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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the
Science Museum

November 17, 2016

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

Title slide title: Ten Big Ideas: Discovery, Creativity & Innovation

Slide words:
Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, U.S. National Science Foundation
Science Museum, London
November 17, 2016

Slide images (left to right): photo of a research camp on the Yukon Delta, Alaska; photo of an electricity transmission pylon; illustration of a cyber security lock; photo of robotic and human hands meeting through glass window

Image credits (left to right): Ryan Choi, Utah State University; ©; ©; Andrew Kelly, NY Hall of Science; design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF

Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to speak here at the Science Museum of London. I am proud to represent the U.S. National Science Foundation, and it's a pleasure to be able to discuss the Foundation with you.

NSF works every day to support basic -- or fundamental -- research that engages the scientific curiosity of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, educators and students across the country.

NSF-supported research has had tremendous real-world impact. We enrich the lives of many millions of people around the world - including each of your lives!

Slide title: The U.S. President appoints the NSF Director

Slide images: (top left) White House logo
(bottom left) photo of President Barack Obama
(right) photo of Dr. France A. Córdova being sworn in by Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

Image credits: (left) The White House (2 left); (right) Sandy Schaeffer

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 title: NSF by the numbers

Slide image: diagram showing NSF metrics

On the left:
$7.5 billion FY 2017 appropriation
93% funds research, education and related activities
50,000 proposals

In the middle:
12,000 awards funded
2,000 NSF-funded institutions
300,000 NSF-supported researchers

On the right:
Fund research in all S&E disciplines
Fund STEM education & workforce
223 Nobel Prize winners

Image credit: NSF

NSF operates with an annual budget that is currently about $7.5 billion, and the vast majority of that - 93 percent - goes to support research, STEM education, and development of the STEM workforce.

The Foundation's annual budget represents just four percent of the total federal budget for research and development, but accounts for one quarter of the total federal support for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities. In many fields, NSF is the primary source of federal academic support. For example, in computing, NSF accounts for 82 percent of such investment.

We fund curiosity-driven ideas that push the frontiers of knowledge and discovery. These gains in knowledge have led to innovations with tremendous impact - for example, solar panels, 3-D printing, the Internet, lifesaving technologies and therapies, and much more.

Slide title: NSF champions research and education across all fields of science and engineering

Slide words (clockwise from top left): Biological Sciences; Engineering; Mathematical & Physical Sciences; Computer & Information Science & Engineering; Geosciences (including Polar Programs); International Science & Engineering; Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences; Education & Human Resources; Integrative Activities

Slide images (clockwise from top left): image of a cancer cell and lymphocytes; illustration of a carbon nanotube; illustration of an exoplanetary system; photo of Stampede supercomputer; photo of Ellsworth Range in Antarctica; digital image of Earth's horizon; abstract photograph of a crowd of people; photo of two Rutgers students working in a research lab; photo of two students with high-temperature high-vacuum molding system

Image credits (clockwise from top left): ): Thinkstock; Christine Daniloff; Gemini Observatory/AURA; Sean Cunningham, TACC; James Yungel/NASA IceBridge; Thinkstock (2); Nick Romanenko; Eddy Perez, LSU University Relations

NSF is the only U.S. government agency dedicated to supporting basic research and education in all fields of science and engineering.

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 steps to try and better understand our world - steps that represent a calculated, long-term risk.

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 title: NSF's global presence

Slide words: Observatories; Ships; Instruments; Polar; Education; International Partnerships

Slide images (top left to right): photo of Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile; photo of international flags; interior photo of Large Hadron Collider; photo of an iceberg near Antarctica; photo of a graduate research fellow using GPS receivers to monitor movement of bedrock landslides in Norway; photo of a UCLA graduate working with Cameroonian students

Slide image: world map showing locations of NSF supported facilities and research ships

Image credits (top left to right): ALMA; Thinkstock; CERN; Jeffrey Kietzmann, NSF; Adam Booth, Caltech; Madeline Tiee, UCLA; Thinkstock

While NSF is basically a U.S. institution, the Foundation 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 title: NSF big ideas for future investment

Slide words (top clockwise from left): Research Ideas
-Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science and Engineering
-Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: Shaping the Future
-Windows on the Universe: The Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics
-The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution
-Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype
-Navigating the New Arctic

