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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Durand Lecture
Grapevine, TX

January 9, 2017

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

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

Slide title: NSF's 10 Big Ideas
Understanding Science, Discovering Breakthroughs, and Influencing Public Policy

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation

Durand Lecture
Grapevine, TX
January 9, 2017

Slide images: (left to right) image of a solar flare; photo of the moon's surface; image of the Lagoon Nebula expelling gas from a dying star; image of M27 Dumbbell Nebula glowing shell expelling gas from a dying star

Image credits: (left to right) Woeger, Rimmele & Marino (NSO); Karen Pearce, NSF; Gemini Observatory/AURA/Julia I. Arias and Rodolfo H. Barbá, Departamento de Física, Universidad de La Serena (Chile), and ICATE-CONICET (Argentina); REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you Dr. Roy for the introduction. It is a pleasure to be here with you all today at the 2017 SciTech Forum and Exposition. It's an honor to be invited to present this Lecture that memorializes William Durand, a pioneer in the field of aeronautics and the first civilian chair of NACA. Thank you to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for this invitation. And a special welcome to students!

The theme for this year's forum - this concept of "Full Spectrum Disruptions across the Aerospace Community" - is really well timed given our current outlook for innovation. I'll give you an overview of some of the thinking NSF has been doing to try to create the conditions for innovation and disruption in the research community - what we're calling our "Big Ideas."

Let me take a moment to share a little about NSF. We fund curiosity-driven ideas in thousands of educational and scientific institutions across the United States, so that discoverers can push the frontiers of knowledge and discovery and make the breakthroughs that positively influence society. We often fund a researcher's first grant.

Slide title: NSF by the Numbers

On the left:
$8 billion FY 2017 request
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

We operate with an annual budget that is currently about $7.5 billion, and about 93 percent of it is directed towards supporting research and educational activities, including a major emphasis on STEM education and the 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 24 percent of the total federal support for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities.

Slide title: Recent NSF Contributions to Science, Technology, and Innovation

Slide image: infographic (on this slide and continuing on the next slide) labeled as follows:
enacted a historic increase in research and development, and maintained it as a priority despite tight fiscal constraints
$88M in investments to support basic water technology research.
$8B to support groundbreaking research and world-leading facilities across all fields of science and engineering.
Sets aside $33M in investments for National Strategic Computing Initiative R&D.
$2B investments for federal R&D into advanced manufacturing.

LIGO detects gravitational waves for the first time.

Expansion of I-Corps entrepreneurship training program has been adopted in 10 Federal agency partnerships.

Image credit: NSF

In recent years, we have accomplished a lot with good ideas from scientists and the help of Congress and the White House. As you can see on the screen, NSF has made a number of multi-million dollar investments in computing and advanced manufacturing that reaffirm our commitment to funding necessary research and development, among them the discovery of gravitational waves on Earth, and the development of the Innovation Corps, or I-Corps program, through which students take research to market quickly.

Slide image: infographic (continuing from previous slide) labeled as follows:

Engineering Directorate to invest in bio and bio-inspired manufacturing that will catalyze innovations in energy conversion technologies and health care.

$109M to improve undergraduate STEM Education.
Invests $16M in alliances to develop new ways to increase diversity in STEM.

Plans to invest $74M to support the BRAIN Initiative.

Over $35M in grants for smart and connected communities

Supports a multi-site, national network to gather and synthesize data on the impacts of climate change, land-use change, and invasive species.
Began construction on a sensor network to measure the physical, chemical, geological, and biological variables in the ocean and on the seafloor.

Credit: NSF

We supported bio-inspired manufacturing. We supplied over one hundred million to improve undergraduate STEM education, and provided millions in grants for the development of smart and connected communities. We supported basic research on the brain, and created networks of detectors to monitor changes in the ocean, land-use, and invasive species.

