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Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation

Inaugural Vlasta Klima - Balloun Lecture for the
Distinguished Alumni Award

Iowa State University
Ames, IA

April 15, 2011

"NSF: A Unique Key to Unlock Sustained Global Innovation Leadership"

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

See also slide presentation.

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

[Slide #1: Title Slide]

Thank you very much for your introduction.

It is a great honor and pleasure for me to be back at Iowa State. I came here right after my undergraduate degree in 1977, so this is sort of my home state, even though I have lived in other parts of the country for much longer.

In the limited time that we have, I want to walk you through what NSF does, some of the challenges we face, and some of the activities that we have planned for the next year and beyond. I will also briefly mention a few presidential priorities and how our own vision is aligned with those that the President has articulated recently.

NSF was formed in 1950, based on the report titled Science: The Endless Frontier, which was written by MIT's Professor of Electrical Engineering Vannevar Bush and submitted to the President of the United States. That report, accepted by President Truman, led to the creation of the National Science Foundation. Vannevar Bush was the first dean of Engineering at MIT, so I literally sat in the chair that Professor Bush sat in at MIT.

NSF started with an annual budget of $150,000 in 1950. And, as you may have been following, yesterday the Senate passed an NSF measure for fiscal year 2011--a continuing resolution for the rest of the year--for $6.87 billion. We still think we could use a lot more resources to help our nationís excellent science and engineering community.

[Slide #2: NSF by the Numbers]

Here are a few numbers about NSF. This slide shows the most recent data [for fiscal year 2010]. NSF is a unique agency that supports all branches of science and engineering--natural sciences as well as social sciences. In America's universities and colleges, we support 21 percent of all the basic research, 39 percent of all engineering research, 47 percent of all physical sciences research, some 57 percent of environmental sciences, 57 percent of social sciences, 65 percent of all mathematics research, and 68 percent of biological sciences. The latter includes agriculture, genomics, and so forth. Outside of medical research, of course--NIH has a large budget for basic medical research--NSF supports a significant fraction of all other basic science. In areas like computer science in universities, we support 82 percent of the research. For most of the computer science departments that came into existence in the 1980s, NSF played a key role in the establishment of these departments in the country.

There are many fields where, if NSF did not support them, no one else would support them. And research leadership for these fields would cease. This gives us a unique opportunity but also a great responsibility to make sure that, especially at a time of tight fiscal constraint, that we use our resources wisely and make sure the community gets supported the properly. It's not an easy thing to do, given the demands on the agency's resources.

[Slide #3: NSF by the Numbers]

I also want to point out that while we are a $7- billion agency, our overhead is 6 percent, so we are an extremely lean organization. And we don't do any intramural research, so whatever money we receive goes to the community. In this slide are some of the NSF numbers from last year, including the [2010 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act] stimulus funding that we received, which has now ceased. Our expenditures were $7.6 billion in 2010. We supported 2,100 institutions in the country, including universities, colleges, schools, school districts, science museums, the PBS's NOVA program, Science Friday [on National Public Radio], and a variety of other activities.

We received 55,000 proposals from the community, of which we were able to fund 13,000. (That is a very small number of the many, many outstanding proposals we received.) We engaged 287,000 peer reviewers, with funding directly affecting 294,000 colleagues in the community. Since 1952, NSF has supported 42,000 graduate students at American universities and colleges.

[Slide #4: NSF by the Numbers]

With respect to Iowa last year, this slide shows that the state had 473 active NSF programs, with support totaling approximately $387 billion. Iowa State University received about $128 million for 273 active awards. We fund several industry-university research consortia at Iowa State, one Engineering Research Center, several GOALI [Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry] programs, and so forth.

I have held a series of senior leadership meetings with my colleagues at NSF recently. In this time of tight financial constraint, we are asking ourselves questions, assuming a worst-case scenario of the fiscal budget. (I know what our budget is for FY 2011 today, but I did not know that number last week, when we preparing for a possible federal government shutdown.) At a time like this, we ask the question: "On grounds of principles, what are the things we absolutely want to protect, no matter what the budget crisis?" And one of the things we want to protect is the future scientific leadership of the country. That involves human capital development. And that inevitably involves graduate research fellowships.

[Slide #5: Number of Graduate Research Fellowships]

This slide shows the number of graduate fellows that NSF has supported every year since 1952, plotted in two-year increments. In 2010, we doubled the number of graduate fellows from 1,000 to 2,000 per year. In 2011, even though we have flat funding and budget constraints, we have renewed our commitment to retaining that number for 2011. In addition, we increased the cost-of-education allowance from $10,500 to $12,000. Our hope is that in FY 2012 or 2013 we will both increase the number of fellowships and the stipend so that these fellowships become more competitive.

