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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

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Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy
Ronald Reagan Building Auditorium
Washington, DC

March 27, 2017

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: AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy

Slide words:
Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, U.S. National Science Foundation
Ronald Reagan Building Auditorium
Washington, DC
March 27, 2017

Slide image: 3-D rendering of hexagons

Image credit: VAlex/

Good morning! Given that the AAAS Forum has dedicated this time slot to hearing the federal government perspective on S&T policy, it seems only fitting to start my remarks emphasizing inter-agency partnerships, which are critical to promoting the progress of science.

For example, recently the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee published its annual report. It contained a host of excellent examples of NSF-DOE-NASA collaborations that have deepened our understanding of the universe. Sharing this moment with Francis Collins seems like an opportune time to say how strongly NSF values its collaboration with NIH.

We have collaborated on the BRAIN Initiative, bringing the nation closer to a deeper understanding of nervous systems, including our own. There is a joint NSF/NIH Initiative on "Quantitative Approaches to Biomedical Big Data," and we are longtime collaborators on the joint Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience (CRCNS) solicitation, together with several international partners. And NIH has adopted a model, pioneered by NSF, to use public-private network of scientists, engineers, innovators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs to strengthen our national innovation ecosystem. This effort, called I-Corps, is bringing biomedical research innovations into the marketplace.

Slide title: Partnerships

Slide image: graphic icons with words

  • State governments
  • National labs
  • Academia
  • Foundations
  • Industry
  • Scientific societies
  • International

Image credit: NSF

Our partnerships are much wider, of course, than interagency. This slide shows that there are many partnerships, public and private, that broaden and deepen the impact of NSF's role. For example, 85% of our funding goes to universities and colleges, and we deeply value this partnership.

NSF also has important partnerships with foundations such as the Kavli Foundation, which we work with on such projects as the International Brain Initiative that aims to enhance global cooperation on brain science research, and the Simons Foundation, with which we will be funding Bio-Math Institutes.

An example of a strong partnership with 25 States is EPSCoR, which has been successful for more than 35 years, strengthening academic research competitiveness nationwide.

Designed to meet the needs of industry partners, I/UCRC (Industry/University Collaborative Research Centers) benefits universities and their industry partners by focusing on basic research relevant to the industries' aims. Started in 1973, it has grown to 81 active centers nationwide with academic partners from about 225 universities and a large number of private companies and government agencies.

NSF also created Engineering Research Centers and Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers - which advance the progress of science through trans-disciplinary partnerships. Our CISE and Engineering Directorates have partnerships with industry on joint research solicitations, and in cyberinfrastructure. NSF's Advanced Technological Education program funds partnerships between community colleges and local industry to prepare the highly skilled technical workforce for emerging fields ranging from biotechnology to advanced manufacturing.

Science today has the opportunity to flourish as never before because of these novel partnerships between the private and public sectors.

In this talk, I want to focus on three things: the role of the federal government in research, and in particular, NSF's unique role; NSF's Big Ideas for the future; and, finally, a comment on the challenge, or imperative we face as a nation.

1. NSF and its role

Almost 70 years ago NSF was formed, with a powerful charge: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..."

That great mission required a unique agency. Today NSF is the only federal agency that funds fundamental science - high-risk, long-term, curiosity-driven research - over nearly all fields of science and engineering.

Slide title: NSF by the Numbers

Slide image: diagram showing NSF funding
(Other than the FY 2017 Budget Request, numbers shown are based on FY 2016 activities.)

On the left:
$8 billion FY 2017 Budget Request
93% funds research, education and related activities
49,000 proposals evaluated

In the middle:
12,000 awards funded
2,000 NSF-funded institutions
362,000 people NSF supported

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

Image credit: NSF

We operate with an annual budget that is currently 7.5 billion, and 93 percent of that budget goes right out the door - to support research and educational activities in states and communities across the country.

Slide title: NSF Champions Research and Education across all Fields of Science and Engineering

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

Slide images (top row left to right): 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
(bottom row left to right) photo of two students with high-temperature high-vacuum molding system; photo of two Rutgers students working in a research lab; abstract photograph of a crowd of people; digital image of Earth's horizon

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

NSF funds all fields of science and engineering except clinical biomedical research. It supports biology, engineering, math and physical sciences, computer and information science, cyberinfrastructure, the geosciences, polar sciences, and social, behavioral and economic sciences. It funds research on STEM Education and development of the STEM Workforce. It funds graduate students and their research; and research experiences for undergraduates. It funds K-12 pilot projects in learning, and informal science education, including citizen science.

