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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the Council of Scientific Society Presidents
Washington, DC
December 6, 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: New Frontiers of Science in a New Age]

It's a great honor to be here with you today and have this opportunity to discuss the important issues confronting our scientific community. I have some opening remarks, and then I look forward to your questions and conversations.

[Slide #2: FDR Nov. 17, 1944, Letter to Vannevar Bush]

Seventy years ago this month, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush for his "considered judgement" on four questions concerning the proper investments of the government in research, and in discovering and developing scientific talent. This letter followed the proven success of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was directed by Bush.

Roosevelt wrote: "New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life."

His use of the 'frontier' metaphor was picked up in Bush's detailed and thoughtful response, published several months later. Called Science -- the Endless Frontier, the report is widely recognized as establishing the basis for NSF.

What rings most true today to us in Bush's Report? And what lies at the heart of what we affirm as the justification for the NSF and its mission? I would cite these principles ... "...without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world."

"The most important ways in which the Government can promote industrial research are to increase the flow of new scientific knowledge through support of basic research, and to aid in the development of scientific talent."

"Today, it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress... A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill."

"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, thought it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them."

"Research is the exploration of the unknown and is necessarily speculative. It is inhibited by conventional approaches, traditions, and standards."

"It has been basic United States policy that Government should foster the opening of new frontiers. ... Although [many] frontiers have more or less disappeared, the frontier of science remains. It is in keeping with the American tradition -- one which has made the United States great -- that new frontiers shall be made accessible for development by all American citizens. Moreover, since health, well-being, and security are proper concerns of Government, scientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to Government."

So, there we are: the quintessential case for NSF.

On the other hand, what rings less true today?

"Basic Research is a long-term process -- it ceases to be basic if immediate results are expected on short-term support."

"The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers. The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical application of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected."

"[Research] cannot be satisfactorily conducted in an atmosphere where it is gauged and tested by operating or production standards... Research will always suffer when put in competition with operations."

The fact that these statements ring less true reflects changes that have occurred in our nation over the past 70 years. The shape of the "Endless Frontier" Bush wrote about has changed, both globally and locally. It is endless, still, in its horizon for discovery, but it is also a more complicated frontier, replete with hazards and opportunities.

I am reminded of my experiences climbing mountains. As you ascend, the peak is the goal. It is often visible between shifting clouds, but the path is fraught with objective hazards: crevices, ice and rock fall, and avalanches. Reduced oxygen is a burden. Careless decisions and unintended outcomes re-shape the path. Often one step forward has you sinking back two steps. Yet the objective is clear. And if spirits and preparedness are high, and some good luck is with you – you advance toward your goal and reach it.

[Slide #3: U. S. Capitol Building]

Moving from the metaphoric mountain to the very real Capitol Hill, what seismic changes and challenges do we recognize? I can enumerate ten of them:

1. In the American political process there are increased demands for oversight and accountability.

2. The "discretionary budget" has decreased substantially against increases in entitlement programs; no one has figured out a fix.

[Slide #4: Image unavailable]

3. There is increased need for larger facilities and instruments to make technological breakthroughs in sciences, and thus, increased budgetary requirements for S&T advances. Think big telescopes for astronomy, big accelerators for particle physics, and big ships for ocean sciences.

[Slide #5: NSF-Funded Bluefin Labs]

4. The role of industry in R&D is changing; there is more focus on ROI; there are many more small businesses than large ones and they don't last long -- they get bought by bigger businesses, or they fail. Failure, especially in entrepreneurial enterprises, is considered success -- a lesson learned. There is more emphasis on risk-taking. The culture, much of it brought on by the computer and internet revolution, has changed so that the business world is flatter and more disaggregated -- lots of small stuff on a big canvas. This graphic represents Bluefin Labs – which received seed funding from NSF's Small Business Innovation Research Program – or SBIR. Bluefin was recently acquired by Twitter, a partnership that will help shape the future of social television.

5. The pace of technology transfer has accelerated. Many markets have been democratized by information technology. Inventions are brought to market more quickly in some domains (not in the highly regulated world of medicine, however).

6. There are more partnerships across industry, government, the private sector, and universities. These offer new paradigms for leveraging investment.

[Slide #6: Cellphone Technologies]

7. There is increased focus on interdisciplinary research, especially as it pertains to solving Grand Challenges. With this comes increased recognition that the natural sciences alone cannot address these challenges; social, behavioral and economic sciences, and the humanities must come into play. A great example is the iPhone, which incorporates art and design, new technologies, and a social science approach to utilization.

[Slide #7: NSF Banner for YouTube]

8. Global interconnectedness is enhanced through economic and trade relations, social media, more open access, and standardization of data bases. Those of you who are aficionados of the NSF 'YouTube' site will recognize this as our banner on that site. If you haven't visited it, give it a click sometime.

[Slide #8: CAVE2 Virtual Environment, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program at Univ. of Maine]

9. There is a greater focus on the need for an educated STEM workforce for the future of STEM and for the future of the country.

10. The composition of our nation's citizenry has changed. Yet here, we are as we have always been -- a nation of immigrants. Our DNA, as emphasized on the classic PBS program Roots, reveals that none of us has one lineage of ancestry: we reflect changes in migration, in power and rule, in economy, in religion, in language and in culture.