[Slide #6: NSF's Uniqueness]

NSF is unique in many ways. First and foremost, unlike other agencies that have a specific research mission, whether it's the Department of Energy, NIH, or NIST, ours is not mission-focused, as we support all branches of science and engineering through a process that is mostly guided by a bottom up process. Specifically, research ideas come from individuals and groups of individuals. Our peer review process gathers the proposals, advises us on what the cutting-edge fields are and the cutting-edge projects, and we fund proposals on the basis of a merit-review determination of scientific excellence and projects' likely broader impacts.

Second, as I mentioned, our overhead is very low, and we receive a lot of compliments and official recognition for this efficiency. We receive criticism as well. By and large, we receive favorable evaluations primarily because of the fact we operate a large operation with very little overhead. Unlike larger agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy labs, or NIST facilities, we do not fund intramural research on particular topics. And, we are an independent federal agency, so unlike NIH, which reports to the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, we report directly to Congress. As an independent agency, we are accountable to Congress, not to a federal department, on everything we do, even though the NSF director is a presidential appointee.

Half of NSF's scientific staff are rotators from universities. The primary advantage is that we do not have permanent staff who become entrenched in a bureaucratic government mind-set. We also want to continually engage the community. We want the people who do the search at the cutting-edge in different fields to come to NSF--from two to four years--to advise us and help us manage the research programs.

I attended a meeting of AAU [American Association of Universities] presidents this week (and the Iowa State President was there), and I made a request. I would very much like to encourage the academic community--people like yourselves--to consider serving [as rotators] at the National Science Foundation. Doing so is not only a national service, it is an exciting opportunity to engage in science policy on behalf of the country in new and unique ways. You also get to manage a sizeable budget, probably much more than any one university can offer.

NSF's mission is to take a long-term view in support of basic research. We do this at a time of significant pressure to look at the short-term, whether it's jobs, dollars, or research. We do this because science is inherently a long-term prospect. We have done a lot of things over the last 40 years, which, at the time of funding, had no known practical application. These projects ended up creating entire new industries and millions of jobs.

In the 1960s, NSF funded mathematics and engineering research and physics that led to the creation of GPS. At the time we funded GPS, GPS was a military operation. And today, GPS is part and parcel to everything we do in day-to-day life with mobile devices.

In the 1970s, we funded mathematical and process modeling for manufacturing, at a time when American industry did not fund the activity. And that led to the creation of rapid prototyping, which significantly continued the leadership role of U.S. industry. In the mid-1990s, we supported, through our graduate research fellowship program, two young Stanford University students: Sergey Brin and Larry Page. We cannot claim credit for the creation of Google, but we played some role in helping them think about the creation of Google. Did that create jobs? Did that create economic opportunities for the world? You decide.

In 1999, the National Nanotechnology Initiative was created. And since 1999, NSF-funded Science and Engineering Centers, primarily with scientific research in mind, created 175 startups, and that involved 1,200 companies all around the country and around the world. So, even though we don't necessarily fund something truly for the sake of creating jobs, we do contribute a lot to the creation of jobs and to the creation of economic prosperity.

[Slide #7: SBIR and STTR]

NSF was also the pioneering agency that created SBIR and STTR, the Small Business Innovation Research programs. Since that time, eight other federal agencies have created SBIR programs, and next year's budget will have $190 million for SBIR activities. Yesterday and today, I had an opportunity to meet with several faculty members here who started companies, and also several local small-business leaders who have been engaged not just with NSF funding but with other funding as well. NSF is not only in basic research; we also engage in this space of small businesses, before one reaches the "Valley of Death" in typical [commercial innovation] startup space.

Science is booming all over the world, and we have large countries with large populations, like China and India, increasingly investing more and more in science and engineering. And as we look at all the activities that NSF sponsors in 2011, at this point in time--61 years after NSF was established--we ask, "What is so exciting and new in science?" From a very high altitude, and especially from the NSF prospective, there are so many exciting things that NSF funds, but we can broadly characterize them into two categories, and they involve every branch of science and engineering including social sciences.

[Slide #8: Era of Observation]

First, we are in a new "era of observation," and we have the experimental tools and computation tools that have a reach, scope, precision, and capability to probe the universe, on the one hand--through the astronomy research and facilities and telescopes we sponsor all over the world--and the molecular and atomic worlds, on the other hand. Physics research, and research in pretty much every field of science and engineering, gives us an opportunity not only to observe nature and the universe in ways that we could not have done even five years ago. We use this new ability to collect and use data and information that we did not have the ability to do even five years ago, thanks to the revolutions in computer hardware and software. We live in this "era of observation," that's producing an exponentially growing amount of data and computational simulation.

