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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the
Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación
Científica y Tecnológica
Santiago, Chile

April 17, 2015

[Slide #1: Chile and NSF: Partners for Scientific Progress]

Thank you, Dr. Francisco Brieva [CONICYT President] for that warm introduction, and thank you all for the opportunity to meet with you today.

For the U.S., we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of Vannevar Bush's Science—The Endless Frontier. And for Chile, you are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to poet Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to receive that extraordinary honor.

Both our countries have benefited so much from the contributions of these two great visionaries. In that spirit, it is a great honor to have this occasion to meet with you in this esteemed institution. I have been the Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation for just over one year now. I must say one of my favorite aspects of this job is that I am able to re-invigorate our relationships with long-standing partners.

And, let me add, the NSF has no better--or more rewarding--partnerships than those we have with CONICYT and Chile.

I would like to spend a few minutes explaining what NSF does, how we are organized, what contributions we have made, and how we want to continue to enhance our partnerships here. Then I look forward to having a conversation with you and taking your questions and inquiries. Let me also introduce two members of our National Science Board who are with us today: Dr. Ruth David and Dr. Carl Lineberger.

For more than six decades, the National Science Foundation has engaged the scientific curiosity of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, researchers, educators and students across our country.

We are proud of the progress that has been made in the U.S. as a result of NSF's long-standing support, and we have even greater pride when we see that progress extend throughout the world.

Some may take for granted the steady stream of NSF-funded breakthroughs that have transformed our lives, making them healthier, more enjoyable and more productive. But we don't take those discoveries for granted.

We understand the many years of effort that are required to transform a moment of inspired thinking into a real world success – and the partnerships between NSF and the people and institutions we support are critical to our collective success. Almost everything we touch--whether in our homes, our hospitals, or in our workplaces--started with fundamental scientific research of the kind NSF funds.

[Slide #2: How NSF Impacts Our Lives]

Some of you may not know much about NSF, but I would bet you are quite familiar with some of the scientific and technological products that our support has made possible.

For example, Global Positioning System--GPS--devices are standard equipment in many trucks and automobiles sold today. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got along without them!

Their use in navigation, disaster relief, defense mapping and other endeavors is widely known. Less known is that the technical innovations that fine-tuned GPS, enabling it to become such a vital part of our lives, stemmed from fundamental astronomy research funded by NSF.

NSF also played a critical role in "mainstreaming" the Internet. Of course, the Internet was built with the contributions of many players, including the U.S. Department of Defense and early collaborations among academic institutions. But 30 years ago, NSF initiated NSFNET, the first large-scale use of Internet technologies linking researchers to ever-growing supercomputing centers.

Since then, NSF has continued to help shape the growth and operation of the modern Internet. We fostered international network connections and funded the development of the world's first freely-available web browser, called Mosaic. Along the way, NSF helped transition the network into the self-governing and commercially robust Internet we use every day.

Speaking of which, have you "Googled" a subject on your Internet browser recently? In the 1990s, NSF led the multi-agency Digital Library Initiative that funded research into the expanding field of "accessible interfaces" for net-based data collections. As it happens, two Stanford University grad students – Larry Page and Sergey Brin--worked on the DLI project, constructing an ambitious search engine prototype they called BackRub. Brin was supported by an NSF Graduate Student Fellowship. Page and Brin then received outside funding and incorporated into Google, Inc. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Google is an Internet powerhouse with annual revenues of about $65 billion and a market capitalization of about $370 billion.

Another example: Those barcodes you find on everything from candy bars to airplane tickets to shipping containers to luxury automobiles owe a lot to NSF support.

We funded the research that helped perfect the accuracy of laser scanners that read barcodes--and thereby helped speed shoppers' checkouts and track consumer buying trends. Information gleaned from barcodes helps all industries--from supermarkets to health care--by quantifying what products are being sold, who is buying them and at what price goods are changing hands.

As you probably know, tornadoes are a frequent and major threat to life and property in many areas of the U.S. and other countries. Revolutionary weather-sensing research at the NSF-supported National Center for Atmospheric Research and at universities was instrumental in developing Doppler radar as a meteorological research tool.

Research into the "Doppler effect" has helped scientists and meteorologists see and detect near-ground wind shears, which in turn enabled greater accuracy in forecasting the location and severity of weather.

NSF has also funded the development of Doppler-on-Wheels, a portable Doppler radar that has successfully tracked numerous tornadoes across tens of thousands of miles. This technology in turn is helping to extend the lead-time of public safety warnings, and over time this will reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by these violent storms.

My last example of fundamental research supported by NSF that helped to improve the lives of millions of people was the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging – or MRI. MRI technology was made possible by combining basic research about the spin characteristics of matter with research in mathematics and high-flux magnets. MRI is now widely used in hospitals and clinics to detect tumors and internal tissue damage in patients without relying on surgery, thereby saving patient suffering while improving diagnostic accuracy and reducing costs.

