GPRA Plan    
NSF GPRA Strategic Plan
FY 2001 - 2006



About the NSF

NSF Role

I.  Introduction

II.  Vision and Mission

III.  Outcome Goals

IV.  Strategy


Appendix 1: Critical Factors for Success

Appendix 2: External Factors Affecting Success

Appendix 3: Assessing NSF’s Performance

Appendix 4: Integration of NSF Plans with those of Other Agencies

Appendix 5: Resource Utilization

Appendix 6: Linking the Strategic Plan to the Performance Plan

Appendix 7: Crosswalk of NSF Goals and Programs

How We Operate

Our Attributes

National Science Board

Director's Policy Group

IV.  Strategy

A.  Core Strategies

NSF employs the following three core strategies that guide the entire agency in establishing priorities, identifying opportunities, and designing new programs and activities. They cut across all NSF programs and activities, and each is critical to accomplishing NSF’s three outcome goals.

(1)  Develop Intellectual Capital

NSF invests in projects that enhance individual and collective capacity to perform, i.e. to discover, learn, create, identify problems and formulate solutions. It seeks investments that tap into the potential evident in previously underutilized groups of the Nation’s human resource pool.

(2)  Integrate Research and Education

NSF invests in activities that integrate research and education, and that develop reward systems that support teaching, mentoring and outreach. Effective integration of research and education at all levels infuses learning with the excitement of discovery. Joining together research and education also assures that the findings and methods of research are quickly and effectively communicated in a broader context and to a larger audience.

(3)  Promote Partnerships

Collaboration and partnerships between disciplines and institutions and among academe, industry and government enable the movement of people, ideas and tools throughout the public and private sectors. Furthermore, these partnerships optimize the impact of people, ideas and tools on the economy and on society.

International partnerships are vital to achieving NSF’s goals. The very nature of the science and engineering enterprise is global, often requiring access to geographically dispersed materials, phenomena, and expertise. It also requires open and timely communication, sharing, and validation of findings.

B.  Five-year Strategies

NSF’s mission cannot be accomplished without the U.S. science and engineering community providing significant intellectual leadership in critical, emerging and newly developing fields of research and education. The following five-year strategies help NSF to identify opportunities and make the investments that foster intellectual leadership within science and engineering community. These strategies cut across NSF programs and activities and are critical to accomplishing NSF’s three outcome goals.

(1)  Support competitive investigator-initiated research along a broad and expanding frontier of science and engineering.

Because no one can predict every discovery or anticipate all of the opportunities that fresh discoveries will produce, NSF's portfolio must be large and diverse, addressing many fields and activities, ranging from single investigator grants to small groups of investigators to large multi-purpose research centers. Over one half of NSF’s research budget supports unsolicited, investigator-initiated research proposals. These proposals are supported in expectation that their results will broadly contribute to advances and seed new concepts and opportunities.

This element of NSF’s strategy is primarily aimed at progress toward the Ideas goal. Our support of competitive investigator-initiated research opens the door for discovery. However such activities contribute to NSF’s goals for People and Tools as well, by providing venues for students and postdoctoral researchers to participate and also settings for the development and innovative use of tools.

The escalating complexity of science and engineering is moving research toward a collaborative mode with greater focus on intellectual integration. NSF grants must be of sufficient size and duration to enable this collaboration and permit complex issues to be addressed. In addition, writing and reviewing proposals takes valuable time that researchers and educators could better spend in carrying their agendas forward. Larger, longer-term grants will increase productivity by minimizing the time they must spend writing proposals and managing administrative tasks.

Increasing the average size of research grants to an enabling level of at least $150,000 will greatly enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of researchers. Likewise, increasing the duration of grants from a minimum of three years to four years will facilitate collaborations and provide added stability to the support of graduate students through completion of their graduate activities. Reaching these target levels will require both judicious uses of existing resources and additional new resources.

(2)  Identify and support "unmet opportunities" that strengthen and cross-fertilize the S&E disciplines and promise significant future payoffs for the Nation.

NSF’s commitment to funding basic research assures the Nation a deep reservoir of knowledge and provides flexibility and choices for identifying and addressing future opportunities. Working with broad segments of the research and education community, we identify unmet opportunities that arise in the disciplines we support. These are areas where activity in the community already exists, usually with modest support from the agency. In these areas, the people and tools are available to do the work, but a greater NSF investment now will have a very large future payoff for the Nation

As a case in point, the mathematical sciences increasingly underpin and enable advances in all areas of science, engineering, and technology. Mathematics is most effective when it brings to bear varied approaches – discrete, continuous, geometric, analytic, algebraic, probabilistic, and statistical – that reflect its multifaceted character. For example, mathematics expands the impact of digitalization afforded by powerful computational tools, increasing the ability to analyze massive data collections, increasing the richness of simulation models, and providing powerful new ways to handle probability and uncertainty issues.

