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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


"Novel Approaches to Breakthrough Research" Remarks Before the
Global Symposium on Scientific Breakthroughs
Tokyo, Japan

May 26, 2015

[Slide #1: Novel Approaches to Breakthrough Research]

Thank you, Dr. Anzai, for that warm introduction, and thank you all for the opportunity to meet with you today. I am honored to represent the U.S. National Science Foundation before this distinguished audience.

[Slide #2: U.S. National Academy of Sciences Welcomes Prime Minister Abe]

I was honored to be present when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a breakfast meeting on April 30 with several U.S. leaders in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine. The meeting was co-hosted by Koji Omi, founder and chairman of the Science and Technology in Society forum.

Prime Minister Abe told us, "Japan should take advantage of its high level of science and technology to promote peace and prosperity, especially peace based on the principle of international cooperation." I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister make those points, and I strongly agree with him.

[Slide #3: Impact of Fundamental Research]

In 2010, I had the honor of attending the Nobel Prize ceremony of Dr. Ei-ichi Negishi, a longtime Purdue professor and pioneering chemist. He said, "The final reward for any researcher is to see his or her lifetime of work extend beyond academia and laboratories, into the mainstream of our global society where it can breathe hope into the world."

Dr. Negishi is best known for his discovery of the Negishi coupling, which gives a more precise and efficient means of binding complex carbon compounds, enabling a new generation of pharmaceuticals and innovative advances in electronics. NSF has supported the work of leading-edge researchers, of whom 214 have received Nobel Prizes.

[Slide #4: How Basic Research Impacts Our Lives: NSF-launched Discoveries]

Basic research has always been the primary focus of NSF. That research has led to a great number of scientific discoveries that have transformed our lives.

For example, fundamental astronomy research funded by NSF technical innovations helped fine-tune the Global Positioning System--GPS--whose use in navigation, disaster relief, defense mapping and other endeavors is widely known.

NSF also played a critical role in "mainstreaming" the Internet, helping shape its growth and operation.

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, which eventually led to the formation of Google. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Another example: NSF research helped perfect the accuracy of reading the barcodes we find on everything from candy bars to airplane tickets to shipping containers.

Tornadoes are a major threat to life and property in many areas of the U.S. and other countries. Basic weather-sensing research at the NSF-supported National Center for Atmospheric Research was instrumental in developing Doppler radar as a meteorological research tool and enabling greater accuracy in forecasting the location and severity of weather.

NSF basic research has helped to improve the lives of millions of people with the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging--or MRI--now widely used in hospitals and clinics to detect tumors and internal tissue damage in patients.

[Slide #5: Illustration of a Smartphone's Layers]

Basic research remains the primary focus of NSF. However, we have to acknowledge that the pace of technology development and transfer has accelerated. Inventions are being brought to market more quickly in many domains.

These offer new paradigms for leveraging investments, with increased focus on interdisciplinary research. A great example is the iPhone, which incorporates art and design, new technologies, GPS, and even a social science approach to utilization.

According to a study by the Association of American Universities, university research provided the discoveries that led to your iPhone's touchscreen, memory chip (or central processing unit), multi-core processors, random access memory, GPS, and rechargeable, long-life, lithium-ion battery.

Similarly, hotel room keys use magnetic stripe technology and airline boarding passes use a combination of laser technology and bar codes--all traceable back to basic research.

[Slide #6: NSF Funding Mechanisms for Bringing Discovery to Delivery]

As a result, NSF has been developing funding mechanisms that are focused on bringing the "discovery" results of basic research into delivering technology into the broader scientific and engineering community. We call it "faster discovery to delivery."

NSF was the first U.S. federal agency to start a small business innovation research program and a small business technology transfer program. The economic and industrial impact of these programs--which incentivize and enable startups and small businesses to undertake R&D with high technical risk and high commercial reward--has been enormous. I want to highlight several other specific funding mechanisms that NSF has been developing.

[Slide #7: Interdisciplinary Centers]

We have developed Interdisciplinary Centers that draw on partnerships across industry, government, the private sector, and universities. These include:

  • Centers for Chemical Innovation--which address major, long-term fundamental challenges in chemical research.

  • Science and Technology Centers--which tackle complex, potentially transformative research through large, multidisciplinary collaborations.

  • Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers--which advance our understanding of materials research and education.

  • Advancing Technological Education Centers--which prepare a skilled high-tech workforce through partnerships among industry and community colleges.