Slide title: NSF's contributions to aeronautics and astronautics

Slide image: aerial photo taken from above the clouds

Image credit: Thinkstock

Looking back even further, NSF has had an influential hand in discoveries that have progressively contributed to the fields of aeronautics and astronautics. For example, in the 1950's, NSF was the lead agency for the International Geophysical Year, which led to better understanding of weather, gravity, and the upper atmosphere - all things very important to aeronautics and astronautics today.

That experience was the start of a shift toward funding "big science" and led to the growth of new centers for radio and optical astronomy, and for atmospheric sciences.

For over 50 years, NSF has provided American and International astronomers access to several world-class observatories, including the International Gemini Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.

More recently, NSF provided crucial early research funding for additive manufacturing, which now contributes to the repair of turbine blades. NSF also has supported systems engineering for design of complex aircraft, and our recent investments in quantum technologies hold the promise of future transformative discoveries for computation and communications.

These are just a few instances of NSF's impact in more than six decades. Over the years, NSF investments in fundamental research have helped science progress, and have yielded incredible breakthroughs. Those investments have brought us to the point where we can optimistically say that we are on the verge of entering new frontiers of discovery.

Slide title: Looking Ahead: Ten Big Ideas

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

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

Slide images: (top left to right) aerial photo of melting ice in the Arctic; word graphic about data science; illustration of creative teams working on giant digital tablets and communicating digitally
(middle left to right) photo of a hand watering a seedling; illustration of quantum computation with trapped ions; photo of IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica; aerial photo of LIGO in Livingston, LA; photo of radio telescopes at Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile
(bottom left to right) illustration suggesting convergence; U.S. map with photo montage of diverse people; photo of a broken bridge; futuristic NSF 2050 graphic

Image credits: (top left to right) Roger Wakimoto, NSF; James Kurose, NSF; Jesus Sanz/
(middle left to right) ©; S. Kelley, Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), University of Maryland;
(bottom left to right) ©; design by Trinka Kensill, NSF; ©; © and design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF

It was with this optimism in mind that NSF recently announced Ten Big Ideas for Future Investment. These initiatives are aimed at catalyzing new breakthroughs from science and engineering communities. I will briefly touch on their importance.

Slide title: Seizing New Opportunities

Slide words: Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science and Engineering
Navigating the New Arctic
Shaping the New Human-technology Frontier

Slide images: word graphic about data science; aerial photo of melting ice in the Arctic; illustration of creative teams working on giant digital tablets and communicating digitally

Image credits: James Kurose, NSF; Roger Wakimoto, NSF; Jesus Sanz/

Several of the 10 Big Ideas involve areas of research that have only become possible to explore in depth recently.

The warming Arctic (warming at two times the rate of the rest of the planet) and the consequent melting of sea ice and permafrost raise environmental and human habitation concerns. It also opens up access to areas that were previously unreachable. We are limited in our understanding of the effects of the changes - and their challenges and opportunities - because of sparse sampling of the land and ocean.

Through our Navigating the New Arctic Idea, NSF seeks to build a dense network of sensors across Alaska that would include new, cheaper technologies such as 3-D printed towers and autonomous sensors in the ocean and atmosphere, allowing researchers to document changes in the Arctic land, sea and air.

More generally, new technologies - including artificial intelligence - are re-shaping how we learn, commute, work, play, and communicate. This calls for an investment in our nation's research and development efforts to envision the future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier. Such research is meant to help ensure that tomorrow's technologies are effective, efficient, adaptive, and human-centered. Our vision of the future of work envisions true collaboration between humans and machines - one where robots and humans have a complementary relationship as opposed to a competitive one.

Through NSF's National Robotics Initiative in partnership with the Department of Defense, NASA, and other agencies, NSF has committed to a future where robots don't erase work, but make work better.

One of the biggest factors that will help shape the future, the Big Data revolution, is already upon us. The increased volume, variety, and velocity of data-capture presents unique avenues to learning more about our world. Our vision for the future calls for bold approaches to data science and cyberinfrastructure. By Harnessing Data and building on our foundation of past investments, our hope is that the nation is well-positioned to utilize data for new discoveries and solutions.

