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, and many other things."

The following year produced four more Nobel Laureates who had received NSF support. Steven Chu of Stanford University and William D. Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shared the 1997 physics prize with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of France "for development of methods to cool and trap atoms using laser light," according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Paul D. Boyer of the University of California at Los Angeles shared the 1997 chemistry prize with John E. Walker of the United Kingdom "for their elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)." ATP functions as a carrier of energy in all living organisms from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals including humans. Robert C. Merton of Harvard University won the prize for economic sciences jointly with Myron S. Scholes of Stanford "for a new method to determine the value of derivatives." The contributions of these and other NSF-supported researchers and educators have been of tremendous value to the advancement of science and engineering knowledge.

In addition to providing support to the most promising people and ideas, NSF uses partnerships with various institutions and organizations to maximize the return on the public's investment. NSF funds nearly 25 percent of the basic research undertaken at academic institutions. This partnership between NSF and academic institutions has provided the United States with a continuous supply of both new knowledge and new generations of world-class scientists, engineers, educators, and other technically trained professionals.

Explorers in Search of New Knowledge

Science is not a tidy pursuit operating only within disciplinary boundaries. Frequently, the pursuit of knowledge will lead scientists and engineers into unexplored territories that cross the traditional boundaries between disciplines. Many of the societal benefits arising from research funded by NSF have rested on contributions from several scientific fields. As an illustration, take magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This vital medical procedure to image bone and tissue -- counted among the breakthroughs of great importance to society by Nobelist Lee -- originated in early studies of nuclear physics. Those studies led to the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as a fundamental analytic tool in chemistry. Only when NMR was well established did the technology become an essential tool for the diagnosis of disease. NSF invested in fundamental research that, at the time, promised only to advance knowledge in a limited scientific discipline. Yet the investment has saved chemists countless hours in characterizing new compounds, and it has produced a medical technology with profound benefits to patients' health. The progression from fundamental research in physics to a medical technology that benefits millions of people exemplifies NSF's goal of "promoting the discovery, integration, dissemination, and employment of new knowledge in service to society ."

In the future, we expect multidisciplinary science to yield a growing number of opportunities for realizing new knowledge that serves society. NSF is adding programs to our investment portfolio that extend what we have learned about integrated research methods into critical areas -- areas the science and engineering community expects will furnish large pay-offs for the nation in the 21st century. Our investment in biological systems research, for example, is designed to increase our understanding of how the earth's microorganisms, plants, and animals interact in an intricate web of interdependencies with the physical environment of planet Earth. These multidisciplinary efforts build on an expansive range of NSF-supported research, from determining the functions of the 20,000 to 25,000 genes of the Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant in the mustard family to developing a better understanding of the role the Arctic Ocean plays in global climate dynamics.

Information technology is another area that promises tremendous future pay-offs. As the lead agency of a multi-agency initiative called Information Technology for the 21st Century (IT2), NSF is investing in research to establish new directions for computer and information sciences, push the frontiers of high-end computing, and improve both the reliability and performance of emerging technologies. Our information technology investments build on numerous NSF-supported, information-based activities, including the development of high-performance networks (such as the Internet and the very-high performance Backbone Network Service) and advancing high-end computational capabilities (our Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program, for example). A third area of tremendous opportunity is educating the workforce so they have an understanding in mathematics, science, and technology that makes them competitive in a technological society.

Excellence in Education At All Levels

Improving science, mathematics, engineering and technology education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten through post-doctorate, is nothing less than a national imperative. Knowledge, especially knowledge from science and engineering, drives economic growth and ensures prosperity. In the next century, more and more Americans will need to be "knowledge workers." But the 21st century workforce will only be as productive, innovative and successful as the quality and accessibility of education has prepared it to be. For these reasons, ensuring excellence in education is critical to developing the nation's future intellectual capital.

NSF emphasizes increased opportunities for all students and workers to acquire the skills they will need to succeed in the future. In particular, our educational programming aims to prepare people for a workplace in which technical problem-solving and science literacy will be crucial to their success. The Foundation also supports activities to ensure that the United States continues to produce world-class scientists, engineers, and educators. In addition, NSF seeks to engage everyone in the excitement of discovery and to make people of all ages more aware of how science and engineering enrich their lives.

At the K-12 level, one of the Foundation's priorities is reform of whole education systems. Through systemic reform activities, we partner with parents, teachers, principals, state and local education officials, political leaders, the science and engineering community, academic institutions, business and civic leaders, the media, and other government agencies -- everyone who holds a stake in America's education enterprise -- to bring about improvements across entire jurisdictions such as cities, rural regions, and states. NSF-supported activities combine experimentation with rigorous assessment to determine which strategies work. To ensure broad-based, long-lasting impact, we emphasize improvements that are sustained through access to standards-based coursework and materials, along with first-class preparation of teachers.

In localities where NSF-supported systemic initiatives have taken place, science and math assessment scores have improved, enrollments in challenging classes have increased, and disparities in attainment have been reduced. Preliminary data suggest improvements in student performance in all districts participating in NSF's Urban Systemic Initiatives (USIs) program. More than 75% of the USIs showed a direct correlation between student achievement and the length of time cohorts of schools participated in the program. Nearly all sites reported increased student enrollment and completion rate in higher level courses. In addition, participating school systems in Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, El Paso and Dade County (Miami) have increased graduation requirements in science and mathematics.

While these results are good news, there is still more work to be done. Just how much more work was made clear by a set of studies known as TIMSS -- the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The largest and most comprehensive study undertaken to compare academic performance in science and mathematics across more than 41 countries, TIMSS was designed, managed and funded jointly by NSF and the National Center for Education Statistics in the Department of Education. Data released in 1996, 1997 and 1998 covered eighth, fourth and twelfth graders, respectively. U.S. fourth graders scored above the international average in mathematics and science. Eighth graders tested above average in science but below average in math in comparison to their counterparts in other countries. Even more troubling, the nation's twelfth graders ranked near the bottom in math and science.

Interestingly, many of the comprehensive reforms championed by NSF have taken hold in elementary science and mathematics education, and the TIMSS results for fourth graders provide evidence that we are on the right track. Now we seek to extend the reforms that work through all levels of education. NSF-supported activities are focused on developing: high-quality, standards-based, instructional materials that stress experimentation and lead to a solid understanding of important concepts and themes; well-trained and skilled teachers who are confident in both their knowledge of science, mathematics, engineering and technology subjects and their understanding of how students learn, and also skilled in the use of the latest instructional materials and new technologies; the creation of classrooms equipped with appropriate technology; and stronger linkages between the science and engineering research enterprise and the educational system.

In recent years, NSF has seen success in using information technology to link students with researchers. Our support of WhaleNet-Interactive Education, an interdisciplinary, hands-on, collaborative telecomputing project sponsored by Wheelock College, is a shining example. Schools participating in WhaleNet use computers, the Internet, and related information technology to connect their students to research databases, to scientists and naturalists working in the field, and to other students, on a real-time basis. The program generates student involvement and interest in studies on marine mammals, pollution, and general environmental sciences while fostering an interdisciplinary approach to learning, research, critical thinking and problem solving.

NSF is working to revitalize undergraduate education with support to colleges and universities to stimulate comprehensive, innovative reforms that promote student learning, prepare students for rewarding careers, and enhance awareness of and appreciation for science, mathematics, engineering and technology. At the graduate level, NSF's programs seek to educate researchers and faculty beyond the boundaries of a single discipline, giving them access to modern research instrumentation, and preparing them for the increasingly international venue of research. Besides our efforts to improve graduate science and engineering education, NSF provides financial support for a number of outstanding graduate students each year. Since 1952, NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program has supported more than 34,000 students. (To learn more about the impact of the Foundation's fellowship support, I invite you to read "The National Science Foundation Class of 1952," an article on NSF's 50th anniversary website,

More recently, one of NSF's priorities at the graduate and undergraduate levels is the integration of research and education. The Foundation's Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE) are designed to stimulate new thinking at colleges and universities about how to foster the natural connections between learning and discovery. The first RAIRE recipients, selected in 1997, demonstrated leadership, innovation and achievement in developing programs at their institutions that integrate research and education.

Other NSF education activities seek to overcome the underrepresentation of minorities, women and people with disabilities in science, mathematics and engineering fields. All segments of society must take part if the United States is to succeed in the technology-driven, globally competitive world of the next century.

To strengthen America's system of education in the future, NSF is supporting continued experimentation and rigorous evaluation, better integration of the Foundation's research portfolio with the education we support, more and better uses of information technology to increase the resources available to K-12 students and others, and more research on learning. A better understanding of the science of learning could lead to entirely new ways of educating our children -- and ourselves.


One of the most important principles the Foundation has proven over the course of nearly 50 years is that today's wise investments in science and engineering can yield stunning pay-offs in the years ahead. The American people have entrusted NSF with the task of building on past successes to create a brighter future one that takes shape through the continuing integration of science and engineering into the details of our daily lives. As the 21st century dawns, the importance of every nation's scientific and technical capability is increasing. To keep our promise to today's taxpayers and to future generations of Americans, to keep America on the leading edge, NSF is committed to sponsoring fundamental research and education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology in service to society.