  • Science of Learning Centers--which build a deeper understanding of learning through creative, diverse research rooted in societal challenges.

  • Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers--which receive a small investment from NSF and are primarily supported by industry center members.

[Slide #8: Interdisciplinary Program: BioMaPS]

One Interdisciplinary Program is known as Research at the Interface of the Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Engineering--or BioMaPS.

Research includes activities such as the development of models, informed by statistical physics that establish the mechanisms linking the biological function of chromosomes to their cellular structure.

This model of HIV is just one example of the innovations that can result from BioMAPS. The program allows scientists to explore viruses, bacteria and parts of the human body in astonishing detail.

[Slide #9: Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER)]

Another innovative mechanism is "Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research"--or EAGERs--that focus on evidence-based practices and exploratory research that may lead to new models and best practices.

On the left is an EAGER grant named "Zooniverse" that enables a citizen scientist to contribute to research using social networking methods from a home computer to communicate an image of a real interacting galaxy from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

On the right, postdoctoral researcher Li Deng stands on the deck of a research vessel that uses sensors to measure salinity, temperature, and depth of the ocean as well as collect samples for microbial and viral analysis.

These insights improve our ability to predict future ocean productivity and health and can be applied to other systems where microorganisms play important roles including agricultural systems and the human body.

[Slide #10: Rapid Response Research (RAPID)]

NSF's Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism enables NSF to receive and respond to urgent proposals for quick-response research regarding natural or anthropogenic disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal or the Ebola crisis.

[Slide #11: RAPID--US-Japanese Collaboration]

A RAPID award to the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution enabled it to track of the impact of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, following radioactivity in the Kuroshio Current and establishing baseline concentrations of radionuclides in the Pacific Ocean.

[Slide #12: Cyber-infrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering (CIF21)]

Another funding mechanism is the Cyber-infrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science Engineering and Education--or CIF21--research to provide advanced cyberinfrastructure and new capabilities in computational and data-enabled science and engineering.

CIF21 includes investments in world-class supercomputers such as Stampede--shown here at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

[Slide #13: International Partnerships (e.g., ALMA)]

International Partnerships enable NSF and its international partners to extend the reach of their research capacity.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array--or ALMA telescope in Chile--has received more than $1 billion in investments from a broad international coalition led by NSF and including Japan, Chile, Europe and North America.

ALMA is opening an exciting new window into our Universe and providing a testing ground for theories of star birth and stellar evolution, and solar system and galaxy formation.

ALMA recently captured the early formation of a solar system around an infant star in remarkable detail.

The "Big Data" ALMA and other large telescopes produce offers more opportunity to develop new methods of rapid computer analysis.

[Slide #14: Innovation Corps (I-Corps)]

And our more recent Innovation Corps program--or "I-Corps"--uses public-private partnerships to create an ecosystem for innovation that couples scientific discovery with technology development and societal needs. It is a "fast track" from innovation to market and involves both grad students and their mentors.

In the slide, we see one such societal need being addressed.

Until recently, a reliable, low-cost, non-invasive method to measure changes that occur in the water content of the lungs did not exist.

An NSF-funded scientist at the John A. Burns School of Medicine invented a new type of stethoscope that attaches to the body surface much like an EKG sensor and uses a novel radio frequency (RF) sensor to detect small changes in lung water, and monitor vital signs including heart and respiration rate, and stroke volume.

The NSF I-Corps model is currently being replicated by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Republic of Mexico.

[Slide #15: Funding Tomorrow's Discoverers: JSPS Summer Program 2014]

Finally, we should always encourage our graduate students to take advantage of opportunities to build international collaborations. NSF and JSPS have a long history of collaborating on a program that enables U.S. graduate students to spend the summer doing research in Japan, giving them valuable experience that will help them become leaders in the next generation of scientists and engineers.

These "Discoverers of Tomorrow" gathered last year at the start of the Summer Program to celebrate the first-hand research experiences they would have working with some of Japan's leading scientists and engineers. Perhaps some of them will follow in Professor Negishi's footsteps and become Nobel Prize winners of the next generation!

[Slide #16: ]

I am very pleased that the focus of today is on scientific breakthroughs because that is the theme--the mission--of the National Science Foundation. Today I have focused on one increasingly important aspect of this mission, which is more rapid translation.

Let me offer my great thanks to JSPS for inviting me to this very productive exchange of ideas, and I look forward to our conversations.