I've mentioned some of the changes that are redefining the landscape. Which begs the next question: What is NSF's response?

[Slide #9: Cambrian Innovation Container, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chemistry Research]

First, we need to not only keep our focus on investing in fundamental science, but to step up programs that bring about a faster cycle of discovery-to-delivery.

Older established programs like SBIR/STTR and I/UCRC have been spectacularly successful, while I-Corps, a new translation program, has generated tremendous interest and excitement in just a few years.

Second, we are increasing our partnerships, both at home and abroad, with industries, foundations, and other agencies. We will be highlighting some of our newer, more creative partnerships in an NSF public media effort throughout 2015.

[Slide #10: WIFIRE Computer Visualization]

Third, we recognize that information science continues to change everything -- and we have increased our investment in computer theory, materials, processes, and infrastructure. Fourth, we are raising our presence in international science policy and science diplomacy.

[Slide #11: BRAIN Initiative]

Fifth, we continue to listen to all our external constituencies -- from Congress to the Administration, from the public to the NRC, PCAST, scientific decadal surveys, and our own NSB and advisory groups -- about the changing face of science.

We internalize this input and shape new directions. One example is the President's BRAIN Initiative.

[Slide #12: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program]

And sixth, we are taking a renewed look -- together with the NSB and our science advisory committee to EHR -- at our investments in STEM education, development of the STEM workforce, and broadening participation. We will learn from our past successes and implement a strategic plan for the future.

Recognizing the new Grand Challenges that face us, how can our programs evolve to invest in solutions?

Recognizing that the public demands more insight and accountability about our programs, how can we responsibly respond?

Perhaps the most important response NSF can make is to continue investing in excellent ideas and creative people, and educating tomorrow's discoverers and inventors.

NSF continues to fulfill its original mission -- to further the progress of science by investing in scientists at all career stages, over all fields of science and engineering. This investment continues producing spectacular results because the desire to know what is presently not known is strong in the hearts of scientists on the frontiers of knowledge. To illustrate this (and to bring you further up the allegorical "mountain"), I will highlight a few of the discoveries made within the past few years, and then move to the endless "horizon" of even newer discoveries. These are today's discoveries whose applications we do not yet know.

All of my examples were fostered through NSF funding and show that the pace and complexity of discovery are increasing. In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of discovery today, some of these overlap NSF disciplinary areas.

Just as a reminder, those areas are: geosciences; biological sciences; math and physical sciences, social, behavioral and economic sciences; engineering; computer science; education; and integrative activities, including international. In addition, NSF runs the US Antarctica program and has many assets and much science in the Arctic.

Here are several examples:

[Slide #13: Jean Tirole, W.E. Moerner, Manjul Bhargava, Maryam Mirzakhani]

The 2014 Nobel winner in Economics – Jean Tirole -- won for his analysis of "market power and regulation." Our Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate funded Tirole while he was at MIT. NSF has funded every economics prize winner since 1988 -- 51 winners in all.

The 2014 Nobel co-winner in Chemistry, W.E. Moerner at Stanford, was cited for his role in launching the field of nanoscopy, which "visualizes the paths of individual molecules in living cells." He was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. In all categories, NSF has supported a total of 214 Nobel Laureates – long before, of course, the Nobel Committee formally recognized their contributions.

Of the four recipients of this year's international Fields Medal, two are in the U.S. and both are supported by NSF's Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences: Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University and Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University. Mirzakhani is the first woman ever to achieve this honor. Additional top international math medals went to NSF-funded Stanley Osher of UCLA, and Philip Griffiths of the IAS in Princeton.

[Slide #14: Image unavailable]

"Hollywood" has also become enamored of scientists. Earlier this month, movie stars, industry leaders and scientists joined to recognize a dozen "breakthrough prize" winners, and award them substantial monetary prizes for their success. Nine of the 12 are NSF funded -- three in life sciences, one in astronomy, and five in mathematics.

Among them is Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, seen in this slide, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Centre, and Cameron Diaz – no affiliation needed.

The Washington Post said Doudna and Charpentier won the prize for their discovery of a microbial defense mechanism called Crispr/Cas9 that protects genetic material from invading viruses. It was fascinating to see scientists like Saul Perlmutter, an astronomer who co-discovered the accelerating universe, on stage with the likes of young movie stars Eddie Redmayne, Seth MacFarlane (the event's host) and Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes and appreciates science as a solver of mysteries!). Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame was also a prize winner.

Incidentally, I had the recent pleasure of attending the DC premier of The Theory of Everything, which starred Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking. And -- talk about cultural changes -- noted astrophysicist Kip Thorne (who was on my PhD thesis committee at Caltech) has been featured in the press everywhere as the consultant to the blockbuster movie Interstellar. Thorne’s book about The Science of Interstellar is on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Perhaps Hollywood has taken a page from Science -- the Endless Frontier, in which Bush wrote, "Science has been in the wings. It should be brought to the center of the stage -- for in it lies much of our hope for the future." (I'm not sure he anticipated the Hollywood stage...)