NSF funding not only facilitates opportunities for the U.S. and the International communities to explore distant galaxies and the entire solar system. We can turn this back to earth and ask the question about the origins of the universe--where we come from--and try to understand human nature and Earth's atmosphere, and so forth.

[Slide #9: Era of Observation]
[Slide #10: Era of Observation]
[Slide #11: Era of Observation]

We have an NSF-sponsored facility in the Antarctica. We do research there in many areas of science--from changes in atmosphere, pollution, penguin populations to every area of science. About two months ago, we set a record, constructing a neutrino-detecting scope extending more than two miles below the surface of the Antarctic ice. At the same time, at the other extreme, we can probe the tiniest of tiny things. We sponsor research that probes to the subnano, pico, and femto scales. We not only look at the large scales of mega, macro, and giga, we also look at the biology of a single molecule in the human brain. A unique thing about NSF is its interdisciplinary research combining, for example, psychology of the human mind and social sciences with natural sciences.

In the area of clean energy, for example, research on the way we use energy shows that energy policy is shaped not just through technology. It's the political science aspects (e.g., taxation, social policy, economic consequences) that affect energy use, and we have number of conversations on-going with the Department of Energy on how NSF-funded research can interface with their research to bring the two aspects together.

We have been seeing in the last two months, especially, how technology facilitated by social networks can create large political changes in different parts of the world. Combining the natural sciences with social sciences is critical to understanding these phenomena, and NSF is unique in its support such interdisciplinary work.

[Slide #12: Era of Data and Information]

This "era of observation" also creates data collections that are so large and so rapidly expanding that we have to ask the question "How do you separate the signal from the noise?" And, as mobile devices used by individuals can potentially contribute to data, eventually we may be in a position where we are creating national networks through NSF-funded research, and other agency-funded research and international networks, where we can have "citizen science."

For example, a young child in a rural village can use a mobile phone to observe the sky and generate data that feeds into a national/international network that becomes part of a scientific data gathering experience. So how do you collect, organize, filter, and archive data in perpetuity?

There is a lot of science that needs to be done. So, we created for FY 2012 a new initiative called "CyberInfrastructure Framework for the 21st-Century," and this has huge implications for personal security, privacy, cyber-security, data archiving, changes in technology over time, pedagogical tools with respect to education using mobile devices, like iPhones and iPads, and how we use them to teach better in K-12. There are a variety of aspects of this that NSF is engaged in sponsoring.

[Slide #13: President's Strategy for American Innovation]

In his State of the Union address and in his 2012 budget, the President has articulated three fundamental pillars of the "ecosystem of innovation," and many NSF activities are in resonance with this vision. The first pillar is investing in the building blocks of American innovation, whether it's to advance manufacturing or to support STEM education. This is something that--in concert with other federal agencies like NIH, NIST, the Department of Commerce, or the Department of Education--is very much part and parcel to NSF activities.

[Slide #14: Science and Engineering Without Borders]

Promoting competitive markets, which spur productive entrepreneurship, and catalyzing breakthroughs for national priorities--by virtue of multiple agencies working together--does not mean multidisciplinary research and multi-agency research have taken focus away from individual scholarships, individual investigators, as well as disciplinary excellence. Disciplinary excellence is necessary for multidisciplinary excellence.

We do not want to deviate from supporting areas such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology. This presents challenges because we have multidisciplinary activities and multi-institutional collaborations, both in the U.S. and on a global scale. How do we bring the multinational and multicultural issues together to advance science in the broadest way? Many of NSF's initiatives address these issues.

[Slide #15: INSPIRE]

To address multidisciplinary research we have proposed to Congress a new program to be launched later this year for FY 2012; it's called IINSPIRE. The objective is to ask the following questions: "How do we facilitate truly transformative research, especially by young people whose activities do not fit into traditional disciplinary silos? Do we run the risk of missing truly creative ideas because current disciplinary organizational structures don't appreciate them, including within NSF when we review programs?"

We hope this new program will enable us to reexamine the way we do business internally at NSF, and, at the same time, help foster multidisciplinary activities in the community so that we can help support transformative research. This will engage all of NSF and we will find the mechanism to provide centrally allocated funds with funds that reside individually in different offices and directorates within NSF, so that we can create a collaborative structure for transformative multidisciplinary research.

