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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Broader Impacts Infrastructure Summit

April 17, 2014

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703)292-8070.

[Slide #1: Tomorrow Begins Today]

Good afternoon everyone. Let me begin by thanking Wanda Ward and Susan Renoe for their great work in putting this Summit together. NSF program reviews have always been keenly focused on "intellectual merit" and that is something that is looked for of course in every proposal that's reviewed. But we have more recently given substantial weight to the "broader impacts" potential of those proposals. This Summit is providing PIs the tools and guidelines needed to do that, and I think this gathering is a big step forward in clarifying what is meant by "broader impacts."

I'd also like to give a shout-out to the moderator of this segment, Kemi Jona. I’ve admired the important work Kemi has been doing at Northwestern in research projects involving STEM education, STEM curriculum design, cyberlearning, on-line learning models, and web-based education and outreach.

So, I appreciate very much your agreeing to serve as moderator of this segment. It is said that moderating any academic discussion is always a challenge, but focusing the energies of such wide-eyed firebrands as my good friend and National Science Board colleague Alan Leshner and myself will no doubt test your diplomatic abilities.

I will make one promise to Kemi--I don't intend to take anywhere near the 40 minutes allotted to make my opening remarks. For one thing, Alan has already said that he will take that time. He wants to talk for the entire time so you don't have any time for questions. No, I’m kidding. I'm really looking forward to hearing your questions, to engaging with you on developing the right ways to accomplish the "broader impacts" challenge. I'm more looking forward to your comments and your suggestions, frankly.

And if I had one message I could impart to all of you, it would be that the work we do today--and in the days ahead--will have a great impact on the future of federal funding support for scientific research. In a very real sense, "Tomorrow Begins Today," and I hope you'll keep that in mind as we engage in our discussion.

[Slide #2: New Director Swearing-in]

So, of course, my personal view of things, which is shown on this slide, in that view "Today" began on April 2, just over two weeks ago, when I was sworn in as the 14th Director of the National Science Foundation. And I am grateful to Dr. Leshner for sharing that moment with me.

That's Office of Science and Technology Policy head John Holdren on my left and my cousin Adrienne Córdova holding the Bible in the center.

As you are no doubt aware, the confirmation process for me was long, affording me lots of time for reflection.

[Slide #3: Incoming NSF Director Faces Challenges in Congress]

So when it was finally concluded successfully, I was appreciative that my confirmation was greeted with this thoughtful article in Nature magazine.

As you can see, the title neatly sums up some of the issues that this Summit is wrestling with, in terms of understanding the evolving focus of our stakeholder groups, in this case, Congress.

The article had a quotation from Vint Cerf--also a good friend and colleague on the National Science Board--who observed: "The toughest challenge that [the NSF faces] right now is one that is faced by all research institutions that are funded by taxpayer dollars--relevance."

I think Vint has identified a key word here: relevance. As a federal agency, we need to stay relevant with those who entrust us with taxpayer funds. We need to reach out to Congress and other stakeholders and be pro-active in explaining what NSF is about and why we are vital to the nation's future.

But "relevance" also has other aspects that we need to remind people about. One is time. What may seem of questionable relevance today can become extremely relevant later on, in fact in a very short span of time. Think of the development of touchscreens and the subsequent explosion of smart phones and tablets. Or think of lasers, which were initially regarded as a "technology in search of a problem." It didn't take long for lasers to become a "miracle solution" for ubiquitous applications in medicine and other fields.

We must not lose sight of the National Science Foundation's obligation to "explore the unexplored" and inspire us with the wonders of discovery. That is relevant to what makes us human.

NSF is more than an agency of government or a funding mechanism for the infrastructure of science. The work of NSF is a sacred trust that every generation makes to those of the next generation, that we will build on the body of knowledge we inherit and continue to push forward the frontiers of science.

[Slide #4: NSF Core Mission: Fundamental Research]

For more than six decades, the core mission of NSF has been to support fundamental scientific research.

As the only Federal agency dedicated to the support of basic research and education in all fields of science and engineering, NSF empowers discoveries across a broad spectrum of scientific inquiry.