A multi-year investment by NSF will advance: (1) mathematics and statistics in partnership with science and engineering across a broad spectrum of research; (2) information technology based on the study of massive graphs, random graphs, combinatorial optimization, coding theory and cryptology, and discrete and computational geometry; (3) mathematical biology, building on preliminary successes in simulation of organ functions, mathematical ecology, and neuroscience; (4) nanoscale science and engineering by modeling, simulation, and control of molecular processes; and (5) the education and training of a mathematically literate workforce to meet future challenges.

Similar opportunities exist throughout every field of science and engineering. Discoveries in physical science, for example, have created unprecedented opportunities to understand the origins of our universe and the role of quantum mechanics in the development of new chemical and materials systems. These discoveries also promise opportunities in laser science, computing, and medical instrumentation. Molecular science studies are also leading to important new ideas about environmentally benign processes and more efficient energy generation that should be developed more quickly and more deeply.

It is now possible to study an enormous spectrum of the earth’s dynamic processes. New knowledge and technological innovations, such as satellite communications, electronic connectivity, remote sensing and autonomous instruments, are also opening up new windows to the most remote regions on earth, enabling studies of the origin of the universe from the South Pole, the formation of earth's crust beneath the Arctic ice cap, and the evolution of biological species in extreme and isolated environments.

Additional investments may revolutionize our ability to understand and predict nonlinear geophysical systems, such as climate changes and their impacts on the environment, and natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods.

The convergence of biotechnology and information technology is revolutionizing the biological sciences and their impacts on society. For example, sequencing the genomes of selected organisms, including plant-associated microbes, plant pathogens, and plant-associated insect pests, will provide insights into fundamental biological processes.

Research in the psychological, cognitive, neural, and language sciences will help provide a sharper picture of how human language is acquired and how it is used, both for thought and communication. This will lay the foundation for progress in many areas of national importance, from teaching children how to read and understanding learning processes in science and mathematics to building computers that can talk.

New developments in information technology also provide unprecedented opportunities for social and behavioral researchers to collect, access, and analyze the huge amounts of data necessary to reliably and validly inform policy makers about the complex processes by which we live, learn, and work. Improved efficiency and performance will be gained through an investment in shared infrastructure of web-based databases, research tools, archives, and collaboratories.

Bringing our understanding of learning processes together with advances in information technology creates new opportunities for education, both formal and informal. Such research should stimulate the design of new curricula that integrate technology and learning, contributing to an educational environment in which a high level of competence in information technology would be a natural consequence of all course work.

In the future, additional opportunities will be identified and discussed in NSF’s strategic and performance plans.

(3)  Emphasize several "transcendent" areas of emerging opportunity that enable research and education across a broad frontier of science and engineering.

As NSF and other agencies invest broadly in science and engineering opportunities, a few breakthroughs emerge that are revolutionary and encompassing. As these breakthroughs coalesce and merge with other ideas and technologies, they promise to reshape science and engineering, and change the way we think and live.

NSF works with other government agencies and with National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to identify and support these areas. This interagency process allows agencies to create a comprehensive program of complementary activities. The goal is to accelerate scientific and technical progress by identifying gaps in knowledge and barriers that prevent progress, and developing methods of addressing gaps and overcoming barriers. This activity means more than a redistribution of dollars - - more money alone does not necessarily accelerate progress or solve problems. Recruiting new talent, inviting scientists in allied fields to "look across the fence," training new investigators to work in new areas will produce better results.

NSF has selected the following areas for increased attention during the next several years.

Information Technology

Sustained U.S. leadership in information technology requires an aggressive Federal program to create new knowledge in a variety of areas. The U.S. economy’s robust growth is in part due to new ideas that become the basis for new products. For example, NSF contributed greatly to the development of today’s Internet. NSF’s investments – in People, Ideas and Tools– have benefited greatly from the application of information technology. So, NSF itself has a strongly vested interest in furthering research in information technology as rapidly and as effectively as possible.

NSF faces two major challenges and opportunities with respect to information technology. One is to support the people, ideas and tools that will create and advance knowledge in all areas of information science and engineering. This includes the creation of wholly new computation approaches to problems arising from the science and engineering disciplines, and the development of new learning technologies for use in education.

The second challenge is to support upgrading 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. Finally, the United States must address a range of access and workforce issues. The digital divide won’t disappear on its own. Overcoming inequity will require innovative educational technologies, such as highly interactive computer science courseware that is multicultural and multimedia.

NSF is the lead agency for a multi-agency, five-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 multi-year Information Technology Initiative 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 systems’ interaction with both individuals and cooperating groups of users.

  • Development of a significantly advanced high-end computing capability needed to solve myriad important science and engineering problems.

  • Increased 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.

