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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


At the
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Hong Kong

June 20, 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: Nurturing Discovery, Creativity & Innovation]

I am delighted to join you in celebrating this 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.

[Slide #2: Untitled]

The brief video we just saw makes my job a little easier today because it provides a quick overview of the real-world impact of the research that the U.S. National Science Foundation has had on the lives of many millions of people around the world. NSF does not conduct research within the Foundation -- instead we support research in thousands of educational and scientific institutions across the United States.

And, as we will see, we also have robust investments in international partnerships and advanced scientific facilities in many different countries. What I would like to do today is note some of the highlights of what we do and where we believe we can have the greatest impact on fundamental scientific research in the future.

[Slide #3: The U.S. President appoints the NSF Director ]

NSF was begun in 1950 with an act of the U.S. Congress, and signed into law by President Harry Truman. The Foundation reports directly to the President, who appoints the NSF Director. I was appointed by President Barack Obama, and I was sworn in on March 31, 2014.

[Slide #4: NSF champions research and education across all fields of science and engineering]

NSF is the only U.S. government agency dedicated to supporting basic research and education in all fields of science and engineering. We operate with an annual budget that is currently about $7.5 billion, and 93 percent of our budget goes to support research and educational activities, including a major emphasis on STEM education. All told, NSF provides 25 percent of the total federal support of academic basic research for all science and engineering fields in the U.S. NSF's investment is at the fundamental stage of research. We generally fund curiosity-driven ideas with no immediate application in sight. When we fund basic research, we take one small step to try and better understand our world. It's a calculated risk. But small steps led us to the internet and solar panels, 3-D printing and lifesaving drugs. And it will be small steps that bring us closer to clean energy, understanding the brain, and curing cancer.

You might recall that Albert Einstein said, "If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research," but he went on to say, that "you never fail until you stop trying." At NSF, we never stop trying to push the frontiers of science.

[Slide #5: NSF accelerates discovery to delivery]

While NSF invests primarily in fundamental research that can lead over time to scientific breakthroughs, we also have a significant interest in bringing the results of basic research into the broader scientific and engineering community more quickly. We call that "faster discovery to delivery."

Over the last four decades, NSF has been continuously innovating and exploring new approaches to stimulate small business-based technological innovations and commercialization. NSF was the first U.S. federal agency to start a small business innovation research program and a small business technology transfer program. In 1998, NSF's SBIR introduced a new supplemental program called Phase IIB. This is a platform to stimulate NSF-funded Phase II grantees to attract private sector funding for further technology commercialization.

In addition to providing funding in varying stages, we also assist our awardees by providing them with experiential entrepreneurial education based in part on the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.

I-Corps helps entrepreneurs and their small businesses understand market needs and customers, thus increasing their chances of successfully commercializing new technologies.

Another program, closely related to I-Corps, is the Accelerating Innovation Research (AIR) program. We frequently find that NSF-funded academic researchers apply for AIR grants first before pursuing I-Corps training.

We are seeing strong interactions between these programs as well as with our SBIR/STTR program, where researchers start with NSF-funded fundamental research, advance to AIR, then go through I-Corps, and then pursue SBIR and STTR funding.

This pathway is getting stronger and working extremely well. We also have other translational research programs that complement our significant investments in fundamental scientific and engineering research.

SBIR and STTR are vital components of NSF's agenda to enable commercialization of technologies stemming from basic research. We at NSF take great pride in having pioneered the SBIR program concept and continue to innovate to expand its impact.

Additionally, NSF has launched Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers -- which are partnerships that receive a small investment from NSF and are primarily supported by industry center members.

In a similar vein, we created Engineering Research Centers and Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers -- which advance the progress of science through trans-disciplinary partnerships.

[Slide #6: NSF's International Strategy]

NSF is proud of its large and increasing number of international partnerships that enable NSF and its international partners to extend the frontiers of knowledge and address global scientific challenges.

The goals of our international partnerships are to grow our economy and the economies of our collaborators; enhance U.S. security and the security of our partners; and advance scientific and technological leadership for ourselves and our partners.

We collaborate across all areas of research, with countries on every continent, including Antarctica. For instance, we recently hosted a workshop on Ebola research in Senegal so that NSF-funded and international researchers could share their results.

I just attended a meeting of the Global Research Council with 50 international funding agencies to discuss areas of joint concern such as equality and status of women in research and inter-disciplinarity.

[Slide #7: NSF's global presence]

NSF cultivates a strong global presence, as shown by the many different colored pins on this map.

