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Fact Sheet

National Science Foundation

February 19, 2019

Congress established the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes." NSF is vital because we support basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future. This type of support:

  • Is a primary driver of the U.S. economy.
  • Enhances the nation's security.
  • Advances knowledge to sustain global leadership.

With an annual budget of $8.1 billion (fiscal year 2019), NSF funds discovery, learning, innovation and research infrastructure to boost U.S. leadership in all aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and education. In contrast, other federal agencies support research focused on specific missions, such as health, energy or defense.

Vision, Goals. The NSF Strategic Plan for 2018-2022: Building the Future - Investing in Discovery and Innovation states the vision as: "A Nation that is the global leader in research and innovation." The plan sets three strategic goals: Expand knowledge in science, engineering and learning; Advance the capability of the nation to meet current and future challenges; and Enhance NSF's performance of its mission.

Research and Education Priorities. NSF supports basic research and education in all scientific and engineering disciplines. We are the funding source for approximately 27 percent of the total federal budget for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities. NSF invests in transformational research to catalyze breakthroughs in national priorities including clean energy, robotics, nanotechnology and cybersecurity.  Through support of cognitive science and neuroscience research, NSF helps lead the Brain Research through Advancing Innovation and Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. We also support these National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) activities: National Nanotechnology Initiative; Networking and Information Technology R&D; and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, as well as NSF-wide investment areas such as:  Clean Energy Technology, Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science, Engineering and Education; Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability; Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace; Cyber-Enabled Materials, Manufacturing and Smart Systems; and Research at the Interface of Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences. NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates all U.S. research in Antarctica. NSF’s educational programs reflect our long-standing commitment to developing a highly capable and diverse science and engineering workforce that is prepared to drive discovery and innovation and provide global leadership in the years ahead. NSF’s STEM education investments target all educational levels and emphasize broadening participation by underrepresented groups in science and engineering.

Results. Through the merit review process, we fund the best ideas and best people in science and engineering. NSF-supported advances include: Doppler radar, the Internet, Web browsers, bar codes, magnetic resonance imaging, ink jet printers, computer-aided design systems, artificial retinas, tissue engineering and other technology-based innovations that spur economic activity and improve the quality of life of all Americans.

  • In FY 2017, more than 350,000 people (researchers, postdoctoral fellows, trainees, teachers and students) were supported directly by NSF;

  • To date, 236 Nobel Prize winners, including two 2018 Nobel laureates in chemistry, one in physics and two in economics, received NSF support at some point in their careers.

Research Infrastructure. NSF supports a research infrastructure that provides multi-users with advanced capabilities for measuring, observing, manipulating and experimenting across the broad science and engineering enterprise. Our portfolio, developed and managed in cooperation with U.S. and international partners, includes research vessels, astronomical observatories, particle accelerators, seismic observatories, U.S. research stations in the Antarctic, unique ecological research sites, large datasets including long-term survey data, and advanced cyberinfrastructure including cutting-edge computational and communications networking capabilities. Among NSF's recent investments: 

  • The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) is an example of risky but potentially revolutionary science, and was one of the largest experiments NSF has ever funded. In 2016, LIGO scientists announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves caused by two black holes merging 1.3 billion light years away. It was an extraordinary discovery that proved right Albert Einstein's 100-year-old General Theory of Relativity. In 2017, LIGO, in collaboration with its European Virgo partners and some 70 ground- and space-based telescopes, made the first direct detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars. Science magazine named the discoveries the Breakthrough of the Year for 2016 and 2017. The three scientists who were seminal in the development of LIGO were named 2017 Nobel laureates in physics for their work detecting gravitational waves.

  • The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a precedent-setting multi-disciplinary integrated research platform for regional-to-continental scale ecological research. NEON is the first research platform and the only national experimental facility specifically designed to collect consistent and standardized sensor and biological measurements across 106 sites nationwide in close to real-time.

  • The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, under construction in Maui, Hawaii, will be the world's premier ground-based solar observatory when it is completed in 2019. Formerly the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, DKIST was renamed in honor of the late Hawaii senator at a ceremony in December 2013. The state-of-the-art instrument will provide the sharpest views ever taken of the solar surface, and enable astronomers to glean new insights into solar magnetic fields and develop a deeper understanding of how our nearest star works.

  • The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will be an 8-meter class wide-field optical telescope designed to carry out surveys of the entire sky. LSST will collect nearly 40 terabytes of multi-color imaging data every night for 10 years, produce the deepest, widest-field sky image ever, and issue alerts for moving and transient objects within 60 seconds of their discovery. Developed jointly by NSF and the Department of Energy, the facility will enable advances in our understanding of dark matter and help researchers characterize properties of dark energy. LSST surveys will result in a comprehensive data set that will be widely accessible and provide discovery opportunities for the entire research community including K-12 students and citizen scientists.

Organization. As an independent federal agency, NSF does not fall under any cabinet department. NSF's activities are guided by the 25-member National Science Board, which also serves as a policy advisory body to the President and Congress. NSF is headed by a Director who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

NSF program activities are organized by seven directorates and two program offices: the Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Education and Human Resources; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorates; Office of International Science and Engineering; and Office of Integrative Activities. Internal operations--including salaries and expenses for about 1,500 permanent staff--account for approximately 5 percent of NSF's overall budget.


Media Contacts
OLPA Media, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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