Slide title: Pushing the Boundaries of Knowledge

Slide words: Windows on the Universe: The Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics
Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype
The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution

Slide images: (top left to right) photo of radio telescopes at Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile; aerial photo of LIGO in Livingston, LA; photo of IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica
(bottom left to right) photo of a hand watering a seedling; illustration of quantum computation with trapped ions

Image credits: (top left to right) F. Fleming Crim, NSF; LIGO Scientific Collaboration; F. Fleming Crim, NSF (bottom left to right) ©; S. Kelley, Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), University of Maryland

We are poised to cross the threshold in our understanding of the universe we inhabit at all levels - quantum, molecular, cellular, and astronomical. Three of our Big Ideas bring the expectation of transformational change on these frontiers.

New advances and growing international investments in quantum-enabled science and technology inspired our Quantum Leap Big Idea. This initiative aims to extend our understanding of the quantum world, furthering breakthroughs in the development of novel technologies. Exploiting quantum phenomena like superposition, entanglement, and squeezing will enable the next wave of precision sensors and more efficient computations, simulations, and communications.

The future of the biological sciences holds the promise of fascinating capabilities for phenotype prediction based on what we know about genomes and their environment. Imagine a future when neurodegenerative disease is no longer a concern, or when environmental cleanup using bioengineered organisms is cheaper and faster than by mechanical means. The barrier to this future is our lack of knowledge about the rules that lead to the diversity of life on Earth, and how those rules apply across scales of time, space, and complexity.

We see opportunities to build up that knowledge base through the Rules of Life Big Idea. Scientists can now image and track biological structure and function at the cellular level, a critical step for addressing the genotype-phenotype challenge. These developments have provided a path to the emergence of new theoretical and analytical tools.

There is so much that we have yet to learn about the cosmos. NSF's New Windows on the Universe idea allows scientists to explore the mysteries of space and space-time by combining the potential of diverse observational technologies.

Our agency is uniquely positioned to do this with ground based observatories, like ALMA which observes at millimeter wavelengths, Ice-Cube at our South Pole Antarctica Station, which detects neutrinos, and our LIGO facilities in Washington State and Louisiana which detect gravitational waves.

Combined, these instruments observing in very different mediums may enable researchers to detect previously undiscovered cosmic events as well as understand open questions about the nature and evolution of the universe.

Slide title: Expanding New Opportunities for Discovery

Slide words: NSF INCLUDES
NSF 2050
Mid-scale Research Infrastructure
Growing Convergent Research at NSF

Slide images: (clockwise from top left): U.S. map with photo montage of diverse people; futuristic NSF 2050 graphic; illustration suggesting convergence; photo of a broken bridge

Image credits: (clockwise from top left): design by Trinka Kensill, NSF; © and design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF; ©; ©

To complement the research-based Big Ideas, NSF also has some other Big Ideas, the result of analyzing where our processes may fall short in welcoming new members of the science community, and may fall short in welcoming transformative new ideas from the larger community.

None of these initiatives can reach their full potential without talented, well-prepared scientists and engineers at all levels, and we need all hands on deck in order to keep America at the forefront of research and development. That means investing in people, opening up educational and career avenues for those who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, which makes the workforce a stronger and better fit for the future. This Big Idea is called NSF INCLUDES. It builds on and amplifies NSF's current portfolio in broadening participation, because science is too wonderful for it to be exclusive, and too important to leave anyone out.

In pursuit of our mission to spur the advancement of science, NSF funds both large-scale and small-scale research projects. In between those two funding categories, there are important, but largely neglected, opportunities that deserve new attention. NSF's Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure Big Idea targets this funding gap.

NSF also envisions the future of project planning as nimble, flexible, and truly cross-disciplinary. NSF 2050 would be a new fund for cross-cutting, highly promising research projects in the period leading up to our centennial anniversary.

We know, after looking at many problems go unsolved for years, that complex mysteries sometimes require new approaches to decipher. NSF sees Convergent Research as a powerful method to solve many of these perplexing issues.

Much of the research landscape could benefit from interdisciplinary teams coming together to strategize an attack plan that fearlessly confronts the big questions that know no borders.

