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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


'U.S. National Science Foundation Lights the Future'

Before the
2015 International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies

UNESCO Headquarters
Paris, France

January 19, 2015

Distinguished colleagues, good afternoon.

It's a profound pleasure to join you at this time in this setting. UNESCO has always been a beacon of enlightenment around the world. Paris is my birthplace. I was baptized in the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I got to take a peek at yesterday, including the baptismal font. So it's a special pleasure to be back in Paris again.

As a young girl, I was always fascinated with the night sky. I wondered about the origin of the stars and the possibility of planets around other suns, some perhaps, teeming with life. This early yearning to understand the mysteries of the universe led me into the science of astrophysics where I was privileged to learn from many of the great scientists of the modern era. Over time, scientists have unlocked many of the mysteries of the cosmos that so fascinated me and, not surprisingly, uncovered new mysteries.

It is investing in our scientific researchers that we will raise important new questions. Steve Chu, who spoke with us just a few moments ago, was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation as a Graduate Student Research Fellow. And Ahmed Zewail, the Nobelist who spoke with us this morning so inspiringly, talked about his current research funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The innate desire for discovery lies at the heart of the National Science Foundation, where we enable scientists and engineers to unlock the secrets of nature. We're proud to be one of the world's leading funders of research into all aspects of light, in its many manifestations, across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

On the global scale, we fund research on elementary particles--think CERN and its magnificent detectors--to building and using world-class astronomical observatories--think ALMA, which we heard about this morning, in Chile. We fund research in oceanography and climatology. We fund research about our planet and research about our brain.

NSF recently prepared an extensive optics and photonics roadmap outlining the many avenues of research we're pursuing. Its intent is to enable us to move beyond the present science and technology base and lay the groundwork for major advances in scientific understanding and creation of high-impact, optical-based technologies for the next decade and beyond.

The years 1000, 1666, 1905 -- each an annus mirabilis. Will the year 2015 be another such miraculous year? Perhaps...because of a scientist that is yet unknown.

Let me list just five of the exciting research directions NSF is pursuing:

  • A new photonic electronics platform
  • Utilizing extreme UV and X-ray sources
  • Science and engineering in the quantum realm
  • Biophotonics, the intersection of photonics with biology, health care and medicine
  • Manufacturing innovation--think, for example, how 3-D printing is enabled by light technologies like laser scanning.

What's next?

As you can see, light has been and will continue to be a very compelling field of basic research, crossing many disciplinary boundaries. And in today's global economy, we also believe that it's highly important to nurture a science and engineering workforce capable of successfully performing in an international research environment, so the NSF is investing in broadening participation of women and minorities in science.

NSF works in partnership with other nations' science agencies across the globe to establish critical infrastructure at the large scale--as in astronomy and nuclear science, oceanography and climatology, as well as enabling collaborations among individual or groups of investigators that could lead to breakthrough scientific discoveries.

For more than six decades, the U.S. National Science Foundation has empowered discoveries across a broad spectrum of scientific inquiry, and we never lose sight of NSF's obligation to explore the unexplored. At your tables you have--it was given to us this morning in our packages--a SPIE book that has 50 splendid examples of light applications. All of those applications started with an investment in basic research.

Recently, I accompanied 10 of our U.S. Congressmen to Antarctica's South Pole Station because the NSF is the one who manages the U.S. facilities, the three stations in Antarctica. And as they saw our amazing scientific experiments there--things like the IceCube Neutrino experiment, like the cosmic background telescope, like three payloads for the Long Duration Balloon facility that were being prepared for flight in the next few days--they asked me about basic research in physics and astrophysics and what kind of uses did we project for it.

And I pointed them back a hundred and a little bit years ago to the annus mirabilis of 1905 when Einstein published four papers--one on the photoelectric effect, two on special relativity, one on Brownian motion. And I said: Who would have guessed, decades later, all that has come to us because of those papers, those discoveries in basic research?

So that is the key to innovation--it is to invest in discovery-based research.

Thank you.