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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


At the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Annual Meeting
Austin, Texas

Feb. 16, 2018

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.

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Slide 1. title: Importance of Engagement and Openness with the Public and Policymakers

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation
AAAS Annual Meeting
Austin, TX
February 16, 2018

Slide images: (left to right) illustration of two black holes and their gravitational waves; photo of nanotechnology fibers; photo of star bursts from a deciduous shrub; electron microscope photograph of self-assembling polymers

Image credits: (left to right) LIGO/T. Pyle; Yuris Dzenis; Stephen Francis Lowry, Steve Lowry Photography; Sung Hoon Kang, Joanna Aizenberg and Boaz Pokroy; Harvard University

Good afternoon, and thank you [Sir] Mark.

It's a pleasure to be here in Austin for the AAAS Annual Meeting. I’d like to thank U.K. Research and Innovation for organizing this panel and inviting me to take part. Building public trust in science and maintaining the integrity of the scientific enterprise is a topic that is obviously important to all of us.

I'm France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation. NSF is the only federal agency that invests in fundamental, basic research across all non-biomedical fields of science and engineering in the U.S. For nearly 7 decades, we’ve shaped the Nation’s scientific enterprise through our support of innovative research conducted at universities and colleges, and at research facilities around the world. Together with researchers and our global partners, we have transformed the world around us and advanced the frontiers of knowledge on scales ranging from the subatomic to the cosmic.

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Slide 2. title: Breakthrough of the Year

Slide images: Slide images (left to right): photos of Science Magazine covers with the words
Science 2016 Breakthrough of the Year
Science 2017 Breakthrough of the Year

Image credit: Reprinted with permission from AAAS

In 2016, NSF's LIGO Observatory announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves caused by two black holes merging 1.3 billion light years away. It was an extraordinary discovery that proved right Albert Einstein's 100-year-old General Theory of Relativity and merited Science magazine's "Breakthrough of the Year" award. The discovery made the front page of newspapers around the world.

Last year, LIGO detected another spectacular event – the merging of two neutron stars. Quick, global collaboration made it possible for scientists around the world to localize the event in the sky and view it in different wavelengths of light using more than 70 space- and ground-based observatories. Researchers from the UK were among the first to locate the cosmic event using the VISTA near-infrared telescope in Chile.

Once again, Science magazine chose this discovery as its "Breakthrough of the Year" for 2017.

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Slide 3. title: LIGO's Long Journey to Discovery

Slide text: Graph showing LIGO's timeline, as follows:
1979 - NSF funds Caltech, MIT for laser interferometer research and technology design for prototype.
1984 - National Science Board approves LIGO development plan.
1990 - NSB approves LIGO construction proposal.
1992 - Hanford, Livingston selected as LIGO sites, Caltech signs LIGO cooperative agreement.
1994-95 - Construction begins at Hanford, Livingston sites.
1997 - LIGO Scientific Cooperation established, expands with British/German GEO collaboration.
2006 - Initial LIGO design sensitivity achieved, first wave search begins.
2007 - LIGO begins collaboration with Italian Virgo interferometer.
2011 - 2014 - Advanced LIGO installation and testing.
Sept. 2015 Before first official search begins, Advanced LIGO detects first gravitational waves.
Oct. 2017 - First detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars.

Slide image: computer simulation of gravitational waves

Image credit: Werner Benger/ Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

I mention LIGO for a couple of reasons. As this timeline shows, the detection of gravitational waves was a discovery four decades in the making. LIGO is illustrative of the type of pioneering work that NSF funds and the incremental nature of science. It also highlights the this is as much a story about the achievement of technology. To pursue curiosity-driven research, scientists and engineers must often build tools and instruments that simply don't exist. This often conveys benefits to society through technology transfer. Development of the LIGO technology led to advances in everything from lasers and optics to new software algorithms. A new technique to increase the sensitivity of LIGO measurements, for example, led to the launch of a company that now produces high performance optics for the homeland security community.

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Slide 4. title: Meeting with Policymakers

Slide image: photo of Dr. Córdova meeting with Congressman John Culberson

Image credit: Rob Moller, NSF

As an agency that enjoys strong bipartisan support, NSF works hard to communicate to the public and to Members of Congress these returns on their investments in basic research. A couple of weeks ago, I met with Texas Representative John Culberson at his request to talk about the neutron star merger. The picture you see here was taken at that meeting. For more than 2 hours, we discussed the discovery and the long journey that preceded it, as well as the technology development. We also talked about the indispensable role the government, and by extension the public, plays in supporting cutting-edge research.

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Slide 5. image: photo from NSF History Wall video

Image credit: NSF

To ensure our investments in basic research remain a national priority, NSF often highlights how R&D drives the innovations that fuel our economy, strengthen our national security, contribute to our well-being, and maintain the U.S.'s edge as a global innovation leader.

The images you see here, which are from NSF's History Wall at our new headquarters, beautifully depict the impact of basic research on our Nation. You can see the Google logo, for example. NSF supported the researchers whose page-ranking algorithms led to the groundbreaking search engine. NSF-funded research also developed the technology behind essential modern healthcare tools like the MRI.

When it comes to government-funded research, we are accountable to the public -- to the taxpayers who provide the funds and to the lawmakers who appropriate those funds. It is our responsibility to actively engage with and communicate frequently to both about the value and impact of basic research.

I wanted to show a quick video that emphasizes this point.

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Slide 6. View video. Use "back" to return to this speech.

