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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the
Next Einstein Forum -- Plenary Panel 6
"Developing a National Science Strategy Including Curiosity-driven Research" Dakar, Senegal

March 10, 2016

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Slide #1: Next Einstein Forum]

Thank you, Minister Niane, for that warm introduction, and may I say what a great pleasure it is to be with all of you today.

The National Science Foundation is the United States' primary basic scientific research agency. We are deeply committed to curiosity-driven, potentially transformative science. We engage the scientific imagination of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, researchers, educators and students.

We invest in universities and colleges that lead to cutting-edge developments and new industries and technologies. We invest in the youth of today to create the STEM professionals of tomorrow, contributing to our country's skilled workforce.

And we also invest in international partnerships that enable significant scientific research. Our global collaborations have accelerated the progress of science and improvements in health, security, and prosperity throughout the world.

[Slide # 2: Einstein's Curiosity Bears Fruit]

We never lose sight of our obligation to "explore the unexplored" and consistently support research driven by curiosity and imagination -- and many of these investments are, by definition, "risky." A great example of this played out on the world stage last month -- and it directly addresses the goals of this "Next Einstein Forum." One hundred years after Einstein published his theory of general relativity, NSF, MIT, Caltech and others announced the first-ever observation of gravitational waves -- ripples in the fabric of space-time -- caused by two colliding black holes 1.3 billion light years away.

The gravitational waves were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- or LIGO -- which NSF began funding in the 1970s, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it was a huge risk for us. But NSF is the agency that takes these kind of risks.

Now that risk is beginning to pay off and will open a vast new window into our universe. LIGO research is being carried out by a huge international consortium of more than 1,000 scientists from universities around the United States and in 14 other countries. Drawing upon a global, multi-messenger network of detectors, we will be able to more accurately track the source locations of exotic high-energy cosmic sources, allowing us to seek new answers to the most fundamental questions about our Universe.

[Slide #3: NSF by the Numbers ]

NSF operates with an annual budget that is about $8 billion, and 93 percent of that budget 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 receive about 50,000 proposals each year. Through our widely respected merit review process, NSF selects about 12,000 of these for funding.

We must be doing something right because at last count, NSF-supported researchers have received 217 Nobel Prizes -- although we invested in those Laureates' work long before they were recognized by the Nobel committees.

How does NSF decide what research to fund? We strike a balance between "bottom-up" and "top-down" approaches.

"Bottom-up" draws upon the scientific expertise we have in-house, with critical expertise and advice provided by "rotators" who come from virtually every segment of the U.S. scientific brain-trust.

"Top-down" research emerges from our collaborations with rest of the U.S. Government. We have close working relationships with the White House and the Congress, and we partner with other Federal agencies on numerous projects.

We fund proposals that address top national priorities like understanding the human brain; studying the complex interactions between food, energy and water; and exploring how to build communities that are better prepared to survive natural or man-made disasters. NSF is also participating in a landmark commitment to accelerate global clean energy innovation made by President Obama and other world leaders.

[Slide # 4: Basic Research Leads to Applications]

NSF invests primarily in fundamental research that may lead over time to scientific breakthroughs. But we also have a significant interest in bringing the results of basic research into the marketplace.

We were 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.

They offer new paradigms for leveraging investments, with increased focus on interdisciplinary research. A great example is the iPhone in your pocket, 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 the iPhone's touchscreen, memory chip, multi-core processors, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and more.

[Slide # 5: STEM: Inspiring Human Capital and Capabilities for the Future]

I want to again stress the importance that the U.S. National Science Foundation places on improving STEM education. We believe that the scientific enterprise itself is strengthened through intellectual diversity of thought and diversity of participants in STEM including women, underrepresented ethnic/racial groups, and persons with disabilities.

NSF focuses intently on STEM education, as well as funding graduate students and early career researchers to help them pursue curiosity-driven research.

[Slide # 6: Next Einstein Forum ]

In closing, let me also say that just as the Universe knows no borders, the science community's exploration of its mysteries is increasingly an international endeavor. We look forward to the promise of ever-greater cooperation among nations and institutions as we expand scientific understanding of the endlessly fascinating challenges presented by the world in which we live.

NSF is committed to working with you -- and your institutions -- in continuing to champion scientific research in all areas of science and engineering. I wish you all a very productive meeting.