(bottom clockwise from left ) Process Ideas
-Mid-scale Research Infrastructure
-NSF 2050: Seeding Innovation
-NSF INCLUDES: Enhancing Science and Engineering through Diversity
-Growing Convergent Research at NSF

Slide images: (top clockwise from left) word graphic about data science; illustration of creative teams working on giant digital tablets and communicating digitally; aerial photo of LIGO in Livingston, LA; illustration of quantum computation with trapped ions; photo of seedling being watered by hand; photo of radio telescopes at ALMA in Chile; photo of IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica; aerial photo of melting ice in the Arctic. (Bottom clockwise from left) photo of a broken bridge; futuristic NSF 2050 Integrative Foundational Fund graphic; U.S. map with photo montage of diverse people; illustration suggesting convergence

Image credits: (top clockwise from left) James Kurose, NSF; Sanz; LIGO Scientific Collaboration; Joint Quantum Institute, University of Maryland; ©; F. Fleming Crim, NSF (2); Roger Wakimoto, NSF (bottom clockwise from left) ©; © and design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF; design by Trinka Kensill, NSF; National Research Council of the National Academies Press

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 -- "Ten Big Ideas for Future Investment" -- that we believe NSF is uniquely suited to address.

We have identified 10 big ideas -- six of them research ideas, and four of them process ideas -- that would invite transformative discoveries.

I have time to only touch briefly on these ideas today, but you will be hearing more about them in the weeks and months ahead.

Slide title: Harnessing data for 21st century science and engineering

Slide image: word graphic about data science

Image credit: James Kurose, NSF

With recent advances in the volume, variety and velocity of processing data, the very nature of scientific inquiry is changing. Harnessing the Data Revolution will enable new modes of data-driven discovery - allowing researchers to ask and answer new questions in frontier science and engineering, generate new knowledge and understanding, and accelerate discovery and innovation.

Just as NSF's investments in supercomputing and NSFNet at the end of the last century fundamentally transformed the practice of science and engineering, so too is harnessing the data revolution now poised to enable new discoveries and innovations, and transform the practice of science, engineering, and education in the future.

We will fund research on predictive analytics, data mining, machine learning, data semantics, reproducibility, privacy and protection, and the human-data interface.

We will develop innovative learning opportunities and educational pathways so tomorrow's workforce has the skills they need to succeed. We fully expect that new government, industry and international partnerships will, over time, maximize the impact of this investment.

Slide title: Shaping the new human-technology frontier

Slide image: illustration of creative teams working on giant digital tablets and communicating digitally

Image credit: Sanz

From robots on the assembly line and in the operating room to artificial intelligence-enabled speech-recognition to the office that travels with us 24/7, the world of work is changing dramatically. This transformation will change the ways in which we produce goods, provide services, and collaborate with colleagues.

To address the scientific and technical challenges of the future of work and productivity, NSF is proposing a bold initiative we call "Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: Shaping the Future," to catalyze the interdisciplinary science and engineering research and associated education needed to understand new technologies and enable the creation of technologies that humans can use to enrich their lives in the future world of work.

We will build on foundational investments we've made in research in machine learning and efficient engineered systems with cognitive and adaptive capabilities.

We will 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 can shape the future of technology so that it serves to improve our lives.

Slide title: Understanding the rules of life
Predicting phenotype

Slide image: photo of seedling being watered by hand

Image credit: ©

Thanks to NSF-funded research, major technological advances over the past decade have enabled enormous breakthroughs in the level of detail that can be determined through experiments. Scientists are now able, for example, to image and track biological function at the cellular level, a step that is critical in drawing the connection from the genome to the cell to the organism.

This improvement in experimental capability has given rise to the emergence of new theoretical and analytical tools for understanding biological processes that are predictive in nature. They also provide intellectual constructs that can provide the connection across scales that are essential to "Understanding the Rules of Life."

To understand these rules will require convergence of research across biology, computer science, mathematics, the physical sciences, behavioral sciences and engineering. The opportunities of such research are vast, such as ushering in new medical approaches where neurodegenerative disease is a thing of the past; environmental clean-ups using bioengineered organisms are cheaper and faster than mechanical means; and unveiling a future where we can provide a safe and stable food supply despite changing environmental conditions.

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?

