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News Release 03-053

Richard C. Atkinson Chosen for the Vannevar Bush Award

May 7, 2003

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Richard C. Atkinson, the highly respected president of the University of California system since 1995, will receive the 2003 Vannevar Bush Award for lifetime contributions to the nation in science and technology.

The National Science Board (NSB) will present Atkinson with the Bush award for his groundbreaking research and long-standing public service at an annual awards dinner May 21 at the Department of State. Atkinson is the 25th recipient of the award since its inception in 1980.

The first National Science Foundation (NSF) director (1977-80) with a background in social science, Atkinson was internationally recognized as an experimental psychologist as well as an applied mathematician. He developed mathematical theories about the nature of memory, which shaped future research in the field. His research led to better understanding of brain structures that relate to psychological phenomena and the effects drugs have on memory. His research in memory and cognition carried over into applied problems of learning in the classroom. He developed one of the first computer-controlled systems for instruction, leading to the eventual commercialization of computer-assisted instructional systems.

Atkinson's entire academic career was based in California. He was a Stanford University faculty member from 1956-1980, except for a three-year stint at UCLA. He retained his Stanford faculty status during six years at NSF.

Appointed NSF's deputy director in 1975 by President Gerald Ford, Atkinson was the first such appointee to later become director under the president of another party. President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the NSF helm in 1976. Later confirmed by the Senate, Atkinson took office in May 1977.

As director, Atkinson presided over NSF's first-ever $1 billion annual budget. He made history by negotiating the first ever memorandum of understanding between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC), effectively opening the doors for major exchanges of scientists and scholars between the two nations. Atkinson's work was an outcome of an intense effort to establish closer relations between the scientific communities of the two nations several years after President Nixon established a policy of greater openness and cooperation with the PRC.

"Dick Atkinson was a director for all seasons at NSF," said H. Guyford Stever, Atkinson's predecessor. "He showed a remarkably wide grasp of issues. He strengthened our Science Education Directorate and the peer review process there. He established a separate directorate for biology and social science. He also did much to improve Congressional relationships. As NSF director, he continued to open scientific exchanges with China. His breadth of knowledge was a hallmark of his success later on in his career."

Following Stever's lead, Atkinson reaffirmed NSF's role as the government's primary supporter of basic research at a time many felt NSF should move toward more investments in applied research. Even so, Atkinson, in 1977, acknowledged to the Washington Post that "the issue of whether we (NSF) are in or out of applied research has been resolved: we're in it." Atkinson formulated NSF's first industry-university cooperative research efforts. In later years, these cooperative relationships were institutionalized. A quarter century later, the agency retains Atkinson's influence on such hallmark programs as Science and Technology Centers, Engineering Research Centers, Small Business Innovation Research, and more recently, Partnerships for Innovation.

When Atkinson left NSF in 1980, he became chancellor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), leading the university through its biggest growth period. During his 15-year tenure, he raised UCSD to "top five" status in acquiring federal research funding. His leadership also moved UCSD into a top ten ranking of the National Research Council's list of quality graduate programs nationwide. Meanwhile, the university doubled in size.

As the University of California system president since 1995, Atkinson has initiated national reforms in college admissions testing and spearheaded new approaches to admissions and outreach in the post-affirmative action era at the university. He also presided over a period of dramatic physical and programmatic growth at the university, propelling research innovations to accelerate the university's contributions to the California and national economies.

The Vannevar Bush Award was established to recognize the 30th anniversary of NSF's creation. In 1945, Vannevar Bush, as science advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued a report that recommended a government entity be formed to be the focal point to encourage federal support of fundamental scientific research, education and technology. His report, Science, The Endless Frontier, led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950 under President Harry S. Truman.



National Science Board
Vannevar Bush Award

Background. The National Science Board (NSB) established the Vannevar Bush Award in February 1980 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award is presented to a person who, through public service activities in science and technology, makes outstanding contributions toward the nation and humanity.

History. At the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush recommended in 1945 that a foundation be established by Congress to serve as a focal point for the federal government's support and encouragement of research and education in science and technology and for the development of a national science policy. Five years later, Congress passed a bill creating the NSF. President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law on May 10, 1950. Establishing the Vannevar Bush Award was the NSB's way to honor Bush's unique contributions to public service.

Purpose. The Vannevar Bush Award is given annually to a senior statesperson in science or technology. The award is signified by a medal in Bush's likeness and recognizes the recipient's public service contributions in addition to calling attention to the important role science and technology play in improving our way of life.

Criteria. Nominees must be U.S. citizens, considered senior statespersons in science and technology, with a distinguished record in public service. Individuals must have been pioneers in a chosen field, displaying leadership and creativity, while inspiring others to distinguished careers, and contributing to the welfare of the nation and humanity.

Media Contacts
Bill Noxon, NSF, (703) 292-8070,

Program Contacts
Susan Fannoney, NSF, (703) 292-8096,

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Fact Sheet: National Science Board Vannevar Bush Award:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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