[Slide #3: NSF by the Numbers]

Now that I've shown you a few of the real-world examples of technologies that have resulted from NSF support, let me tell you a little bit about how we are organized.

NSF is an independent agency of the U.S. Government. I report directly to the President.

We have important relationships with the Congress and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as the latter proposes our budget to Congress, which eventually approves a budget for the agency. We also work closely with other Federal Departments and agencies. And we have a 24-member Board, which has oversight for NSF policy matters.

As the only U.S. Federal agency dedicated to the support of basic research and education in all fields of science and engineering, the National Science Foundation empowers discoveries across a broad spectrum of scientific inquiry. Our most recent annual appropriation is for approximately $7.3 billion, and the President has proposed a 5.2% increase for Fiscal Year 2016.

We are dedicated to being good stewards of those taxpayer investments, and we run a tight ship. About 94 percent of NSF funding directly supports research, education, and related facilities -- meaning the vast majority of our budget goes back to states and localities through the grants and awards we make.

We make those decisions based on NSF's competitive merit review process, a highly regarded standard of scientific review emulated in scientific communities around the world.

In FY 2014, we received about 48,000 grant proposals, from which our merit review process resulted in funding about 11,000 awards.

NSF provides 24 percent of total federal support of academic basic research in all science and engineering fields in the U.S. Some 2,000 U.S. colleges, universities, and other institutions will receive NSF funding this year.

Each year, NSF engages the talents of more than 300,000 researchers, postdoctoral fellows, trainees, teachers and students across America.

In many cases, awards go to individuals, but they also are extended to teams, centers and major facilities -- across many disciplines. We also strongly support the education and training of graduate students and post-docs so they will be able to pursue careers in their discipline.

This commitment demonstrates that we are continuing the essential approach NSF has pursued for more than 60 years: to invest in fundamental science and engineering research and education.

The large number of Nobel Prizes and other significant honors that have gone to NSF grantees demonstrates that our processes have been able to identify the best ideas and most innovative thinkers years before they achieve broad recognition. Because of our commitment to empower scientific curiosity, NSF helps keep America at the very forefront of the world’s science-and-engineering enterprise.

[Slide #4: NSF Champions Research and Education Across All Fields of Science & Engineering]

As I have said, NSF is the only U.S. Federal agency dedicated to the support of basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

Organizationally, we are divided into seven Directorates, shown here.

Let me specifically point out our Geosciences Directorate, which includes the administration of Polar Programs, and Mathematical and Physical Sciences, which administers our Astronomical Programs. Both of these Directorates play major roles in the partnerships we have with Chile. The head of Math and Physical Sciences, Dr. Fleming Crim, is here with us today.

Let me also note International and Integrative Activities, an Office that is vital to our international partnerships.

We have an expression at NSF that "science does not stop at any border nor at the water's edge."

Cross-border collaboration accelerates the progress of science and improves health, security, and prosperity throughout this Hemisphere. We highly value the collaboration we have had with Chile over the years.

Our relationships with Chilean institutions and agencies demonstrate that sharing scientific knowledge – including policies and practices – benefits both our countries. We look forward to an even more expansive collaboration in the future.

[Slide #5: Chile and NSF]

The scientific cooperation between Chile and NSF dates back more than a half-century. What might surprise you is the wide range of interactions that have developed over the years. I would like to spend a few minutes detailing some of the major collaborations that are under way in astronomical observatories, polar cooperation and science, seismic network, graduate research, and interagency collaborations.

[Slide #6: Astronomical Observatories]

Another point I need not make with this audience is the extraordinary attractiveness of Chile's mountain peaks--high altitudes; clear, dry air; and protected from light pollution--as exploration platforms for the world's astronomers to explore the southern sky. NSF was an early partner with Chile in utilizing this valuable scientific natural resource.

Since the 1960s, NSF has collaborated with the Chilean government and researchers to develop and operate a succession of highly advanced astronomical observatories.

This collaboration has been a key contributor to Chile's expanding reputation as one of the best locations in the world for siting large telescopes and making discoveries about our universe.

NSF observatories in Chile are operated in partnership with the Republic of Chile, and contribute to various funds for Chilean researchers as well as to scientific education. Each of the observatories has its own unique international partnership, involving a variety of governments, universities and laboratories.

Critical observations of supernovae explosions observed in the late 1980s and early 1990s were made with the Blanco 4-meter telescope of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Those observations contributed to the 2011 Nobel Prize being awarded to three prominent astronomers for "the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae" in the words of the Nobel Committee.