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 title: The Quantum leap
Leading the next quantum revolution

Slide image: illustration of quantum computation with trapped ions

Image credit: Joint Quantum Institute, University of Maryland

The "Quantum Leap" will build on and extend our existing knowledge of the quantum world, fostering breakthroughs in our understanding of quantum phenomena and enabling the development of novel technologies that will transform current capabilities in science and engineering.

Building on decades of NSF-supported research, we are uniquely situated to address fundamental questions about quantum behavior and manipulation of quantum systems. This effort comes at a time when we're approaching the limits of Moore's Law and in turn seeing new paradigms of computing emerge.

Exploiting inherently quantum phenomena - such as superposition, entanglement and squeezing - can help build more powerful computers, create exquisitely sensitive detectors, simulate physical systems, and enable new, secure ways of communicating.

Quantum computing, for example, will require continued research on algorithms, programming languages, and compilers. These approaches may help deliver new technologies for science, commerce, and defense.

Could these new technologies help us figure out intractable problems, such as the makeup of dark matter and dark energy, by quickly processing and synthesizing the large amount of information and simulations already available?

NSF will 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 title: Navigating the new Arctic

Slide image: aerial photo of melting ice in the Arctic

Image credit: Roger Wakimoto, NSF

Rapid environmental changes in the Arctic are fundamentally altering the global climate, weather, and ecosystems in ways that we do not yet fully understand, but which will have profound impacts on the world's economy and security, as well as indigenous populations of the Arctic. These changes are very likely to have substantive impacts on ALL countries with Arctic access, especially for major sea-faring nations like the U.K.

Knowledge of the changes underway and their potential local and global effects is incomplete due to sparse and varied sampling. Consequently, building on our current portfolio of research initiatives, NSF will 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 agencies of other countries with Arctic interests.

Slide title: Windows on the universe
The era of multi-messenger astrophysics

Slide images: (left to right) photo of Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Chile; aerial photo of LIGO Observatory in Livingston, Louisiana; photo of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica

Image credits: F. Fleming Crim, NSF (left and right); LIGO Scientific Collaboration (center)

The Universe is the ultimate scientific laboratory, and we can now probe it as never before using powerful and diverse approaches. In recent decades, astronomers and other scientists have extended the range of observations far beyond visible light that fascinated such pioneers as Galileo and Kepler. Today, we can draw upon electromagnetic radiation ranging from radio waves to X-rays and Gamma rays. These electromagnetic messengers give us expanded views of our Universe, but particles such as neutrinos and cosmic rays - and more recently, Gravitational Waves - provide us even more insights into cosmic phenomena, which bring with them new and larger mysteries.

We know little, for example, of the nature of 95% 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 U.S. agency that is uniquely positioned to 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 will 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 six big research ideas. I will now summarize our four big process ideas. Each of these would give the science and engineering communities additional capacity to stimulate breakthrough science.

Slide title: Growing convergent research at NSF

Slide image: illustration of converging circles

Image credit: ©iStock/enjoynz

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.

Slide title: Mid-scale research infrastructure

Slide image: photo of unfinished bridge

Image credit: ©

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 M$ and 100 M$.

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 title: NSF INCLUDES

Slide words: Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science

Slide image: U.S. map with photo montage of diverse people

Image credit: design by Trinka Kensill, NSF

Diversity -- of thought, perspective and experience - is essential for excellence in research and innovation in 21st science and engineering. The goal of NSF INCLUDES is to transform education and career pathways to help broaden participation and diversity in science and engineering.

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.

NSF has long supported efforts to build a more diverse, inclusive workforce for all areas of science and engineering. In fact, we built the knowledge base and are the lead federal agency for the White House "Computer Science for All" initiative.

CS for All is designed to bring computer science education to all K-12 students across the U.S., with access and equity at the core. NSF has been a leader in encouraging rigorous and engaging computer science education in our nation's schools.

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 title: NSF 2050

Slide image: futuristic NSF 2050 Integrative Foundational Fund graphic

Image credit: © and design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF

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.

NSF 2050 will 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 title: Ten Big Ideas: Discovery, Creativity & Innovation

Title words:
Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, U.S. National Science Foundation
Science Museum, London
November 17, 2016

Slide images (left to right): photo of a research camp on the Yukon Delta, Alaska; photo of an electricity transmission pylon; illustration of a cyber security lock; photo of robotic and human hands meeting through glass window

Image credits (left to right): Ryan Choi, Utah State University; ©; ©; Andrew Kelly/NY Hall of Science; design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF