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NSF Engineering invests to improve critical infrastructure

Perspective of the NSF Assistant Director for Engineering

March 21, 2014

Modern civilizations rely on a network of infrastructure systems to move people and goods safely and efficiently, to bring power and water to homes and businesses, and to enable real-time communications around the world. This infrastructure is critical to economic competitiveness and high quality of life.

In the United States, there is increasing recognition that aging infrastructure poses a major challenge, now and in the coming years. In addition, the emerging digital economy and increasing prevalence of cyber infrastructure across platforms are helping to ensure that future infrastructure systems will be more connected than ever before.

Looking to the future, NSF and the Directorate for Engineering expect that our current research investments (see the programs and partnerships listed below) will lead the way to more efficient, integrated and sustainable infrastructure systems that are secure and resilient in the face of disasters.

Infrastructure systems, by their very nature, are complex, interconnected entities that influence, and are influenced by people, policies, and financial constraints. As such, we must think of these systems as more than just individual technologies, and consider the social, political, and economic context in which they operate.

Infusing and integrating innovative technologies into these infrastructure systems will greatly enhance and complement ongoing changes at various levels. For example, the adoption of a “smart” power grid and the integration of nontraditional and renewable fuel sources could magnify individual efforts to adopt sustainable energy production and usage practices.

In the aftermath of recent events including the devastating drought currently affecting California, and the destruction of buildings and property associated with Hurricane Sandy, we are reminded that we must ensure tomorrow’s infrastructure systems are also less vulnerable and more resilient to human error, natural disasters, and climate change. Because of financial constraints, this will likely entail innovative rehabilitation of existing infrastructure as much, if not more so, than creating completely new systems.

Tomorrow’s infrastructure systems will be more dynamic and connected than ever before. These systems will also be increasingly interdependent. For example, transportation infrastructure allows for the delivery of fuels to power stations, while the production of those fuels is dependent upon electrical power and water. As these systems become increasingly intertwined with communications and computing devices, networks and systems, we must recognize that it is more important than ever that we fortify them against cyber threats and acts of terrorism. Because no system is completely infallible, we must focus not only on protection, but also on resilience.

Investing in the future
The Engineering Directorate and NSF have several programs that are aimed at creating new knowledge and technologies to address enormous challenges in enhancing nation’s infrastructure. Our strategy is to invest in fundamental engineering and science that can provide the foundational knowledge to enhance future evolution of these infrastructure systems.

New in 2014, the Directorates for Engineering, Computer Information Science and Engineering, and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences have established the Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Processes and Systems (RIPS) program, which challenges the research community to consider multiple infrastructures as interdependent systems that deliver services.  The program seeks to integrate the knowledge gained from social science research with traditional and cyber-physical systems engineering principles in the design of future infrastructure systems.

In the wake of disasters, NSF recognizes the tremendous insight to be gained in the field. The Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program allows NSF to quickly deploy research funding to collect critical data following unanticipated events. The Engineering Directorate has relied on this program to collect valuable data about infrastructure vulnerabilities following devastating flooding in Thailand, Hurricane Sandy, the 2011 New Zealand earthquake, and the recent drinking water contamination in West Virginia.

Many of our core programs also support infrastructure systems research:

The Engineering Directorate also supports center-based research endeavors that leverage academic and industrial partnerships to advance critical areas of research.

Engineering Research Centers (ERCs), interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that combine discovery and innovation, represent one such endeavor. Of the current ERCs, five are pursuing research that is integral to infrastructure systems:

Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRCs) represent another such endeavor. These centers conduct research that is directly relevant to industrial and government partners. Centers that are currently working on critical infrastructure research include:

Advancing infrastructure through collaboration
Because infrastructure systems are of significant national interest, NSF also collaborates with other federal agencies to ensure a coordinated, strategic approach.

NSF currently partners with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to support research in Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS). Implicated in everything from navigation, to traffic management, to capturing passenger and freight data, investment in cyber-physical systems have the potential to improve the safety and efficiency of the entire U.S. highway transportation industry.

NSF is also an active partner in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), a Congressionally mandated initiative to reduce risks to life and property in the United States that result from earthquakes. Led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), other partners include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

I believe that these strategic investments by NSF and the Directorate for Engineering will ultimately improve the safety of existing infrastructure, and pave the way for more secure, efficient, and resilient infrastructure systems in the future.

Dr. Pramod Khargonekar
NSF Assistant Director for Engineering

Find more perspectives from the Assistant Director for Engineering