A few examples:

  • In astronomy, we have important facilities such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and Gemini South in Chile and the High Altitude Water Cherenkov observatory in Mexico. All have international participations.
  • In physics, we fund experiments for the Large Hadron Collider to CERN in Europe, and LIGO is an international partnership among many nations.
  • In polar research, NSF leads the U.S. Antarctica program.
  • In the world's oceans, the Ocean Observatories Initiative is a network of platforms and sensors. NSF also maintains a fleet of oceangoing vessels that research the world's oceans.
  • We also have programs to provide U.S. students with international research experiences such as Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide and International Research Experiences for Students.

[Slide #8: NSF big ideas for future investment]

At this point, I've provided a "bare bones" overview of NSF's past and present. But with our always-evolving focus on transformative scientific research, NSF has collaboratively developed a number of bold ideas for the future; these are ideas that NSF is uniquely suited to address.

We have identified 10 big ideas -- 6 of them research ideas, and 4 of them process ideas -- that would invite transformative discoveries. I have time to only touch lightly on these ideas today, but you will be hearing more about them in the weeks and months ahead.

[Slide #9: Harnessing data for 21st century science and engineering]

With an increase in the volume, variety and velocity of data, the very nature of scientific inquiry is changing. We propose to develop a national-scale initiative aimed at fundamental data science research, research data cyberinfrastructure, and the development of a 21st century data-capable workforce.

To do this, we would fund research at the intersection of mathematics, statistics and computational science to enhance data-driven modeling, simulation and visualization. We will fund research on predictive analytics, data mining, machine learning, data semantics, reproducibility, privacy and protection, and the human-data interface.

The cyberinfrastructure ecosystem must be robust, open, and science-driven, and capable of mining data delivered by our large-scale facilities. We must develop innovative learning opportunities and educational pathways to develop the skills needed by tomorrow's workforce. New government, industry and international partnerships will maximize the impact of this investment.

[Slide #10: Shaping the new human-technology future]

The ways we work, live, and learn are increasingly infused with technology. We talk to people half-way around the world with a watch at our ear; the vehicles we drive have embedded sensors, communications, and increased autonomy; the sculptures we enjoy can be printed in 3-D; our homes are becoming "smart;" and fit-bits we wear monitor our health. In this emerging techno-world, research examining this human-technology frontier becomes paramount.

We would build on foundational investments we've made in research in machine learning and efficient engineered systems with cognitive and adaptive capabilities. We would fund studies about how technology affects learning, human behavior, and social organizations, and how it will affect the nature of work and education. And we will investigate how we as humans can shape the future of technology so that it serves to better human life.

[Slide #11: Understanding the rules of life]

When you take your next bite of Romanesco broccoli, you probably won't stop to admire its fractal form or appreciate that the number of spirals on its head is a Fibonacci number.

Why is this pattern repeated so often in nature? The universally recognized biggest gap in our biological knowledge is our inability to predict the phenotype of a cell or organism from what we know about the genome and environment. We do not understand the rules that govern phenotypic emergence at scale.

To understand the "rules of life" will require convergence of research across biology, computer science, mathematics, the physical sciences, behavioral sciences and engineering.

Among the key questions we might research are:

How can computational modeling and informatics methods enable the data integration needed to predict complex living systems?

And, how might we predict the behavior of living systems, from single molecules to whole organisms?

And to what degree is an organism's phenome affected by the microorganisms that live in symbiosis with it?

[Slide #12: The quantum leap ]

Quantum mechanics has led to many of the technologies you take for granted today, like lasers and the transistors in computers and all electronic devices. The new quantum revolution will exploit quantum phenomena like superposition, entanglement, and squeezing to enable the next wave of precision sensors, and more efficient computation, simulation, and communication. NSF would invest in research that addresses the manipulation of quantum states, and the control of material-light interactions, involving physicists, mathematicians and engineers. There will be strong connections to industry, other federal agencies, and international partners.

[Slide #13: Navigating the new Arctic]

Vast and rapid environmental changes in the Arctic will have a climactic effect on the rest of the planet, and also bring new global access to the Arctic's natural resources. Knowledge of the changes underway and their potential local and global effects is incomplete due to sparse and varied sampling.

NSF would establish an observing network of mobile and fixed platforms and tools across the Arctic to document biological, physical and social changes, and invest further in theory, modeling and simulation of this changing ecosystem and its broader effects on the planet. This effort will be leveraged with participation of other agencies, both local and federal.