The FY 2015 budget request for NSF is just under $7.3 billion dollars.

We emphasize the fact that ours is very lean organization. About 94 percent of NSF funds are spent on supporting research, education and facilities, meaning that the majority of our budget actually goes back to states and localities through the grants and awards we make.

We receive about 50,000 grant proposals annually, from which the competitive merit review process will result in the funding of about 11,000 awards.

NSF provides 24 percent of the total federal support of academic basic research in all science and engineering fields in the United States, and some 2,000 U.S. colleges, universities and other institutions, which receive our funding.

Each year, NSF awards thousands of grants that engage the talents of about 300,000 researchers, postdoctoral fellows, trainees, teachers, students. That support is distributed among individuals, and teams, centers and major facilities across a broad array of disciplines.

So I think you'll agree that its reach is very extensive.

The result is fundamental scientific research that has had a profound impact on our nation's innovation ecosystem and kept our nation at the very forefront of the world's science-and-engineering enterprise.

[Slide 5: A Day in the Life – How NSF Research Affects You]

So let me return to the word I raised earlier--"relevance."

One of the frustrations every one of us in the room has encountered is that most people take for granted the NSF-funded breakthrough discoveries that have transformed our world. Not enough of our fellow citizens understand how "relevant" the research we've conducted is to their daily lives.

So in order to make the point with more emphasis, we developed this graphic that demonstrates how NSF-funded discoveries have made significant improvements in the life of a family.

And you can tell me after you see this if this works for you.

So, our typical family wakes up at 6:00 a.m., and takes enriched daily supplements, which NSF research has shown helps lead to better overall health.

At 7:00 a.m., they may shower and shave with low-cost, low-energy clean water made possible by improvements in water treatment identified by NSF research.

At 8:00 a.m., they check the weather forecast, which has improved accuracy due to Doppler radar, an advance in meteorology made possible by the NSF-supported National Center for Atmospheric Research.

At 9:00--and throughout the day--family members log on to computers, protected by enhanced cybersecurity, one of NSF's ongoing major priorities.

At 10:00, Mom gets an MRI exam that shows what's been causing the pain in her elbow. Early NSF-supported fundamental research led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging, and we've supported numerous MRI innovations since the 1990s.

At 11:00, Dad checks out operations at the factory where he works, with robotics made possible by advanced manufacturing investments made by NSF.

At noon, they take off a lunch hour to visit the farmer's market and buy nutrient-rich vegetables.

At 1:00 p.m., grocery shopping is made more cost-effective by the use of universal bar codes, another advance that is directly attributable to NSF-funded research.

At 2:00, children find their science and math classes more challenging and rewarding with advanced STEM educational techniques. NSF is in the vanguard of STEM education, funding numerous projects each year.

At 4:00 in the afternoon, the family attends CSI: The Experience, an interactive forensic science exhibit available at selected science museums. The exhibit was developed with the input of the hit TV show and is one example of NSF's investment in informal science education.

And then at 5:00, the family heads home, their trip made safer by air bag improvements enabled by NSF investments.

At 7:00 p.m., Mom and Dad work on various tasks with their electronic tablets, with the human-machine interaction improved by NSF-funded research.

At 8:00, the whole family goes outside to gaze at the blood moon rising. How many of you saw that? Quite impressive, wasn't it last night? They are inspired by the vastness of the universe. This particular entry holds special relevance for an astrophysicist like me. It was my early experiences with the night sky that led to my asking, "Why are there stars? How were they formed?" These questions--and many more that tumbled out of my childhood wonder--led to my own pursuit in astronomy.

At 10:00 p.m.--or fill in your own favorite time--the children drift off to sleep. Perhaps unaware that NSF research has proven a good night's sleep boosts children's cognitive performance, Mom and Dad are simply happy that another day has drawn to a close.

We've now seen an around-the-clock picture of the many contributions NSF makes to one family's well-being. So how's that for "relevance?"

If we can get across the true picture that the many significant contributions that NSF-funded research has made to Americans' health, security, education, and economic well-being, not to mention to their sources of inspiration, that will go a long way to help build support for future research funding.

