This document has been archived. For current NSF funding opportunities, see
Crosscutting Investment Strategies
NSF Priority Areas
The National Science Foundation’s
(NSF) investments in priority areas are focused on frontiers of knowledge,
where discovery and innovation are likely to produce significant progress.
NSF works with other government agencies to identify and support these multidisciplinary
The priority areas in this section address NSF’s three strategic
- People – A diverse, internationally competitive and globally
engaged workforce of scientists, engineers, and well-prepared citizens.
- Ideas – Discovery at and across the frontier of science and
engineering, and connections to its use in the service of society.
- Tools – Broadly accessible, state-of-the-art, and shared research
and educational tools.
1. Biocomplexity in the Environment
The environment is a subject of profound national importance and scientific
interest, making it a strategic priority for NSF. The goals of NSF’s
investment in environmental research and education include enhancement of
fundamental research in all relevant disciplines and in interdisciplinary
and long-term research; creation of educational opportunities that build
scientific and technological capacity; discovery of innovative methods that
avoid environmental harm and inform the decision-making process; and support
for advanced physical, technological, informational, and international infrastructure.
A centerpiece of NSF’s Environmental Research and Education portfolio
is the Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE) competition. Initiated in fiscal
year (FY) 1999, this special competition promotes comprehensive, integrated
investigations of environmental systems using advanced scientific and engineering
Biocomplexity refers to the dynamic web of interrelationships that arise
when living things at all levels--from molecular structures to genes to
organisms to ecosystems--interact with their environment. Investigations
of biocomplexity in the environment are intended to provide a more complete
and synthetic understanding of natural processes, human behaviors and decisions
in the natural world; and ways to use new technology effectively to observe
the environment and sustain the diversity of life on Earth. By placing biocomplexity
studies in an environmental context, the Biocomplexity in the Environment
competition emphasizes research with the following characteristics: highly
interdisciplinary; explicit consideration of nonhuman biota and humans;
and focus on challenging systems with high potential for exhibiting nonlinear
or highly coupled behavior.
Five interdisciplinary areas are emphasized again in FY 2004:
- Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human (CNH) Systems—Emphasizes
quantitative interdisciplinary analysis of relevant human and natural
systems processes and the complex interactions among human and natural
diverse scales, with special emphasis given to studies of natural capital;
landscapes and land use; and uncertainty, resilience, and vulnerability.
Biogeochemical Cycles (CBC)—Focuses on the interrelation
of biological, geochemical, geological, and physical processes at all temporal
and spatial scales, with particular emphasis on understanding linkages between
chemical and physical cycles and the influence of human and other biotic
factors on those cycles.
- Genome-Enabled Environmental Science and Engineering (GEN-EN)—Encourages
the use of genetic and information technology approaches to gain novel insights
into environmental questions and problems.
- Instrumentation Development for Environmental Activities (IDEA)—Supports
the development of instrumentation and software that relies on and takes
advantage of microelectronics, photonics, telemetry, robotics, sensing systems,
modeling, data mining, and analysis techniques to bring recent laboratory
instrumentation advances to bear on the full spectrum of environmental biocomplexity
- Materials Use: Science, Engineering, and Society (MUSES)—Supports
projects directed toward reducing adverse human impact on the total interactive
system of resource use; designing and synthesizing new materials with environmentally
benign impacts on biocomplex systems; and maximizing the efficient use of
individual materials throughout their life cycles.
2. Information Technology Research (ITR)
Sustained leadership in the United States in information technology requires
an aggressive federal program to create new knowledge in a variety of areas.
The U.S. economy’s robust growth has resulted in part from new ideas
that became the basis for new products. For example, NSF contributed greatly
to the development of today’s Internet. NSF’s investments--in
ideas, people, and tools--have benefited greatly from the application of
NSF faces two major challenges and opportunities with respect to information
technology. The first challenge is to support the people, ideas, and tools
that will create and advance knowledge in all areas of information science
and engineering. Wholly new computational approaches are needed for problems
arising from the science and engineering disciplines and the development
of new learning technologies for use in education.
The second challenge is to upgrade the computational and computing infrastructures
for all fields that NSF supports. Researchers and educators in many areas
need to incorporate information technology and, in some cases, revolutionize
their experimental and collaborative processes to attain new effectiveness
and greater efficiency. In addition, the United States must address a range
of access and workforce issues. Overcoming inequities will require innovative
educational technologies, such as highly interactive computer science courseware
that is both multicultural and multimedia.
NSF is the lead agency for a multiagency 5-year research initiative in
information technology. Each agency participating in the initiative will
define specific programs in keeping with that agency's mission. NSF is primarily
responsible for basic research to advance knowledge and for education and
workforce development activities. The multiyear Information Technology Research
investment by NSF will lead to the following outcomes:
- Advancement of fundamental knowledge in techniques for computation,
the representation of information, the manipulation and visualization of
information, and the transmission and communication of information.
- Enhanced knowledge about how to design, build, and maintain large,
complex software systems that are reliable, predictable, secure, and scalable.
- New knowledge about distributed and networked systems and interactions
among component parts, as well as the interaction of systems with both
individuals and cooperating groups of users. Such networks can empower
a broadly distributed
scientific community to participate fully in frontline research.
- Development of a significantly advanced high-end computing capability
needed to solve myriad important science and engineering problems.
understanding of the societal, ethical, and workforce implications of
the information revolution.
- A strong information technology workforce and a citizenry capable
of using information technology effectively.