[Slide #16: CIF21]

I mentioned the CyberInfrastructure Framework for the 21st-Century; this will involve cyber-physical systems, national networks, and, potentially, international networks. This will be funded to the tune of about $160 million in the FY 2012 budget request.

[Slide #17: SEES]

One of the largest initiatives for 2012 is something called SEES (Science and Engineering Education for Sustainability). When we do many of our activities, either as a consumer, producer, manufacturer or even as a scientist, we don't think about sustainability. How do we sustain all our activities? How do we educate people to think about sustainability? And, what is the science and engineering with respect to sustainability? This could mean the sustainability of urban infrastructure, urban transportation, clean water, clean energy, clean environment, and many other aspects. This will be a major activity, and the science and technology of clean energy is very much part of this.

[Slide #18: Promoting Innovation and Meeting National Needs]

Then there are a number of national priorities that are being articulated by the administration and by different agencies. Many of our fundamental science activities have resonance with these national priorities.

For example, we will have a program to the tune of about $190 million next year that takes advanced manufacturing to a new level. Advanced manufacturing has huge implications for national leadership, economic prosperity, and, potentially, national security. I already mentioned clean energy. NSF has been a leader in the National Nanotechnology Initiative begun in 1999 by President Clinton. This activity continues, and we support it to the tune of over $450 million in next year's budget.

There is a new program called EARS (Enhanced Access to the Radio Spectrum) that NSF will fund for about $15 million next year. That will be on top of about a billion dollars that has been set aside for NSF next year from proceeds from the auctions of the electromagnetic spectrum (radio spectrum, and other spectra in the megahertz range) that will be used to create national test beds and to do basic research on connecting people in new and unique ways as we get new tools for communication around the country and around the globe.

Then we have the $30-million National Robotics Initiative in which NSF will participate, with additional funding from NASA and the National Institutes of Health. This will be another major priority for FY 2012.

Then there are the Industry-University partnerships. There are two such centers that NSF funds at ISU, and there are a number of these activities that we will continue to support. The SBIR and the STTR program will receive $190 million next year. And, I mentioned the SEES activity, which has a large budget request for next year.

In the last few minutes I want to talk about some critical issues facing the country. If I look at the future 20 to 30 years from now in terms of U.S. leadership in science and engineering, I see four major challenges: Women in S&E fields, underrepresented minorities in S&E fields, a possible decline in the foreign talent pool that feeds into U.S. universities, and international competition in research funding.

[Slide #19: Scientists and Engineers in Science and Engineering Occupations: 2006]

First, this slide provides a look at the demographics of the science and engineering workforce in the U.S. for the most recent year for which we have data, 2006. We see that while women represent half of the population, they represent only 26 percent of the science and engineering workforce. This comes at a time when, if you look at high school graduation, approximately 70 percent of valedictorians in U.S. high schools are girls, and that fraction is increasing. More women graduate from college now in the U.S. than men do, and that difference is increasing.

In the last 10 years, in the U.S. we had a 10-percent increase in the number of PhDs earned in science and engineering, and that entire increase was because of women getting PhDs in science and engineering. But, despite that, there is a significant drop off in women participating in the STEM workforce. So we have highly talented members of the workforce who come into the workforce with strong capability and training, but then they leave the workforce very quickly.

[Slide #20: Recent Reports: Gender and STEM]

It's very complex and involves a lot of issues. One of the key issues, revealed by a number of published reports shown in this slide, relates to the matter of having children and raising a family. One of the conversations I have started with university leadership relates to how universities can work with NSF and how NSF can help them create, nurture, and foster the scientific workforce of the future. We want to get to the 50 percent range before too long. We cannot afford to wait because this will have an impact on future U.S. leadership.

[Slide #21: Minorities Earning S&E Bachelor's at Minority-serving Institutions]

The second key issue relates to underrepresented minorities in the workforce. In this case, unlike women who are beginning to fill the STEM education pipeline, unfortunately both entry into the S&E pipeline and retention in the workforce are not very good for minorities. This slide shows the most recent data from three weeks ago from the National Science Board. Among "High-Hispanic Enrollment" institutions, the number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees among Hispanics--in predominantly Hispanic institutions over the last 10 years--has declined slightly. Such degrees are also in decline at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

By 2040, the United States will be a country with a majority of minorities. That representation in our science and engineering workforce is nowhere close to their representation in the U.S. population at the present time. What do we need to do? We cannot wait another 20 years to start to act.