CTIO is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory – or NOAO – located near La Serena. Incidentally, while I was a graduate student at Caltech in the late 1970s, I spent many nights observing at CTIO.

Located not far away on Cerro Pachón is Gemini-South, the 8.1-meter optical/infrared telescope that works in tandem with a twin 8.1-meter telescope in Hawaii. Gemini's best-in-class capabilities--full-sky coverage, rapid response to transients, agile scheduling, and extreme contrast optics--will enable Gemini to continue to play a preeminent role in international astronomical communities for many years to come.

[Slide #7: Gemini Planet Imager Produces Stunning Results in First Year]

Of special interest to Chile is that the Gemini-South telescope has the Gemini Planet Imager – or GPI – the world's most powerful exoplanet camera, which turned its eye to the sky for the first time in 2014.

GPI was built to image faint planets next to bright stars and probe their atmospheres.

And, in fact, just in its first week of operation, GPI imaging of the planetary system HR 8799 produced this stunning field of view of three of the four planets in that system.

Recently, the American Astronomical Society held a press conference to celebrate the exoplanet images and spectra from the first year of GPI's operation. The GPI team leader remarked, "The fact that GPI was able to extract new knowledge from planets on the first commissioning run is a testament to how revolutionary GPI will be to the field of exoplanets."

Gemini's unique assets mean that it will emerge as a unique tool to complement the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) when it comes online in the 2020s.

[Slide #8: ALMA Captures Early Formation of Infant Star]

The largest capital investment the NSF has made in a single facility is for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. ALMA is the world's most sensitive, highest resolution, millimeter and sub-millimeter-wavelength telescope. It is located on the Altiplano, on the west side of the Andes, roughly 1400 kilometers north of Santiago.

ALMA consists of 66 high-quality antennas together with associated advanced electronics and significant infrastructure. Early science with ALMA, with a subset of the final number of antennas, began in 2011. The array will provide a testing ground for theories of star birth and stellar evolution, galaxy formation and evolution, and the evolution of the Universe itself. ALMA will make possible a search for planets around hundreds of nearby stars. In fact, it recently captured the early formation of a solar system around an infant star--seen here in remarkable detail.

This is only the first discovery in what promises to be ALMA's exciting new avenue for exploring the universe.

[Slide #9: LSST Deep Lens Survey (Projected)]

Finally, the highest priority recommendation of the 2010 National Academy of Sciences decadal survey of astronomy was the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope – LSST -- which will be located close to CTIO. Just a few days ago, I participated in an exciting "first stone ceremony" for LSST on El Peñón peak.

LSST is a planned wide-field "survey" reflecting telescope that will photograph the entire available sky every few nights. LSST's primary science goals include understanding the physics of dark energy and dark matter and detecting moderate red-shift supernovae.

It will detect and catalogue small bodies in the solar system, especially potentially hazardous asteroids and distant objects in the outer solar system. It will study the distances and motions of stars near the Sun, measuring the kinematics and structure of the galactic halo, and opening up the time domain. Repeated deep imaging of the accessible sky will turn up transient and explosive events such as cataclysmic variable stars, supernovae, and the optical counterparts of X-ray flashes.

The image above comes from a pilot project called the Deep Lens Survey, which provides a taste of what half a degree of sky will look like with LSST when it is in operation, projected to begin in 2022. An innovative Citizen Science program will involve people of all ages in LSST discoveries, making discovery opportunities available to K-12 students as easily as to the professional astronomer.

This is just one example of our commitment to engaging the public in the thrill of discovery and increase public understanding of and appreciation for scientific research.

When President Barack Obama visited Santiago in March 2011, he and President Sebastian Piñera issued a joint statement that said: "Both Heads of State highlighted the effective collaboration in the fields of astronomy and astro-engineering which will allow the operation of the LSST and ALMA telescopes in northern Chile, involving an investment of $1.5 billion dollars, with a close collaboration between public and private academic and research institutions in both countries." That sums up the great outlook our Chile-NSF astronomy partnership promises for the future.

[Slide #10: Polar Cooperation and Science]

Another critically important collaboration between Chile and NSF is our Antarctic Program, through which NSF has maintained a continuous presence in Punta Arenas since 1982. Punta Arenas is the logistics staging point for operations to Palmer Station, Antarctica. It is the forward operating base for the two NSF research vessels--RV Nathaniel B. Palmer and RV Laurence M. Gould.

Each year, the Antarctic Program sends more than 500 personnel and nearly one million pounds of cargo through Chile associated with Antarctic operations. Dry-dock maintenance for our research vessels is frequently performed in facilities at Valparaiso and Talcahuano.

This collaboration between NSF, the U.S. Antarctic Program, the Chilean Antarctic Program – INACH -- and the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been very helpful in facilitating the trans-shipment and permitting of equipment and materials associated with operations in Antarctica for many years.