Slide title: NSF Support of Academic Basic Research
(as a percentage of total federal support)

Slide image: bar graph with words showing percentage of total federal support
24% All Science and Engineering Fields
40% Physical Sciences
41% Engineering
59% Environmental Sciences
61% Mathematics
67% Social Sciences
68% Biology
82% Computer Science

Image credit: NSF
Source: NSF/NCSES, "Survey of Federal Funds for Research & Development," FY 2014.

As this slide shows, NSF is the major funder of universities in critical fields - like mathematics, biology, and the social and environmental sciences - ensuring that these vital research areas contribute to increasing the nation's leadership. For example, 82 percent of federal support for basic research for academic computer science comes through NSF.

The history of NSF is a history of profound discoveries, all the fruit of sustained investment in high-risk research. We have funded the research of 223 people who went on to win the Nobel Prize, 43 of them funded as graduate students.

Government plays a key role in providing patient, persistent investments that private industry alone is unable to sustain. High-risk research is key to staying on the forefront of science and technology, and this is the essence of public investment in science. Our role is unique, our impact is global, and our priorities are forward-looking.

2. NSF and the Future

Slide title: NSF's Ten Big Ideas

Slide words (clockwise from top 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

(clockwise from bottom left ) Process Ideas

  • Mid-scale Research Infrastructure
  • NSF 2026
  • NSF INCLUDES: Enhancing STEM through Diversity and Inclusion
  • Growing Convergent Research at NSF

Slide images: (clockwise from top 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; graphic suggesting future ideas; U.S. map with photo montage of diverse people; illustration suggesting convergence

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

And that brings us to the future. With so much changing all around us, due in large part to research and its application, we can ask ourselves: what are the exciting new frontiers of discovery? It was in addressing this question that NSF came up with Ten Big Ideas for Future Investment. These initiatives - all strongly supported by the National Science Board - are aimed at catalyzing new breakthroughs, taking advantage of decades of technological revolutions, and seeds of discoveries already sown. They follow from an assessment about where the frontier is richest in potential. Where could we go and make a real difference?

I will take a few moments to explain them.

Slide title: Navigating the new Arctic

Slide image: aerial photo of melting ice in the Arctic

Image credit: Roger Wakimoto, NSF

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 sensors and autonomous sensors in the ocean and atmosphere, allowing researchers to document changes in the Arctic land, sea and air. NSF just awarded a five-year grant to set up a Long-Term Ecological Research site on the northern Alaska coast that will focus on Arctic coast ecosystems over different time scales, an example of our commitment to research that can inform evidenced-based policy.

Slide title: Work at the Human-technology Frontier Shaping the Future

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

Image credit: Jesus Sanz/

New technologies like artificial intelligence are re-shaping how we learn, commute, work, play, and communicate. Researching Work at the Human-Technology Frontier will help ensure that tomorrow's technologies are effective, efficient, adaptive, and human-centered. Our view of the future of work is not about robots replacing jobs, but includes true collaboration between humans and machines - one where robots and humans have a complementary relationship as opposed to a competitive one.

For example, NSF-funded researchers at MIT and Boston University are developing ways to communicate with robots by thinking. Robot performance would be controlled or corrected by brain waves. Imagine how that could revolutionize the workplace, or greatly benefit people who cannot communicate verbally.

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

Slide image: Data Science word graphic containing the following words:
Harnessing the Data Revolution; Mathematical Statistical Computational Foundations; Education Workforce; Inference; Semantics; EHR; Analytics; Privacy; Open Public Access; ENG; Discovery; Repositories; Data Science; Fundamental Research; CISE; GEO; Causality; Machine Learning; Cybersecurity; SBE; BIO; Domain Science Challenges; Reproducibility; Statistics; Research Data Cyberinfrastructure; MPS; Visualization; Systems Architecture; Human-Data Interface; Internet of Things; Modeling; GIS; Data Mining; Interoperability

Image credit: James Kurose, NSF

One of the biggest factors that will help shape this 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 the Data Revolution 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. Harnessing data could transform how we understand, and respond to, hazardous weather. For example, next generation radars will sample at rates that are orders of magnitude higher than the data rates used by today's meteorological feature-identification algorithms. New algorithms will allow highly-accurate real-time detection/prediction of meteorological features, and the assimilation of this data into high-fidelity simulations. And much more.

Slide title: The quantum leap Leading the next quantum revolution

Slide image: illustration of quantum computation with trapped ions

Image credit: S. Kelley/Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), University of Maryland

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. Quantum squeezing may increase the sensitivity of the next generation of gravitational wave detectors.

