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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable

October 25, 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: NSF's 10 Big Ideas]

It is so nice to be here with you all this morning.

When we look back on the Industrial Revolutions of the past, it is clear how they altered aspects of daily life forever. The different phases transformed everything from manufacturing to transportation to communication and even finance. It was evidence that scientific discoveries had the potential to drastically improve the quality of life for many.

[Slide #2: NSF by the Numbers]

The National Science Foundation is driven by being the place where discoveries happen. That reputation makes us a pretty important player in keeping the United States at the forefront of science and technology breakthroughs. NSF's influence impacts the lives of many millions of people around the world. NSF does not conduct research within the Foundation, but instead we support basic research in thousands of educational and scientific institutions across the United States.

NSF operates with an annual budget that is currently about $8 billion, and about 93 percent of that goes to support research and educational activities, including a major emphasis on STEM education.

The Foundation's annual budget represents just four percent of the total federal budget for research and development, but accounts for 24 percent of the total federal support for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities.

[Slide 3: 100 Examples of Leadership]

A significant recognition of NSF's essential contributions to U.S. scientific advances came as a result of the President's listing of his Administration's 100 accomplishments in "Science, Technology and Innovation."

The President highlighted examples of multi-million dollar investments that show NSF's commitment to funding necessary research and development.

[Slide 4: 100 Examples, continued]

For example, grants placed toward developing "Smart Cities" show that NSF is active in using technology for community wellness and environmental research. Educational investments show NSF's obligation to strengthening tomorrow's workforce and preparing them for the jobs of the future.

In total, 24 distinct references to NSF were cited, demonstrating the widespread involvement of NSF in the nation's advances in science, technology and innovation. When people look back on this period of American history, NSF's influence will stand out prominently.

Looking ahead, what role does NSF plan to play in the future of innovation? The father of NSF, Vannevar Bush, observed that "basic research leads to new knowledge," and NSF's continued commitment to investing in basic research will be the foundation for future scientific breakthroughs.

Presently, NSF has 10 Big Ideas that we collaboratively developed regarding ideas NSF is uniquely suited to address. Six of these are research ideas, and four are process ideas. These concepts will help us focus on the most promising transformative scientific research for the future.

[Slide 5: Big Research Ideas]

Understanding the future involves understanding the environment in which we live. There are vast, rapid environmental changes taking place in the Arctic that will have a climactic effect on the rest of the planet, and also bring new global access to the Arctic's natural resources. Our Navigating the New Arctic idea envisions establishing a network of mobile and fixed platforms and tools across the Arctic to document these biological, physical and social changes, and investing further in theory, modeling and simulation that will help us better understand this changing ecosystem.

Another of NSF's big research ideas is Understanding the Rules of Life, which recognizes that the biggest gap in our knowledge of biology is our inability to predict the phenotype of a cell or organism from what we know about the genome and environment. In other words, we do not understand the rules that govern phenotypic emergence at scale. So to better understand the "rules of life," we will work on converging research across biology, computer science, mathematics, the physical sciences, behavioral sciences and engineering.

Another Big Idea is leading the next quantum revolution. Quantum mechanics has led to many of the technologies we take for granted today, like lasers and the transistors in computers and all electronic devices. The Quantum Leap idea will exploit quantum phenomena like superposition and entanglement, making technologies for sensing, computing, modeling and communicating more accurate and efficient.

Building on decades of NSF-supported research, we propose to address fundamental questions about quantum behavior and manipulation of quantum systems. NSF will invest in research that addresses the manipulation of quantum states, and the control of material-light interactions, involving physicists, mathematicians and engineers. NSF foresees strong connections in this field to industry, other federal agencies, and international partners.

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. For example, we know little of the nature of 95% of the mass-energy content of the universe. Our Windows on the Universe initiative highlights the fact that 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. Our continued funding of LIGO led to one of the century's biggest discoveries – gravitational waves.

With this initiative, we will continue to pursue evidence that would validate theories of our universe's origins and expansion. With so much potential for discovery, this is the time to 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.

[Slide 6: Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science]

With an increase in the volume, variety and velocity of data, the very nature of scientific inquiry is changing. Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science and Engineering proposes developing 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 plan to fund research at the intersection of mathematics, statistics and computational science to enhance data-driven modeling, simulation and visualization.

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.

We are depending on new government, industry and international partnerships to maximize the impact of the investment in harnessing data.

[Slide 7: Human-Technology Frontier]

The ways that we work, live, and learn are increasingly infused with technology. Recent advances in areas ranging from artificial intelligence to neurotechnology present new opportunities for an integrated effort to produce major breakthroughs in fundamental knowledge. For example, some digital computers can now rival the raw processing power and memory of the human brain. New tools allow researchers to switch individual brain cells "on" and "off" to affect behavior. Yet, significant obstacles clearly remain before the gap between brain and machine can be bridged.

The Human-Technology Frontier Idea will build on foundational investments we've made in research in machine learning and efficient engineered systems with cognitive and adaptive capabilities. We plan to fund studies about how technology affects learning, human behavior, and social organizations, and how it will affect the nature of work and education, enabling us to shape the future of technology so that it serves to better human life.

