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The National Science Board - A History in Highlights, 1950-2000
Table of Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Former Members | Exec Secretaries/Officers | Timeline

Golden Age of Growth

In the decade following Sputnik, the Foundation's budget grew tenfold, from $40 million in FY1957 to $465 million in FY1967. The Foundation used the funds in strategic ways that resulted in many of the most exciting scientific and technical achievements of the modern era.

NSF Flies High World War II 's unprecedented air campaigns heightened interest in meteorology.Responding to a National Academy of Sciences recommendation, in 1960 the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)was organized in Boulder, Colorado,under the auspices of NSF. Its mission is to conduct research on a larger scale than what any single university could accomplish. A few years after the center's founding,the Board approved plans to build on Table Mountain a new state-of-the-art NCAR facility -Mesa Laboratory, one of architect I.M.Pei's first U.S.buildings. A proposed major expansion of the Foundation's focus came before the Board in 1961. Foundation staff members, in touch with university and college administrators around the Nation, had heard that while they were grateful to get some overhead from each investigator's individual grant (usually 15 percent in the early years, though much higher later on), the totals in any one year were unpredictable. These administrators wanted to improve their facilities and programs systematically without having to depend on fluctuating levels of overhead. NSF staff proposed the creation of "institutional grants," which the schools could spend flexibly. The Board liked the idea and asked the Foundation to implement the new grants as soon as possible.

But there was another, related issue to address. Institutions won NSF research awards based on scientific merit, creating what Board Chair Eric Walker called "a kind of spiraling situation" in which the best institutions got better. As Walker told Congress in 1965, colleges in "New England and on the West Coast...get a higher percentage of the higher salaries, attract better people, and continue to submit the best proposals.... It is very difficult, and I think quite undesirable, to fight excellence. It is hard to weed out the fault without eradicating the virtue."

As a remedy, the Director proposed the creation of University Science Development Grants, designed for the second twenty or so schools that aspired to be "centers of excellence." The Board approved the program in June 1962, but deferred it when additional appropriations did not materialize. Through 1972, NSF would invest more than $180 million in the program, which greatly expanded the capabilities in research and science education of many U.S. institutions. NSF's commitment to institutional grants over time fostered excellence nationwide, allowing many research universities to gain worldwide preeminence.

Growth also meant an expansion of large-scale science. NSF's Antarctic program was flourishing, and by FY1967, in addition to the Green Bank and Kitt Peak observatories, the Foundation had five stellar telescopes operating and a sixth under construction. The Foundation also launched Kitt Peak's counterpart in the Southern Hemisphere, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. In November 1965, NSF became the government's lead agency for ground-based astronomy.

Other large-scale projects sprang up. The National Center for Atmospheric Research housed the High Altitude Observatory to study sun-related phenomena. Ship-based ocean-drilling studies around the world suggested that sea floor spreading caused continental drift, an achievement that sparked strong, ongoing support for activities in geophysics and oceanography. New marine biology field stations started operations-NSF-supported scientists studied the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and counted species in and along the Amazon River. The Board approved "Big Biology" in the form of the International Biological Program, which ran from 1968 to 1974. A less successful effort was "the great project Mohole," which the Board took up in Executive Committee. The plan to drill a hole through the sea floor to the juncture with the mantle, or "Mohorovic discontinuity," was so problematic that by the time Congress cancelled the program in 1967, critics had dubbed it "project no hole."

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