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Image Cut away of earth NSB Chair Branscomb NSF Director Slaughter NSF Director Knapp
The National Science Board - A History in Highlights, 1950-2000
Table of Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Former Members | Exec Secretaries/Officers | Timeline

Engineering Gets a Promotion

By 1980, one of the Foundation's best friends in the House, Congressman George E. Brown (D-CA), chair of the Committee on Science and Technology, was criticizing NSF for not doing more to make U.S. technology more globally competitive. Brown (supported by engineers who, according to historian Belanger, felt "in the position of a neglected child"), pushed to set up a separate National Technology Foundation. The move forced NSF leaders to defend engineering's rather low status at the agency. NSF's long resistance to sponsoring engineering research stemmed from a belief that engineering was applied work, not basic scientific research. But a separate foundation did not seem desirable, either.

[D]edication, objectivity, and excellent research credentials on the part of each and every Board memeber are indispensable to the effectiveness of the foundation. They consitute its protection from forces that, unopposed, would reduce the NSF to just another federal agencey. Lewis Branscomb, Board Chair (1980-1984) The Foundation's management was in flux at this time. The new Director-designate, electrical engineer John Slaughter, would not take office until December and the Acting Director was a university physicist, Donald N. Langenberg. The Board was in a better position to respond to Brown, given that it included more members than usual from industry. Board Chair Lewis M. Branscomb was a physicist and chief scientist at IBM. Vice Chair Herbert Doan worked at Dow Chemical. Another member, Joseph M. Pettit, president of Georgia Tech, chaired a Board group to study the oft-repeated charge that engineering research was, at best, "just" applied science.

Drawing on the Pettit group, Branscomb argued that engineering research was neither basic scientific research nor applied science. Still, it was worthy of NSF support because when engineering research activities "stay ahead of state of the art they necessarily push up against the scientific frontier." University science and engineering had "an intimate relationship, each supporting each other." Therefore NSF, not some new foundation, should support basic engineering research.

The Board invited the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to weigh in. The NAE endorsed a directorate in NSF rather than a new institution, and a new Engineering Directorate came into being in March 1981. To emphasize that it was now "not conceptually correct" to consider engineering an applied field, the Board determined that NSF's existing applied programs should be relocated to their respective disciplinary directorates rather than housed in engineering. The new directorate would foster innovations that helped to revive U.S. industry.

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