Slide title: Understanding the rules of life Predicting phenotype

Slide image: photo of seedling being watered by hand

Image credit: ©

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.

The key to overcoming that barrier is building knowledge through our 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. And earlier this year, NSF awarded $3 million in EAGER grants to study microbiomes and animal and plant phenomics, an effort to bring us closer to making that future a reality.

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

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

Image credits: (from left to right) Fleming Crim, NSF; LIGO Scientific Collaboration; Fleming Crim, NSF

There are also many unknowns 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 particle detectors, light-gathering telescopes, and gravitational wave detectors. Last year, NSF and collaborating institutions announced that LIGO had for the first time detected gravitational waves on Earth - the result of a collision of two large black holes in a binary system 1.3 billion light years away. This not only confirmed what Albert Einstein had predicted more than a century ago, but opened a new window into previously undetected phenomena like merging black holes. Answering long-held questions is at the heart of basic research. For the first time on this planet we have the wherewithal to do this with electromagnetic, particle, and gravitational wave observatories.

Slide title: NSF's Ten Big Ideas

Slide words: Process ideas
(clockwise from top left )

Mid-scale Research Infrastructure

  • NSF 2026
  • NSF INCLUDES: Enhancing STEM through Diversity and Inclusion
  • Growing Convergent Research at NSF

Image credits: (clockwise from top left) ©; © and design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF; design by Trinka Kensill, NSF; National Research Council of the National Academies Press

I've touched lightly on six Big Research Ideas, but these are not all of NSF's big ideas. Four additional Ideas surfaced in our discussions of the new research frontier, following an analysis of how our processes could be changed to capture the best research.

First, we realize the need to offer more opportunity for new, transdisciplinary, highly promising research projects. In response, we would create "NSF 2026", selecting projects based on competitions conducted nationwide, with the public contributing to ideas on where the next research investments could be made. Why 2026? It is our nation's "Sestercentennial," or 250th anniversary. How fitting that we should have a nationally-inspired goal to coincide with the ambitious yearnings of a new republic a quarter of a millennium ago.

Second, we want to increase participation in science and engineering from many of our brightest young minds. One thing we can be sure of is that we don't know where the next groundbreaking discovery will come from. Our ideas for the future can't reach full potential without talented, well-prepared scientists and engineers at all levels. Investing in basic research means investing in people, opening up educational and career avenues for all, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. This can make for a more creative, more prepared workforce 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 important to our future to leave anyone out.

Third, there are projects in a specific funding range that simply aren't funded under NSF's current infrastructure programs, namely, projects falling between a few million dollars and a hundred million dollars. Yet there is much excellent science to be done in this 'gap.' NSF's Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure Big Idea aims to close this funding gap. Exciting concepts in both physical and cyber research infrastructure fall in this gap.

And finally, wrapping up our Big Ideas is Convergence. We know that complex questions can require new approaches. Convergence implies interdisciplinary teams coming together intentionally, in novel ways, to strategize a research plan that fearlessly confronts challenges that know no disciplinary borders. NSF sees Convergent Research as a powerful method to solve many vexing challenges, like the food-energy-water nexus, pandemics and infectious diseases, disaster preparedness and recovery. As Chairwoman Comstock said at last week's congressional hearing on NSF, "the best breakthroughs come when we break down the silos."

For instance, within the last decade, scientists have begun using NSF-funded supercomputers to find a cure for HIV. Researchers harness the power of thousands of computer processors simultaneously to better learn how the virus interacts with cells, to discover new drugs that attack the virus' weak points, and to gather genetic information to develop patient-specific treatments. And recently, physicians, theoretical physicists and computational biologists connected to devise a new method of attacking pancreatic cancer. We will need to "pump up" the merit review process, end-to-end, insuring it can welcome and implement convergent research.

These Ten Big Ideas represent a big vision for the future. In total, they would develop skills for tomorrow's workforce and grow new jobs. To do this requires new approaches - and new investment. Without a big investment, we do not envision groundbreaking returns. And this is where we come back to the theme I opened with, partnerships. Partnerships can leverage our federal investment, partnerships can contribute aspects that we cannot, and partnerships can widen the interest, widen the contributions, and widen the impact. Yet all rely on the federal government's investment in the most upstream, the most basic research.

3. Challenges and Opportunities

Slide title: Gross domestic expenditures on R&D, by selected countries: 1985-2015

Slide image: line graph showing the trend of gross domestic expenditures on R&D by the United States, the EU and selected other countries: 1981-2015.