NSF supports research that advances nearly all areas of artificial intelligence: computer vision, perception, machine learning, neural networks, and deep learning. We see so much potential in this idea, and there are so many instances of brilliance that should excite all of us about the future. Recent work in artificial intelligence has focused in part on improvements in modeling human vision and social interaction and producing self-driving cars, for example.

For the last five years, NSF has led the National Robotics Initiative, investing in collaborative robots that work WITH people on a variety of tasks and in a variety of settings. NSF recently funded a grant to the University of California San Diego to make robots and humans interact more effectively and efficiently in the workplace, saving companies and consumers millions.

NSF's Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program is supporting a diverse group of researchers at four U.S. universities plus research institutions in Japan and South Korea in researching soft robotics, aiming to convert a new polymer-based material into artificial muscle which could be a life-changing discovery for disabled people all over the world.

NSF recently awarded a grant to UC San Francisco for a Center for Cellular Construction, which will be used to study and promote cellular engineering. The ultimate goal is to transform the field of cell biology into a quantitative discipline and use tools from engineering, the physical sciences, and computer science to create computerized machines out of living cells. Looking forward, cellular engineering, and artificial intelligence in general, is primed to spark exploration into new ways to fight disease, enhance food production, monitor the environment, and many more possibilities in areas we ordinarily would not imagine.

NSF funded an initiative that is applying artificial intelligence to predict the movements of poachers and protect endangered species from illegal hunting. The University of Texas at Arlington received an NSF grant to use artificial intelligence to assess learning difficulties in children very early in their lives. This type of research could potentially have a huge impact in deciphering how to enhance the cognitive abilities of children.

These are just a few examples of the potential wide-ranging impact of this Big Idea. This is the future that we see on the discovery horizon when we look ahead.

[Slide 8: Big Process Ideas]

The four other Big Ideas are focused on process, which will give the science and engineering communities additional capacity to stimulate breakthrough science.

Having a more diverse participation pool that embraces the traditionally underrepresented is the future of innovation in America. There are many brilliant minds that will contribute to the dynamic innovations of the future. NSF INCLUDES is NSF's idea to broaden participation in science and engineering among women and minorities.

Our vision is to transform science and engineering so that it is fully and widely inclusive. 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. 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.

Last month's announcement of the new MacArthur Fellows - also known as "MacArthur Genius Grants" - revealed that of the 23 "Geniuses," seven were or currently are NSF-funded. This NSF-supported group is refreshingly diverse, with three women, a Native American, and three men of Asian descent. This is what NSF sees when we look ahead to the future of innovation.

The future also involves changing the way we fund these potential discoverers. Mid-scale Research Infrastructure acknowledges that NSF's big-budget initiatives have been constrained due to the inability to fund emerging opportunities that cost between several M$ and 100 M$. Lowering the threshold for these types of investments will increase the flexibility for excellent science to be done across the agency in fields such as cyberinfrastructure, cosmic microwave background measurements, sensor networks, dark matter experiments, nuclear astrophysics measurements, and instruments for current major experiments or facilities.

NSF is also looking ahead to our own centennial in 2050. What better way to celebrate than unveiling outstanding scientific discoveries? NSF 2050: Seeding Innovation will dedicate a special fund 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. NSF 2050 will invite community input into long-term program development, and capture the imagination of critical stakeholders.

[Slide 9: Convergence]

Another major process idea is Growing Convergent Research. In envisioning the future, we realized that there are many areas ripe for discovery and innovation with a convergence approach -- from health to aging; to energy, food, and water; and even to understanding the universe at large.

Some of the Big Ideas I have discussed today may not sound like they have direct connections to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But we understand that when searching for the answers to complex issues, it may take minds from different fields to spark a new discovery.

NSF has always had a culture of convergence, and building on that foundation of Convergent Research is a major focus of ours at NSF. Max Planck once said, "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." NSF's role is to be constantly on the lookout for new ideas: some will fit neatly into our ongoing core programs, and others will be new convergent ideas. 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." We know that the grand challenges of today will not be solved by one discipline alone. NSF is well-positioned to foster convergence because of its deep connections to all fields of science and engineering.

The National Science Foundation has deep connections to all fields of science and engineering, and is not new to convergence approaches. The convergent approach will frame challenging research questions at inception, and foster the collaborations needed for successful inquiry. NSF's role will be to address the key technical, organizational and logistical challenges that hinder truly transdisciplinary research.

These are the 10 Big Ideas that NSF believes will drive transformative scientific research for the future. And as I just mentioned with convergence, we believe that bringing people together is the ideal approach to finding those transformative discoveries.

Thomas Edison once said that "If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves." NSF has collaborated with universities and institutions to do excellent science. We have invested in so many basic research projects, and supported a lot of high-risk studies that have resulted in indispensable contributions to society. However, our potential for innovation is so much higher. With industry as an effective counterpart, we could astonish even the most optimistic lover of science.

Our challenge is to make the most effective collaborations that will help make these Big Ideas a reality. How can we work with industry leaders and find areas where business can fit in capably and help advance these plans? How can we make industry an indispensable partner in finding the breakthroughs that revolutionize the world as we know it?

It is hard to imagine a successful industrial revolution without the contributions of government, university, and industry. When historians look back on the Fourth Industrial Revolution one day, we hope that they can highlight our collaborations with our partners as a major influence in the discoveries that transformed our society.