We are exploring various things, and here is one example of a possibility. In the most recent three wars we have been engaged in--the first Iraq war, the second Iraq War, and Afghanistan--the representation of African-Americans in the military in those three wars is 19 percent. Their representation in the general population is 13 percent. African-Americans are represented in the military at a level 50 percent higher than in the U.S. population. Many joined the military right after high school. If we can tap that pool to go into science and engineering by working with the Department of Defense to try to identify mechanisms to get them excited about science and engineering, we would be capturing a certain segment of the population that will benefit our science and engineering workforce for the future.

Also, the military has a higher fraction of disabled members compared to the general population. We address that issue. The Engineering Directorate at NSF has started a pilot program trying to do exactly that, targeting the military as a way to bring people into the science and engineering workforce.

[Slide #22: National R&D Expenditures and Share of World Total, by Region: 2007]

The third major challenge relates to international competition. This slide shows the most recent data that we have. In terms of research funding around the globe, of the $1.1 trillion spent on R&D in 2007, North America funded slightly more than one third, Europe is slightly less than one-third, and Asia supported about one third. So research funding is distributed just about equally among these three regions. Our competition is growing in ways we have not seen in the past.

[Slide #23: Doctorates Awarded in Science and Engineering Fields, by Citizenship: 1989-2009]

This slide shows the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents with doctorates earned in the last 20 years at U.S. institutions. It's about 20 percent. If you compare competition like Korea, the number of people getting doctorates there is extremely high. Competition is growing in other parts of the world in countries with large populations. China and India are both investing very heavily. Small countries like Korea and Singapore are invested very heavily. This is something that will be a major issue for our future.

[Slide #24: Top 10 Countries/Economies of Foreign Citizenship for U.S. Doctorate Recipients: Total, 1999-2009]

This slide shows the top 10 countries of origin of PhD students in the U.S. Not surprisingly, China is number one; second is India; but surprisingly, Korea has the same number of students in the U.S. as India, which has one-hundredth the population of India. Next is Taiwan and Canada.

One of the potentially disturbing trends that may emerge is that these students may come to the U.S. in decreasing numbers. The numbers are still strong, but in the future, even if they come here, they will not stay. They will go back to their countries of origin in increasing numbers. If that becomes a trend, we need to address that, as this is the third large challenge for the country.

[Slide #25: Nondefense R&D Gross Expenditures as Share of Gross Domestic Product, for Selected Countries: 1981-2007]

The fourth and final challenge I want to mention relates to R&D funding, shown in this slide. Until 2000, we spent both a greater proportion of our GDP on nondefense R&D as a country. We were the leader of the world. In 2000, three countries surpassed us: Germany, Japan, and Korea. And, more recently, many countries in Scandinavia have passed us (e.g., Finland and Sweden). So we are not competitive anymore with respect to nondefense R&D funding. This is something we need to keep our eye on, especially in tight financial times.

[Slide #26: World of Ideas]

My next slide looks at innovation. It shows that innovation can happen in any country. What you see here is the level of local patent filings as a fraction of billions of dollars of GDP, plotted against international patent filing as a fraction of billions of dollars of GDP in several countries. You can see that the U.S. is not number one. Countries at the top right-hand corner are the best, and those in the left-hand corner are worse. Japan and Korea are in the top right and Germany is also way up there on the right-hand extreme. Countries like Maldova and China on the left, at the upper half, so innovation can happen anywhere and it's increasingly happening more and more around the world.

[Slide #27: Sustaining U.S. Global competitiveness in STEM]

With that, let me conclude and summarize the four issues, shown in this slide, that we are focusing on: (1) Continuing NSF support for basic research; this is cutting-edge research and is the fuel for market-viable innovation; (2) Diversifying the STEM education and workforce pipeline; (3) Leveraging and fortifying our nationís international STEM leadership. Conversations with our G20 partners have focused on how we can bring NSF leadership to have a dialogue among the G20 nations, to begin with and other countries later, so we can partner strategically with different countries; and (4) Fostering interest for opportunity for discovery.

[Slide #28: OneNSF]

With this in mind, we have articulated something called a "One NSF" vision (depicted in this slide). This has multiple components: (1) Catalyze human capital development that directly leads to science and engineering workforce growth; (2) Improve organizational efficiency of NSF and therefore help our community--mainly the university community and small business innovation researchers; (3) Address multidisciplinary challenges; (4) Create networks and infrastructure for the nation and the world so we have instant access to scientific data through the means that we have in cyberinfrastructure around the globe; (5) Spark innovation ecosystems and opportunity for scientific discoveries; and (6) Support fundamental research in all the centers.

So let me stop there and thank you for your attention.



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