Selected years below (in current PPP $-billion):

  • 1981: United States 72.7; Japan 25.6; Germany 20.0; United Kingdom 12.0
  • 1997: United States 212.7; EU 150.8; Japan 87.8; Germany 43.2; France 28.5; United Kingdom 23.1; South Korea 16.3; China 14.7; Russia 8.8
  • 2005: United States 328.1; EU 230.2; Japan 128.7; China 85.7; Germany 64.3; France 39.2; South Korea 30.6; Russia 18.1
  • 2015: United States 502.9; China 408.8; EU 384.2; Japan 170.1; Germany 112.8; South Korea 74.2; France 60.9; United Kingdom 46.3; Russia 40.5

SOURCES: National Science Foundation, National Patterns of R&D Resources (annual series); Organisation for Economic Co-operation And Development, Main Science and Technology Indicators, (2016/2); United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Institute for Statistics Data Centre, Centre/Pages/BrowseScience.aspx, accessed 10 February 2017.

Slide title: Total R&D spending by source of funds: 1975-2015

Slide image: graph showing amounts funded in Federal; Industry; Other nonprofit and Higher education with Industry overtaking Federal funding from 1975-2015

Selected years are listed below (in constant 2009 $-billions):

  • 1975 Federal R & D 59.10; Industry 50.46; Other nonprofit and Higher education 1.70
  • 1995 Industry R & D 147.19; Federal R & D 83.6; Other nonprofit and Higher education 5.21
  • 2015 Industry R & D 314.28; Federal R & D 103.05; Other nonprofit R & D 18.14; Higher education R & D 15.59

NOTES: Some data for 2014 are preliminary and may later be revised. The data for 2015 are estimates and will later be revised.
SOURCE: National Science Foundation, National Patterns of R&D Resources (annual series).

Slide title: U.S. basic research spending by source of funds: 1975-2015

Slide image: left graph showing selected years below (in constant 2009 $-billions from 1975-2015):

  • 1975 Federal 10.89; Industry 2.24; Other nonprofit and Higher education 0.89
  • 2005 Federal 39.75; Industry 10.75; Higher education 7.07; Other nonprofit 6.7
  • 2015 Federal 34.74; Industry 22.30; Other nonprofit and Higher education 10.05

Right graph showing percentage of funding from 1975-2015:

  • 1975 Federal 70.06%; Industry 14.44%; Other nonprofit and Higher education 5.73%
  • 1995 Federal 57.38%; Industry 22.68%; Higher Education 8.48%education 12.73%

NOTES: Some data for 2014 are preliminary and may later be revised. The data for 2015 are estimates and will later be revised.
SOURCE: National Science Foundation, National Patterns of R&D Resources (annual series).

I have painted a picture of optimism. What are the challenges? Here, in a few slides, is our national and global budgetary framework. The first slide shows the total R&D trend for the US and a number of other countries.

Though the U.S. remains at the forefront in the dollars it contributes to R&D, other nations are fast approaching in the rearview mirror, investing heavily in research, development and education as never before. In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that evaluates the math and science capabilities of 15 year olds internationally. The US ranked 38th out of 71 in math and 24th out of 71 in science. And last week in Rome ministers of 7 EU countries signed a declaration agreeing to work towards an "integrated supercomputing infrastructure," in short, exascale computers to support, among other things, the European Open Science Cloud.

The other graph on this slide shows that industry long ago overtook the federal government in funding total R&D. Most of that is "D." The next slides show the situation for basic research. The federal component has been flat for this decade, and now (as reported in Science magazine recently) provides less than 50% of the total basic research funding.

We cannot shy from our commitment to grow the economy, contribute to health and prosperity and the national defense. We are still a young country. We cannot slow our efforts to empower future generations to shape a brilliant future.

From this country's establishment, George Washington told Congress in his first State of the Union address that "there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science..."

That spirit extended through FDR's directive to Vannevar Bush to transition the Office of Scientific Research and Development into today's National Science Foundation. Bush's imagination saw frontiers of science and engineering that were ripe to be explored, if the nation used its celebrated vision, boldness, and drive - and above all, its people - to do so.

That entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive today. It is our goal to nurture it. I'd like to close with a short video that emphasizes our impact and our promise.

[Video on Transforming Knowledge to Transform our Future]

Slide title: AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation
Ronald Reagan Building Auditorium
Washington, DC
March 27, 2017

Slide image: 3-D rendering of hexagons

Image credit: VAlex/