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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Third Colorado Innovation Network Summit
How the National Science Foundation Powers U.S. Research & Innovation
Denver, Colorado
August 26, 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: Powering the U.S. Research & Innovation]

I've always been intrigued by thinkers who imagine from fresh perspectives that which could be. So I'm excited to be part of this conversation on innovation with such a diverse and distinguished group. The National Science Foundation is "Where Discoveries Begin," and I will speak today about where NSF fits in the innovation ecosystem and the role we play in powering U.S. research and innovation.

Thanks to Governor Hickenlooper for initiating this summit three years ago. Colorado's strong commitment to research is a tribute to visionary leadership in the state, and the summit builds on a tradition of that commitment in Colorado. The most recent data available from 2010 show that Colorado received more than $2.3 billion in federal research and development funding—and ranked 20th for all R&D funding from both federal and nonfederal sources.

This commitment to research creates an environment that will attract more research and innovation, and it brings benefits to the people here—tangible benefits such as employment and economic growth, and the intangible benefits that uplift the innovation ecosystem by sparking interest in science and spurring innovation and entrepreneurship.

The 24 federally funded labs that make up CO-LABS are here, creating important connections among business, education, and government. The acronym stands for Colorado Leveraging Assets for Better Science, and Colorado does boast impressive assets for attracting research and innovation.

I would like to thank Governor Hickenlooper for the CO-LABS-sponsored "Governor's Award for High Impact Research" to celebrate the achievements of Colorado's outstanding federal research scientists. That is a visible, public boost which recognizes how research benefits society.

The National Science Foundation is involved in a large number of partnerships here. The headquarters for NSF's Arctic and Antarctic logistics contractor are in Colorado. And there is much NSF-funded innovative research going on here. Stephen Pankavich, Colorado School of Mines, is developing mathematical models of viral systems such as human papillomavirus, Dengue, and HIV.

Sandra Eaton of the University of Denver is developing an innovative digital electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer, to study molecules with much greater flexibility and speed. This work has applications for medicine and quantum computing. It is used in archeological dating of teeth and in understanding the properties of crude oil. It may even be relevant to the shelf life of beer!

Anthony Rappe, from Colorado State University, is working on research whose goal is to establish reactions that are catalytic, use solar energy as the energy source, and minimize waste. There is much more exciting research going on, and I will mention other Colorado-based work later in my talk.

[Side #2: What is NSF?]

The innovation ecosystem represents a range of thinking, of organizations, of viewpoints, and this summit provides a wonderful opportunity to link them. COIN aptly defines "innovation" as a product, process, or service that generates new value in the market. An innovation ecosystem enables a novel idea to go through conception, research, and development to applications that produce social and economic benefits.

Transformative technologies—such as social media, 3D printing of human tissues, and targeted drug delivery—all have deep roots in fundamental research. Fundamental research involves imagining things from fresh perspectives. The unique role NSF plays in the innovation ecosystem is to support fundamental research that can transform what may seem like science fiction today into the processes, products, and services that come to benefit everyday life tomorrow.

NSF is the only federal agency whose mission includes support for education and fundamental research across all fields of science and engineering. By investing in clever people with great ideas, we strive to keep the United States at the leading edge of discovery in areas from astronomy to advanced manufacturing. So, in addition to funding research in traditional disciplinary areas, NSF also supports "high-risk, high pay-off" ideas and interdisciplinary projects.

NSF operates with an annual budget of about $7 billion. We pride ourselves on being a lean agency, with 94 percent of the budget returned to the nation to fund research and educational activities. We receive about 50,000 proposals each year and through a merit review process widely regarded as the gold standard of scientific review select about 11,000 for funding. Funding support reaches about 2,000 institutions and 300,000 researchers annually.

NSF is "where discoveries begin," and the federal investment is an important building block for innovation. Partnerships among the government, academia, industry, and other stakeholders help to stimulate discoveries and propel them into the marketplace.