The Chilean Air Force has also pitched in on several occasions with medical evacuation of U.S. personnel from Antarctica through the Chilean base at King George Island.

As the great Greek playwright Euripides once observed, "A friend in need is a friend indeed." We will always be grateful to the Chilean Air Force for making this herculean effort during very difficult conditions.

Going forward, the U.S. Antarctic Program and INACH are exploring new options for logistical collaborations in Antarctica for resupply and research activities, especially in light of the recommendations put forward in 2012 by an external report by the so-called Blue Ribbon Panel. These logistical investments will include safety and health improvements, investments with positive net present value, and facilities renewal at McMurdo and Palmer stations.

Let me also add that changes in Antarctic mosses are currently being studied at the Chilean Escudero research station on King George Island. Collaborators include participants from universities in Chile, the U.S. and Australia.

They are performing experiments to understand how warming will affect reproduction, chemistry and physiology of Antarctica's dominant terrestrial plants. NSF is currently exploring new opportunities for further scientific research with Chile in Antarctica and other venues.

[Slide #11: Chile and US Antarctic Educational Expedition for High School Students and Teachers]

In another area of NSF-Chile collaboration, the Antarctic Programs of Chile and the U.S. worked together on a joint pilot educational science expedition for high school students and teachers during the 2013-2014 Antarctic season.

The expedition achieved its original objectives of strengthening the partnership of the two Antarctic Programs, building relationships between future generations of scientific from both countries, and developing the participants' awareness of global scientific issues. The students also got a first-hand experience learning about local history in Punta Arenas.

[Slide #12: IRIS Consortium ]

Another collaboration between Chile and NSF is in the IRIS Consortium established following the Magnitude 8.8 earthquake off the coast of Chile in early 2010.

With the support of an NSF Rapid Response Research funding mechanism grant, scientists from the University of Chile, several U.S. universities, and French, German, and British teams deployed more than 100 temporary stations to study the earthquake zone. Stations with seismometers and other instruments were installed in the quake's rupture region to study aftershocks of the February 2010 earthquake.

Based on this successful collaboration, in 2011 IRIS and the University of Chile – supported by NSF and in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey and Chilean Emergency Measures Office -- constructed and installed ten globally reporting seismic observatories throughout Chile.

This network has since expanded and will have a nearly 100-station network that will significantly improve monitoring capabilities throughout Chile.

Data from this network is being used by Chilean authorities and the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor local and regional earthquakes, provide the Chilean public with information on earthquake activity, and help guide future responses to significant seismic events.

[Slide #13: Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW)

Since 1952, NSF has provided fellowships to nearly 50,000 Graduate Research Fellows, individuals selected early in their graduate careers based on their potential for significant achievements in science and engineering.

More than 40 fellows have gone on to become Nobel Laureates, and more than 440 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Over the last few years, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program has created opportunities for international research collaborations through the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) initiative. GROW enables Fellows to study in a foreign country as part of earning a Ph.D.

GROW builds upon long established relationships that NSF has with the international science and engineering community, and I'm very pleased Chile is participating in this program.

In the slide on the left, a GROW student is setting up a meteorological station with Chilean glaciologists on the Yeso glacier in the Andes.

On the right, a GROW student takes a lake water sample at Lago Grey, Patagonia, for black carbon analysis.

The number of GROW participants in Chile is still modest – about a handful last year and this year – but the potential for future growth and research is very encouraging.

[Slide #14: Interagency Collaborations]

Finally, in addition to all these many NSF-Chile collaborations in so many significant areas, I am delighted to note that there have been advisory interactions between professionals in several of our respective research organizations.

Personnel from INACH have spent time with NSF Directorates in the U.S., and NSF science staff have spent time with CONICYT in Chile.

Our program directors have also served as reviewers and panelists for CONICYT, and Chilean researchers have served as reviewers for NSF.

This sharing of expertise brings greater understanding to both NSF and CONICYT of our review processes and science investments.

We believe the opportunities for joint research and innovation between our two agencies are significant, and we will continue to look for common interests and abilities to contribute expertise in specific fields.

[Slide #15: Partners for Scientific Progress]

All in all, NSF is very grateful for CONICYT's strong and growing commitment to the many common interests of our two scientific research agencies.

We share so much--a commitment to exploration and excellence, and a desire to see our partnership continue to expand. NSF embraces CONICYT's seeking new opportunities to work together to achieve common goals.

[Slide #16: Chile and NSF: Partners for Scientific Progress ]

More than ever, the future prosperity and well-being of both Chileans and Americans depend on sustained investments in science and engineering, and I am confident CONICYT and NSF will continue to be central to that effort.

We look forward to working in partnership with all of you as we go forward. And now I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.