Slide image: screenshot from Creating Knowledge to Transform Our Future video

Image credit: NSF

Videos like these are valuable tools. They tell policymakers and the public that technologies and knowledge we all depend on are rooted in rigorous research.

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Slide 7. title: S&E Indicators

Slide image: photo of Science & Engineering Indicators 2018 DIGEST

Slide words: URL link to

Image credit: NSB

The perception of R&D as a worthwhile investment is borne out by the 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report. This biennial, Congressionally mandated report provides high-quality, quantitative information on the U.S. scientific enterprise in a global context.

One thing that stands out is how both developed and developing nations increasingly recognize that investments in R&D and STEM education translate to economic growth and job creation – and they are investing heavily in both. The indicators show that a multipolar world for S&E is emerging, a world in which discoveries in one country can benefit other countries, and collaboration among countries spurs transformative discovery and innovation. We saw this with the neutron star merger.

We also see in the Indicators report that S&E research publications are increasingly collaborative and international in authorship, with global collaboration growing in all fields of science. S&E publications in the U.S. increasingly cite publications from foreign authors, and vice versa.

This is good news, yet it also puts pressure on us as a global scientific community to strengthen every aspect of the practice of research so scientists, industry peers, policymakers and other stakeholders maintain confidence in the integrity of the enterprise.

Last year, NSF commissioned the National Academies to conduct a study that will assess issues related to reproducibility and replicability in science. Specifically, the committee of experts will look at:

What it means to successfully reproduce and replicate to different fields of science and engineering.

Are there problems with the lack of reproducibility and replication, and what does that mean for the overall health of science and engineering and the public's perception of these fields?

What cost-effective reforms can funding agencies and the practitioners achieve?

The National Academies will release the report later this year. It will include recommendations for improving both rigor and transparency in scientific and engineering research.

NSF is also funding ethics centers that are developing best practices in ethics training, fostering research on ethical issues in STEM, and assembling resources to train current and future generations of researchers in responsible conduct of research. So stay tuned!

We all must continually assess the health of the research enterprise -- including its conduct and delivery. Trust in the foundation of knowledge we are building is what allows us to pursue new frontier areas of research.

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Slide 8. title: NSF's 10 Big Ideas

Slide words: Slide words (clockwise from top left):

Research Ideas
-Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science and Engineering
-The Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier
-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 speaking of new frontiers ...

In 2016, NSF unveiled a set of "10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments," which identify and seek to catalyze research in areas that will impact science and society. Some of these ideas aim to address the dramatic shifts we're seeing in everything from the nature of work to a changing Arctic.

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Slide 9. title: The Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier

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

Image credit: Jesus Sanz/

For example, one of NSF's Big Ideas considers the future of work and how constantly evolving technologies like A.I. are shaping today's and tomorrow's workforce. This is an area that members of the public, lawmakers and the Administration are keenly interested in.

NSF is bringing together researchers from different disciplines to conduct research on the interactions of humans, society and technology, to look at how we augment human performance using machine-learning, and build better human-technology partnerships. The research will identify opportunities to shape the future of work in a way that increases worker productivity and benefits the economy. Because the technologies and systems that emerge from this area will affect all of us on a deeply personal level, the public needs assurances that the research is robust and reliable, and that findings will point towards public benefit.

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Slide 10. title: Engaging Citizens in Science

Slide images (from left to right): photo of young citizen scientists examining a Mexican butterfly weed; photo of Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey (COASST) surveyors; photo of students viewing a solar eclipse in Hawaii

Image credits: Bruce Leventhal, Forest Lake High School, Forest Lake, Minn.; Courtesy COASST; Jessica Reed

Finally, data from the Science and Indicators Report suggest that, at least in the United States, the public remains largely supportive of science and has relatively high levels of confidence in the scientific community. While this is good news, it is not cause for complacency. The Indicators also reveal that more than half of Americans agreed with the statement "Scientists are apt to be odd and peculiar people," whereas in 2001 only a quarter of Americans agreed with that statement.

We all should be looking for ways to broaden participation in science, and to build science literacy across different populations. The NSF INCLUDES program, for example, works to ensure that STEM education and STEM fields are widely inclusive, and that all aspiring scientists and engineers have pathways to STEM careers.

Different citizen science and crowd-sourcing projects also invite people of all ages to participate in the process of science -- and perhaps even make a discovery. These initiatives deepen the public's appreciation for and understanding of science.

I'll end with an example of a public engagement project called Gravity Spy. I mentioned LIGO at the beginning of my remarks. When in operating mode, the two U.S. gravitational wave facilities are continuously collecting data; much of it is "noise," representing everything from the vibration of a nearby truck to the rumbling of Mother Earth. Today, people around the world are helping to classify and characterize the various noise patterns, or "glitches." In principle, a novice helper – working in tandem with machine learning computer algorithms -- can sift through massive amounts of data, reject spurious artifacts and perhaps lead to the detection of a real gravitational wave!

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Slide 11. title: Thank You

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation
AAAS Annual Meeting
Austin, TX
February 16, 2018

Slide images: (left to right) illustration of two black holes and their gravitational waves; photo of nanotechnology fibers; photo of star bursts from a deciduous shrub; electron microscope photograph of self-assembling polymers

Image credits: : (left to right) LIGO/T. Pyle; Yuris Dzenis; Stephen Francis Lowry, Steve Lowry Photography; Sung Hoon Kang, Joanna Aizenberg and Boaz Pokroy; Harvard University

Thank you, and now I'll turn the floor over to Science's Jeremy Berg.