[Slide #3: Benefits of NSF-Funded Research]

What kind of benefits has the nation harvested from NSF investments? Since NSF was established in 1950, there have been many high-impact results. Many of the benefits are things we take for granted in everyday life. Can you imagine shopping without barcodes? From cataloguing American Sign Language to decoding genomes to developing Doppler radar for weather prediction to the Nobel-Prize-winning work in computing by Serge Haroche and David Wineland, who is on the physics faculty at the University of Colorado—these innovations began with an idea, and NSF funding supported the fundamental research.

If you want to learn more about any of these innovations, you can do a Google search. A show of hands—has anyone ever used the Google search engine? NSF funded basic research for BackRub, which eventually developed into Google. You can look up that story on Google too.

[Slide #4: What is Fundamental Research?]

NSF plays a role in the early stages of innovation, funding fundamental research. What is fundamental or "basic" research? Vannevar Bush, an MIT engineer and science advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, was the driving force in establishing the National Science Foundation, and he described basic research like this:

    Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them.

NSF provides support for potentially transformative ideas that have compelling intellectual merit but may also have risks that make them unlikely to be funded elsewhere.

We all have stories about experiencing wonder that drove us to seek answers. A major challenge we have as researchers is to take that wonder and translate it into practical relevance, which may not be immediately apparent. There is often an incubation period that requires sustained investment before the idea can make an impact in the marketplace. What may not seem relevant today can become an essential part of daily life in the future. Think of the development of touchscreens and the subsequent explosion of smart phones and tablets. Or think of how lasers have transformed healthcare. Or how we can use them as pointers during a presentation.

I mentioned Google a moment ago. In the 1990s, NSF provided funding for the basic research that eventually led to Google. There were search engines available in the 1990s and at the start of this century. Google wasn't one of them. Today it is the premier search engine. That didn't happen overnight. We can look back two decades to a point when the research project won an NSF grant because of its compelling fundamental research value. But who foresaw that the research would lead to Google and become such an integral part of our lives?

And how long does it take for the recognition of a problem to spark the development of an idea? Millions of people waited in long checkout lines, and an idea for a better way occurred to someone—and the better way wasn't realized immediately with the occurrence—it took time, hard work, and support for research and development to translate the idea for barcodes into a reality that has made retail more efficient.

Another facet of relevance concerns where fundamental research can lead us. The path is not always predictable or the destination known at the outset. As we have stories about the wonder that pushed us to the path of discovery, we can also share amazing stories of how the road of discovery led us to places we'd never have expected or imagined. NSF-funded biologist Osamu Shimomura received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for finding in certain jellyfish green fluorescent protein, which revolutionized how scientists study cells. The process began in wonder: what caused the jellyfish to glow green? And at the start it wasn't known that the result would enable researchers to track the spread of cancer, the production of insulin, the movement of HIV proteins.

Much of today's research is trans-disciplinary. We can expect, for example, powerful innovations from the convergence of physical and life sciences with computing and engineering. Here are a few examples of how NSF is thinking about these trans-disciplinary convergences. One is tissue engineering converging with 3-D printing. NSF investments in the 1970s and 1980s helped create each separate field. Now there is tremendous excitement about the possibility of using technologies of 3-D printing to print tissues and organs, a development that shows the unpredictable and serendipitous nature of how things come together.

Another example is NSF funding for the new discipline of synthetic biology at an Engineering Research Center (ERC) at UC Berkeley, with collaboration from Stanford, UC San Francisco, Harvard, and MIT. The ERC has built parts, devices, and circuits inspired by electrical engineering and expects to transform the biotechnology, high-technology, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries, as well as suppliers of genetic tools and custom DNA synthesis companies. The center has created a robust curriculum to teach the next generation of scientists and engineers. Part of this ERC's mission is to transfer technologies to industry, and five companies have spun off from its research.

Another area where NSF is supporting convergent research is its Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) program, which has its roots in cybernetics—the idea of understanding and controlling communications in machines and animals. NSF's latest experiment in convergence is called Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Processes and Systems. This work is relevant to the electrical power system, for example, which is interdependent on the communication and control services of the cyber-physical infrastructure. The experiment represents a new way of thinking about the risks to and resilience of infrastructure. It approaches infrastructure as a system that includes multiple subsystems, people, and technologies. This approach would provide needed services to people with minimal interruptions and downtime.