Biocomplexity in the Environment

The environment is a subject of profound national and international importance, as well as scientific interest; hence, it is a strategic priority for the Foundation. In fact, the significance of environmental study was recently affirmed by the National Science Board in its report Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century:  The Role of the National Science Foundation (NSB 00-22).

The goals of NSF’s increasing investment in this area are to enhance environmental research in all relevant disciplines including interdisciplinary and long-term research, create educational opportunities that enhance scientific and technological capacity, enable an increased portfolio of scientific assessments, and support enhanced physical, technological and information infrastructure.

As an initial step, NSF has begun intensive study of biocomplexity in the environment. Biocomplexity refers to phenomena that result from dynamic interactions among biological, physical and social components of the Earth’s diverse systems.

Studying biocomplexity will provide a more complete understanding of natural processes, the effects of human actions on the natural world, and ways to use new technology effectively. A strategic multi-year investment by NSF will lead to the following outcomes:

  • More comprehensive understanding of environmental systems including the processes that mediate energy and material flows among systems over space and time; the relationship among genetic information, biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems; and the social and economic factors affecting the environment.

  • Development of new theories, mathematical methods, and computational strategies for modeling complex systems. This may improve the capability to forecast environmental changes and their impacts including long-term climatic change, earthquakes, floods, land-use changes, the ecology of infectious diseases, and introductions of non-native species.

  • Development of advanced technologies and approaches including functional genomics and other genetic and nano/molecular level capabilities.

  • Utilization of biocomplexity-inspired design strategies for discovery of new materials, measurement technologies and sensors, process engineering and other technologies, especially those that are environmentally beneficial.

  • Improved platforms for research such as networked observational systems, physical and digital natural history collections, and digital libraries.

Twenty-First Century Workforce

U.S. leadership in the concept-based, innovation-led global economy of the next century will depend on success in building and sustaining a competent and diverse scientific, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) workforce, drawing on all elements of the Nation’s rich human resources.

The SMET education continuum reaches from pre-kindergarten through elementary and secondary to undergraduate, graduate, and continuing professional education. The level, quality, and accessibility of SMET education depend upon 1) understanding the nature of learning, 2) strategically enabling an improved, science- and technology-based educational enterprise, and 3) building an infrastructure to broaden participation of all members of our society.

Across the Foundation, organizations will provide disciplinary and interdisciplinary support for educational linkages to the research community and new tools and models for K-12, undergraduate, and graduate education. These activities recognize the importance of the SMET content of educational programs for K-12 students and for the instructional workforce.

A National Digital Library for SMET Education will provide ready access to the highest quality educational materials, pedagogy, and research on learning, and enhance the quality of graduate, undergraduate, K-12, and public science education.

The outcomes of NSF’s sustained investment in research, education, training and human resource programs will be:

  • Enhanced knowledge about how humans learn;

  • Enhanced practices throughout the SMET educational enterprise, especially at the K-12 level, leading to improved teacher performance and student achievement; and

  • A more inclusive and globally engaged SMET enterprise that fully reflects the strength of America’s diverse population.

Nanoscale Science and Engineering

Nanoscale science and engineering is likely to yield several prominent technologies for the 21st century. Control of matter at the nanoscale underpins innovation in critical areas from information and medicine to manufacturing and the environment.

One nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is a magical point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Biological cells, like red blood cells, have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers. Micro-electrical mechanical systems are now approaching this same scale. This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.

Nanoscale science and engineering is the NSF contribution to the interagency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). A multi-year investment by NSF will lead to the following outcomes:

  • Discovery of novel phenomena, processes and tools.

  • Enhanced methods for the synthesis and processing of engineered, nanometer-scale building blocks for materials and system components,

  • New device concepts and system architecture appropriate to the unique features and demands of nanoscale engineering, and

  • Development of a new generation of skilled workers who have the multidisciplinary perspective necessary for rapid progress in nanotechnology.

(4)  Broaden participation and enhance diversity in NSF programs.

NSF emphasizes improving achievement for all students in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology and building capacity for research in these areas across the Nation. These activities enable NSF to set the stage for a concerted effort to broaden and diversify the workforce.

At present, several groups, including underrepresented minorities, women, certain types of institutions, and some geographic areas, perceive barriers to their full participation in the science and engineering enterprise. NSF is committed to leading the way to an enterprise that fully captures the strength of America’s diversity.

All NSF’s research and education programs must be directly involved in broadening participation. Hence, NSF will promote diversity by embedding it throughout the investment portfolio. A key element of NSF’s strategy includes the use of information technology and connectivity to engage under-served individuals, groups, and communities in science and engineering.

For groups and individuals at the collegiate, graduate, and professional levels, NSF aims at new strategies for improving diversity, while maintaining the current suite of focused programs that achieves results.

NSF will build on the cumulative experience of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and programs involving, for example, undergraduate and minority serving institutions, to strengthen and broaden the education and research capability and competitiveness of states, regions, institutions, and groups.