[Slide #14: Windows on the universe]

As our scientific instrumentation improves in sensitivity, observations of the universe have revealed exciting new cosmic phenomena which bring with them new and larger mysteries.

We know little, for example, of the nature of 95 percent of the mass-energy content of the universe. We continue to pursue evidence that would validate theories of our universe's origins and expansion. We do not yet have a unifying theory of quantum and gravitational fields. Nor do we know the origin of high-energy cosmic rays.

We have many questions about the nature and behavior of stars in their death throes, like black holes and neutron stars. We have come to a special moment in understanding our universe: for the first time we can explore its mysteries in the electro-magnetic regime, the particle regime, and the gravitational wave regime.

NSF is the agency that uniquely can do this with ground based observatories, like ALMA which observes at millimeter wavelengths, Ice-Cube which detects neutrinos, and LIGO which detects gravitational waves.

With so much potential for discovery, we must increase our investment in the large number of potential U.S. users, in exploiting the big data that these observatories are producing, and in increasing the sensitivity of these and other ground-based facilities.

That concludes our 6 big research ideas. I will now summarize our 4 big process ideas. Each of these would give the science and engineering communities additional capacity to stimulate breakthrough science.

[Slide #15: Growing convergent research at NSF]

Convergence is a relatively new way of thinking about bringing people with their disciplinary knowledge together to address grand challenges. A recent National Academy report on convergence stated, "merging ideas, approaches, and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge at a high level of integration is one crucial strategy for solving complex problems."

The convergent approach would frame challenging research questions at inception, and foster the collaborations needed for successful inquiry.

NSF is well-positioned to foster convergence because of its deep connections to all fields of science and engineering. To support convergence research, NSF would address the key technical, organizational and logistical challenges that hinder truly transdisciplinary research. This involves a critical look at criteria and metrics for convergence research, and adapting the merit review process to represent the broad expertise needed to identify the best ideas.

On June 24, I will give a talk about NSF's approach to convergence. The venue is a roll-out at the National Academy of Science of MIT's convergence plan for health-related research.

[Slide #16: Mid-scale research infrastructure/Image not available]

In recent years, our facilities initiatives -- also known as our Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction budgeting process -- have been constrained due to the inability to expeditiously fund emerging opportunities that cost between several million dollars and 100 million dollars.

Examples would be cyberinfrastructure, cosmic microwave background measurements, sensor networks, dark matter experiments, nuclear astrophysics measurements, and instruments for current major experiments or facilities. Lowering the threshold for MREFC expenditures, with appropriate modification of processes, would increase the flexibility for excellent science to be done across the agency.

[Slide #17: NSF INCLUDES]

NSF INCLUDES is an integrated, national initiative to increase the preparation, participation, advancement, and potential contributions of those who have been traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented in STEM education and the STEM workforce.

It will build on and amplify NSF's current portfolio in broadening participation. We hope that by adopting new approaches to inclusion, we can increase more rapidly, and retain more effectively, those who have been left out of science, or dropped out of science.

It will be a goal, together with research and science education, that is a value of NSF. Because science is too wonderful for it to be exclusive, and too important to leave anyone out. And by broadening participation in the STEM workforce, we strengthen it.

[Slide #18: NSF 2050/Image not available]

Finally, NSF wants to create a breakthrough scientific pathway to its centennial in 2050. With this initiative, NSF would dedicate a special fund now, to invest in bold foundational research questions that are large in scope, innovative in character, originate outside of any particular directorate, and require a long-term commitment.

Similar to the National Institutes of Health's Common Fund, NSF 2050 would invite community input into long-term program development, and capture the imagination of critical stakeholders. This fund might be initiated off the top of the FY18 funding request, but would hopefully become important enough in its scope and visibility that we could expect increases in future budget requests.

[Slide #19: Nurturing Discovery, Creativity & Innovation]

Since I started this presentation with a reference to my swearing in as NSF Director a little over two years ago, let me close by making some observations about my experiences during that brief period.

I have spent much of the last two years meeting with elected officials and other government officials in the U.S., numerous officials in the governments of NSF partners, and scientists, researchers, educators and students in countries around the world. I have come away with an even deeper appreciation of the interests and talents of everyone involved in the science, engineering and education ecosystem.

This is an exciting -- and challenging -- time for science. It is a time to nurture a mutually supportive environment that will empower scientists and researchers, both as individuals and teams, to search for new knowledge and create the new tools needed for future discoveries.

Thank you to HKUST for giving me this opportunity to come together to share our ideas for discovery and innovation. The next 25 years should be exciting!