3. Nanoscale Science and Engineering
Nanoscale science and engineering promises to produce a dominant technology
for the 21st century. Control of matter at the nanoscale level underpins
innovation in critical areas from information and medicine to manufacturing
and the environment.
One nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is a unique point on the dimensional
scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made
devices and the largest molecules of living systems. Biological cells such
as red blood cells have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers.
Micro systems with nanoscale components are now approaching this same scale.
This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual
Sixteen federal agencies have joined together to promote advances in nanotechnology.
NSF’s nanoscale science and engineering
program is a multiyear investment whose goals include the following:
- discovery of novel phenomena, material structures, processes,
- enhanced methods for the synthesis and processing of engineered,
nanometer-scale building blocks for materials and system components;
device concepts and system architecture appropriate to the unique features
and demands of nanoscale engineering;
- manufacturing and environmental processes
at the nanoscale;
- development of a new generation of skilled workers who
have the multidisciplinary perspective necessary for rapid progress in
- increased understanding of societal, ethical, and workforce
implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology; and
- convergence of nano-,
bio-, information, and cognition-based technologies.
4. Mathematical Sciences
Today’s discoveries in science, engineering, and technology are
inextricably intertwined with advances across the mathematical sciences,
which provide both powerful tools for insight and a common language for
science and engineering. Underlying recent progress in such areas as genomics,
information technologies, and climate science are new mathematical and statistical
tools that enable scientists and engineers to tackle a broad range of scientific
and technological challenges long considered intractable. The goal of the
Mathematical Sciences priority area is to advance frontiers in three interlinked
- fundamental mathematical and statistical sciences;
research involving the mathematical sciences with science and engineering;
- critical investments in mathematical sciences education.
Fundamental research themes cut across all areas of the mathematical and
statistical sciences. To enhance research in these areas, NSF will provide
support through focused research groups, individual investigator grants,
and institute and postdoctoral training activities.
The success of the mathematical sciences in producing new analytical,
statistical, and computational tools has increased the demand both for further
development of new tools and for research teams capable of applying these
techniques. A new cadre of researchers who are broadly trained is needed
to tackle the increasingly complex interdisciplinary research topics that
confront society. Three broad research themes have been identified for initial
- Mathematical and Statistical Challenges Posed by Large Data
arise in such areas as large genetic databases; the explosion of data
from satellite observation systems, seismic networks, global oceanic and
observational networks, and large astronomical surveys; situations in
which privacy and missing data are major concerns; massive data streams
by automated physical science instruments; and data produced by modern
- Managing and Modeling Uncertainty—Predictions
of phenomena, with measures of uncertainty, are critical for making decisions
from public policy to research. Challenges include improving methods for
assessing uncertainty and enhancing our ability to forecast extreme or singular
events, thus increasing the safety and reliability of such systems as power
grids, the Internet, and air traffic control. Other applications include
forecasting the spread of an invasive species, predicting genetic change,
evaluating the likelihood of complex climate change scenarios, and improving
the utility of forecasts of market behavior.
- Modeling Complex Nonlinear Systems—Advances
in mathematics are necessary for a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms
interacting complex systems and will be essential for further development
of modern physical theories of the structure of the universe at the smallest
and largest scales. Challenges include the analysis and prediction of emergent
complex properties from social behaviors to brain function, and from communications
networks to multi-scale business information systems.
NSF support in this area will encompass interdisciplinary focused research
groups, interdisciplinary programs that link innovative training activities
with research, and partnership activities with other federal agencies.
Education efforts will focus on innovative projects centered on these
research agenda. Activities in this context will include teacher preparation
and professional development, curriculum development, undergraduate research
participation, and research on how mathematics is learned. Investments will
include support for undergraduate and graduate education as well as postdoctoral
training coupled with curriculum reform.
5. Human and Social Dynamics
Uncertainty and change have become inescapable facts of life for people
today. Economic, social, technological, and environmental change provide
new opportunities as well as major challenges. Understanding the human and
social dynamics of change in our contemporary world is essential for our
nation's continued progress. Multi-scaled, multi-disciplinary approaches,
many of which have been made possible by recently acquired knowledge and
new technologies, can bring about this understanding.
To address contemporary problems and to advance fundamental knowledge
and the welfare of the nation, the National Science Foundation will develop
and apply these approaches through a new Human and Social Dynamics (HSD)
The goals of the HSD priority area are:
- to develop a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to understanding
human and social dynamics;
- to exploit the convergence in biology, engineering, information technology,
and cognition to advance the understanding of behavior and performance
at both the individual and social levels;
- to refine knowledge about decision making, risk, and uncertainty and
to learn how to translate this knowledge into improved decision making;
- to develop the broad range of infrastructure needed to support transformative
interdisciplinary research; and
- to create relevant large-scale data resources and advance methodological
frontiers, such as agent-based modeling, complex network analysis, non-linear
dynamics, computer-assisted qualitative analysis, multi-level, multi-scalar
analysis, and measurement research and technologies.
HSD will be developed over the next five years, with the involvement of
all of NSF's directorates. The Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic
Sciences along with the other research directorates and offices will run
a special competition during fiscal year 2004 (FY 04). NSF expects that
the scope of competitions and the level of funding will increase in later
Six broad areas will be emphasized and supported during the FY 04 competition
pending availability of funds. These areas are:
- Agents of Change
- Enhancing Human Performance
- Decision Making and Risk
- Spatial Social Science
- Modeling Human and Social Dynamics
- Instrumentation and Data Resource Development