We want to get the message across that federal support for scientific research and education will fuel innovation and provide untold benefits to Americans for decades to come.

[Slide #6: BICEP 2 Confirms 'Big Bang' Theory]

So, what's possible? Speaking in broad themes, we are only constrained by the limits that we place on our innate human curiosity.

It was that curiosity that inspired an international coalition called BICEP 2--for Background Imaging Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization-- to search for evidence of the cataclysmic events following the Big Bang.

NSF helped fund the collaborative program, including funding the team's telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

About a month ago, the BICEP 2 researchers announced that they had collected what they believe is the first evidence for cosmic inflation. Inflation is the cataclysmic event in which, in a fleeting fraction--mainly 10 to the minus 30th of a second following the Big Bang--an infant universe expanded exponentially, stretching far beyond the view of the best telescopes.

So think about that--until the BICEP results were announced, inflation was a theory. A nice, solid theory, but a theory. And now using data gathered by the NSF-funded telescope and lots of researchers located from coast to coast, the collaboration has described what it says are the first direct, observational evidence of inflation.

The collaboration's researchers also believe that they have seen the fingerprints of gravitational waves, or ripples in spacetime, and this confirms a deep connection between two very powerful theories: quantum mechanics and general relativity. These waves have been described as the "first tremors of the Big Bang."

Astronomers have been searching for that evidence for decades, since the theory of inflation was first proposed, and NSF funding helped make it possible for teams to finally discover that evidence.


Now, I'd like to close by noting that your visit to Washington comes at a crucial time for scientific research.

Actually I think it's always been a crucial time for scientific research. And your visit and your timing right now is all part of that continuum of educating everyone about the importance of science.

In an increasingly constrained fiscal environment, we're re-doubling our efforts to communicate what we are doing on the broader impacts--specifically better explaining our merit review funding process and demonstrating that we’re acting at the agency as wise stewards in investing taxpayer dollars.

And one way we’re doing that of course is with all of your help in the merit review process.

We have been asking our stakeholders--PIs in institutions like yours that receive NSF funding--to help improve the ways that we explain research priorities and objectives.

I think, probably at your institutions you all have that "star" that is rising that can really explain well the benefits of scientific research and can be role models for new generations of students and hopefully you’re cultivating many, many of those individuals.

We all need to be public advocates for science and engineering. We need to speak about the contributions of federal investments to research and discovery. We need to illustrate the ways we are influencing a new generation of researchers, expanding both their number and their diversity. So that the science and engineering core is filled with people with lots of different backgrounds and perspectives.

In both formal and informal venues, we need to engage the public, in order to help improve understanding of the value of basic research and why our projects are worthy of investment.

Ultimately, as you know, all our elected representatives are elected, and it’s the public that elects them and puts their trust in them. And if we want to ensure that our officials know what the public values, then we have to reach out to that public. And so that’s what I enjoin all of you to help me do. And I want to make it a centerpiece of my NSF Directorship, that outreach. And it’s not done by single individuals as you know, it’s done by all of us, in our own special, unique ways, in very different venues, strung all around this country, making that case in ever-new and powerful ways – and continuing to make it.

BICEP 2 shows us that we need to keep looking for evidence, because it has left its mark and it wants to be detected. It’s just a great example of our search for our origins and how they connect to our present and to the young people that we’ve raised and the tools that we’ve put there to make those kinds of amazing discoveries.

The joy of discovery is what we, as scientists and researchers, pursue every day of our lives. I felt it first when I was a young girl looking up at the night sky. And I still feel it every day. That sense of wonder is something that we never want to lose. And in our talk about “relevance,” again, understanding the meaning of that word and all its dimensions, it also means that what is relevant to the human experience is that worth pursuing. And that has many, many different guises. So, as I said, I will be sharing that thought with everybody that I meet, and I hope you’ll share it with me.

As we look forward, we want the Foundation to continue to play a vital role in ensuring that our great United States remains at the forefront of scientific research and discovery, investing in the best people and the best ideas – in other words, investing in you.

Thank you for your time--I look forward to hearing from you.

Final slide