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Image of network connections 1989 Berlin Wall falls NSB Chair Good - NSF Director Bloch
The National Science Board - A History in Highlights, 1950-2000
Table of Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Former Members | Exec Secretaries/Officers | Timeline

Controversial Projects

The Board met in March 1987 amidst global anxiety about a growing hole in the protective layer of ozone over Antartica. A debate raged as to whether chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in coolants, insulators, and sprays, were at fault. Board Chair Roland Schmitt pushed NSF to investigate the problem. The world was watching. 'We were working in a goldfish bowl,' says Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Subsequently, first-time measurements taken at Palmer Station, an NSF-supported Antarctic research base, ruled out natural causes as the culprit. By the fall of 1987, international efforts were underway to limit CFC production. Solomon says that the Board's interest 'helped to create the will in the logistics side of the [Foundation] to deal with the challenge and to do a more complete job. The Board acted as a buffer against outsiders who questioned controversial projects, thus freeing the Director to push harder at the frontiers. For example, a small group on Bloch's staff wanted NSF to take over the communications network that connected computers run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Their plan was to fuse NSF's young network, known as CSNet, with the ARPANet backbone to create a larger network-NSFNet. In 1987, the Board approved the Foundation's proposal to award the administration of NSFNet to Merit Inc., an unusual consortium consisting of the University of Michigan and two private companies, MCI and IBM. The risk paid off handsomely. NSFNet grew into the Internet, an enterprise largely funded by the private sector and the cornerstone of a revolutionary new economy.

Another controversial decision marked an August 1986 Board vote to award $25 million for a new Earthquake Engineering Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Charles E. Hess, Vice Chair and a long-time Board member from the University of California at Davis, recalls that minutes after the award was announced, the office of Senator Pete Wilson (D-CA) telephoned to ask why the award had not gone to his home state, which had always done earthquake research. And who'd ever heard of earthquakes in Buffalo? Hess explained to the Senator that the Board had been just as surprised when the Foundation staff recommended Buffalo, but the Board had made its own review and concurred. Though Wilson mounted an investigation by the General Accounting Office, that office upheld the decision.

As the Foundation's stature and budget grew, more of its awards came to be coveted for their economic potential as well as opportunities for discovery. Other contentious decisions were the Board's 1990 award to build the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University rather than at MIT, where such work had been conducted for years, and the Board's approval in 1994 of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) project to detect gravity waves. Mary Good, who was Board Chair from 1988 to 1991, believes that if the Board had been merely advisory, a lone Director and staff might not have withstood the pressures. The Board, she says, "being a legally independent agency, had the power and ability to do what they thought was...right...and to stand their ground."

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