Some of the Big Ideas may not sound particularly relevant to aeronautics and astronautics, like Rules of Life. However, consider this example. Not too long ago, astronomers and cancer researchers had a shared problem. They both needed to pinpoint critical patterns against a cluttered and often blurred background. Radiologists need to search images for microcalcifications as signs of breast cancer, which are images that are similar to images of cosmic rays that astronomers study. Thanks to funding from an NSF grant, group of astronomers and radiologists from Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and the Space Telescope Institute were able to collaborate on new software that today allows radiologists greater ability to scrutinize mammograms for signs of breast cancer. The new field of digital mammography was born from this unusual partnership! And recently physicians, theoretical physicists and computational biologists came together to devise a new method of attacking pancreatic cancer.

Slide title: Influencing public policy

Slide image: photo of the U.S. Capitol building

Image credit: ©

All of the Ten Big Ideas utilize new approaches - and often new technology -- to access new knowledge about our world. I mentioned how convergence allows experts to share knowledge and solve complex problems. Similarly, it makes sense to have the most knowledgeable people join together to weigh in on the important policy issues of our time.

From our origin as an agency, NSF has played an important part here. President FDR's directive to Dr. Bush called for the information and research experience developed by both the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the scores of scientists in universities and private industry across the country to "be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living." The report Bush delivered in response, "Science: the Endless Frontier," detailed how government could promote the best ideas from science and engineering research and education for greater social good.

Without sufficient investment in the scientific enterprise, the new opportunities and frontiers just beyond our reach will remain just that - or else seized on by other, emerging nations. NSF, the primary source of federal support in many of these areas, has operated with a relatively flat budget over the past few years, allowing the U.S.'s scientific enterprise to maintain its standing but not its full potential.

Basic research needs support, and the best research ideas come directly from the scientific and engineering community, and can require patient, persistent funding over decades. No better example comes to mind than LIGO's recent success in detecting gravitational waves.

Last February, a collaborative team of researchers announced that LIGO had for the first time detected gravitational waves - the result of a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away.

This was the result of 40 years of persistent technological achievements - including engineering and computation - and persistent funding that came from a commitment to do what is really hard, but would be transformational if it happened.

Slide title: LIGO: Breakthrough of the Year

Slide image: cover of the December 23, 2016, issue of Science Magazine naming LIGO the breakthrough of the year

Image credit: ©2016 The American Association for the Advancement of Science

This year, the LIGO discovery was named the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year by Science magazine.

The story of LIGO's success illustrates why the scientific community should weigh in on the importance of funding for basic research. GPS is a consequence of general relativity, abstract as it seemed when Einstein devised the thory. Who can envision today the innovation that will result from our investments in basic research.

This is why it is important to engage audiences in talking about science - its process, its outcomes, its benefits. Our message should stress that high-risk research is essential to staying on the forefront of science and technology, and this is the essence of the public investment in science. Private investment can take this research to its next stage, as it has done so often.

Never has there been a more important time for public and private entities to come together to understand each other's roles, and the power of partnership in bringing discovery to delivery to the marketplace. Through examples of powerful programs that make a difference and captivating narratives, we can broadly communicate the value of basic research and its benefits to society: how basic research leads to innovation.

Let me close with a short video that makes this come alive. [video clip]

Slide title: NSF's 10 Big Ideas
Understanding Science, Discovering Breakthroughs, and Influencing Public Policy

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation
Durand Lecture
Grapevine, TX
January 9, 2017

Slide images: (left to right) image of a solar flare; photo of the moon's surface; image of the Lagoon Nebula expelling gas from a dying star; image of M27 Dumbbell Nebula glowing shell expelling gas from a dying star

Slide credits: (left to right) Woeger, Rimmele & Marino (NSO); Karen Pearce, NSF; Gemini Observatory/AURA/Julia I. Arias and Rodolfo H. Barbá, Departamento de Física, Universidad de La Serena (Chile), and ICATE-CONICET (Argentina); REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Thank you!