Let's move on to more recent discoveries --- ones not yet honored with prizes and Hollywood glamor, but which have all the earmarks of making a lasting impression on science and society:

[Slide #15: Birth of Planets Revealed]

First example is the discovery of a proto-solar system by our Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope in Chile, capturing the formation of an early solar system around an infant star in astonishing detail.

[Slide #16: Two-Dimensional Boron Networks]

In a fundamental discovery with the potential to transform electronics, researchers supported by our Material Research division found a Boron molecule in a 2-D structure analogous to the famous 2-D structure of carbon known as graphene, which was recognized with a Nobel Prize in 2010. They've made calculations showing that there should be a 3-D structure of boron analogous to the famous C60 buckyball. This research could one day transform electronics.

[Slide #17: The Earth's Hidden Ocean]

In a paper published in the June issue of Science, research stemming from a collaboration between NSF EarthScope, US Array and NSF COMPRES revealed that enormous quantities of water may be locked in the mineral ringwoodite (photo on right) within the Earth's Transition Zone (410-660km).

How much water is hidden inside the Earth, you ask? The evidence they found suggests it could contain more water than is found in the world's observable oceans.

[Slide #18: Ontario Winter Lake Effect Systems]

Through a unique suite of mobile observing equipment and computer models, the Ontario Winter Lake Effect Systems – or OWLeS – project is giving scientists new insights into the atmospheric conditions that lead to lake-effect snowstorms – just like the one that dropped upwards of seven feet of snow on Buffalo snowstorm a few weeks ago. OWLeS is the most comprehensive field experiment ever to study lake-effect storms. Initial results are revealing how the storms can concentrate snowfall in narrow belts, and when dangerous wind gusts and white-outs can occur.

[Slide #19: Robot-assisted Search and Rescue]

NSF-funded search-and-rescue robots were on site at Ground Zero in New York within 24 hours of the September 11 attacks to search for survivors. They have since contributed to numerous other search-and-rescue events. Many of the disaster robots were enabled by NSF's Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism, which allows NSF to receive and respond to urgent proposals for quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters.

The RAPID mechanism has recently been used to solicit proposals addressing Ebola research.

[Slide #20: Solving the Code of Olfaction]

How the brain processes smell remains a major mystery. Matching the structure of a novel molecule with a specific odorant to any particular olfactory receptor remains elusive.

Recently, NSF-funded research led to the development of DNA Origami, which is the nanoscale folding of DNA – shown on the left -- to create arbitrary two- and three-dimensional shapes. This project will help us understand how odors result in odor perception by developing artificial odorants that bind to individual olfactory receptors in the nose. This exploration was foreshadowed a century ago by the great French novelist Marcel Proust, for whom the rich smell of a madeleine biscuit elicited what he called "involuntary memories."

[Slide #21: Image unavailable]

Researchers at Duke have engineered a new class of proteins that can be used to control any gene in the human genome. By incorporating light-responsive proteins from plants into human genes, they can turn on the genes and control them with blue light. Genetic engineering has the potential to address many needs in the areas of medicine, science, and biotechnology.

[Slide #22: Soft Robotics]

One of the stars of the Disney animated movie Big Hero 6 is a friendly, inflatable, soft robot called Baymax. This character was inspired by NSF-funded robotics research conducted at the Quality of Life Technology Center and Carnegie Mellon University. Robots made from soft materials, such as balloons or fabrics, make excellent assistants for people, especially those who are elderly or disabled.

[Slide #23: Auctioning the Airwaves]

In the 20 years between 1994 and 2014, the Federal Communications Commission raised more than $60 billion using simultaneous, multi-round auctions. Last week, the New York Times reported that companies bid more than $34 billion on the afternoon of November 21 alone for six blocks of airwaves, totaling 65 megahertz of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Theoretical research on game theory and auctions by economists -- much of it funded by NSF's Social, Behavioral and Economic directorate -- guided the FCC in creating a framework for the allocation of the public's telecom spectrum, yielding billions of dollars in real-world benefits to America's taxpayers.

[Slide #24: Active Learning]

It has long been a fact that too many students start college wanting to pursue STEM-related studies but then leave, especially students of color. NSF-funded studies indicate a major reason for this drop-off is that these students are unhappy with the instruction in entry-level classes.

So for years NSF has funded individual studies and projects to look at the impact of instructional approaches for younger students that focus on promoting "active learning approaches" in small and local settings, with most showing positive results in increasing persistence and success in STEM subjects.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has called for a 33% increase in the number of STEM-related bachelor's degrees completed and recommended adoption of empirically validated teaching practices as critical to achieving that goal. NSF is playing a central role in helping to achieve this important goal.

[Slide #25: Vannevar Bush quote]

I have talked about the changing context for science today, and shown you a number of examples of current foundational research. Today, 70 years after Vannevar Bush wrote his seminal report, it seems like an excellent time to take stock of where we have arrived, and get on with the next phase of discovery and invention.

We have a new climate of expectations, new partners, and new visibility for the research enterprise. We should embrace this, invest in it, celebrate our discoverers and inventors, make clear our contributions to science and the public good, and push forward on the endless frontier.