[Slide #5: Impacts of the Research]

How does NSF decide on what research to fund? NSF program reviews have always been keenly focused on "intellectual merit." When funding projects, we can't always predict their impacts, but we give substantial weight to the "broader impacts" potential of those proposals. Broader impacts translates into first, reaching as wide a population of beneficiaries as possible, and second, reaching groups to encourage participation in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education and careers.

An example of NSF-funded research that carries out the goal of broader impacts is the development of cubelets by a Colorado-based startup, Modular Robotics, a Small Business Innovation Research awardee of NSF's Engineering directorate. Modular Robotics created unique construction kits that introduce children to robotics. In 2013, the company received the distinguished Tibbetts Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

NSF supports the transition of a research result into application in the marketplace through Innovation Corps, or I-Corps. The program prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory toward the commercialization of NSF-funded basic-research projects. An example is the work of Stephen DiMagno, a chemistry professor whose fundamental research led to imaging agents for brain tumors and for the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.

In 2011, DiMagno's team was among the first cohort that received NSF I-Corps Team awards and participated in the I-Corps curriculum at Stanford University. In 2012, building on I-Corps momentum, DiMagno co-founded a company called Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals, Inc. In 2013 and 2014 the company received NSF Small Business Innovation Research awards to commercialize the technology, and it has attracted its first round of private financing to further its research and development efforts to bring the technology to the market.

We have recently created a sister program: I-Corps-Learning, or I-Corps-L, aimed at research advances in education and problem-solving from K-16 and beyond. I-Corps-L will equip education researchers to develop ways of scaling their discoveries for educational institutions to solve challenging problems in STEM education.

[Slide #6: Impacts of the Research in Colorado]

A successful innovation network involves a lot of cooperation with partners. There are many examples of innovative, NSF-funded research by organizations in Colorado. Research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, and partners on hurricane simulation at ultra-fine resolution is advancing knowledge and capability to predict high-impact weather hazards.

Research of sensor networks by the National Ecological Observatory Network, NEON, links multiple observing capabilities into a single "scalable" integrated research platform to conduct continental-scale ecological research. One of several NSF Earth-observing systems has its headquarters in Boulder.

Researchers at the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the Colorado School of Mines are working with researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL, on transformative materials science advances that hold great potential to affect emerging renewable energy technologies. Research at Alaska's Augustine Volcano by UNAVCO, based in Boulder, is centered on positioning GPS stations on volcanoes.

[Slide #7: Cooperative Research]

Another example of cooperative research is the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, in which the Colorado School of Mines is one of the many institutions involved. Researchers have integrated new visualization techniques so that power system operators can be better aware of current operating conditions and prepared to take decisive actions needed to avoid blackouts. The tools are also useful in power system planning, policy analysis, and education of the next generation of electric power engineers.

[Slide #8: NSF Supports STEM Success]

Preparing the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs is crucial, and NSF plays a key role in reaching students from elementary school to graduate school. Supporting and broadening participation in STEM education helps to encourage the new perspectives we will need to meet tomorrow’s challenges. We enable solutions by seeking people of different backgrounds, with different ways of looking at problems, and supporting a diversity of perspectives. As famed journalist Walter Lippmann reminded us: "When we all think alike, then no one is thinking."

[Slide #9: R & D in Colorado]

A thriving innovation ecosystem provides a foundation for prosperity and security. NSF investments in education and fundamental research have returned exceptional dividends to the United States and beyond. Industry-university-government partnerships strengthen the innovation ecosystem and accelerate the commercialization of technology from classroom or lab to market.

How do we spread the news about the importance and value of innovation? Each of us can reach particular audiences in both formal and informal venues—schools, museums, the Internet, summer programs. Through powerful examples and stories, we can communicate the value of basic research and its benefits. This Summit is one example of how the power and reach of our message is stronger if we work together. NSF is excited to energize existing partnerships and to stimulate new ones and expand the impact of the programs we fund.

As a young girl, I found my source of inspiration in the stars. Today I find inspiration in the look of wonder in young girls and young boys when they learn something new, when they are encouraged to imagine, to discover, and to innovate. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you to instill such wonder broadly as we improve and accelerate the innovation ecosystem.