Skip to main content
Select Source:

National Science Foundation


The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent agency of the federal government, created by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950, as amended (Pub. L. 81-597). The agency is responsible for promoting the progress of science and advancing the nation's health, prosperity, welfare, and security by supporting research and education in all fields of science and engineering. It is also responsible for monitoring the status of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise and for collecting and analyzing data that support the formulation of national policy.

By statute, NSF consists of the National Science Board and the director. These twenty-five eminent scientists, engineers, and administrators are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The board is responsible for establishing NSF's policies and is mandated to advise the president and the U.S. Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering research and education. The director, who is a member of the board ex officio, is responsible for directing the programs of the agency.

Unique among federal agencies, NSF is devoted to strengthening the overall health of the science and engineering enterprise. Other federal agencies support research and education related to their specific missions, such as energy or defense. NSF's mission is to support scientific inquiry in all fields, encourage emerging areas of research, and help ensure an adequate supply of scientists, engineers, and science and engineering educators. In any year, more than 200,000 people receive support through NSF programs and activities nationwide, and millions more benefit from NSF investments in education and other areas.

With a budget of $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2002, NSF accounts for 4 percent of the total annual federal expenditure on research and development and 23 percent of federal support for all basic research performed at academic institutions. NSF provides more than a third of all federal funding in the physical sciences and about 50 percent in environmental sciences and engineering. In some fields, NSF provides the preponderant support: approximately two-thirds in mathematics and computer science research and nearly 100 percent in anthropology.

Scope of Programs

NSF investments act as a catalyst to expand new knowledge. NSF supports cutting-edge research and education in the core disciplines, ranging from mathematics, the physical and life sciences, and engineering to the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. Its investments support three goals: to provide the nation with the necessary

  • peopledeveloping a diverse, internationally competitive, and globally engaged work force of scientists, engineers, and well-prepared citizens;
  • ideasenabling discovery across the frontiers of science and engineering, connected to learning, innovation, and service to society; and
  • toolsproviding broadly accessible research and education tools.

NSF is organized into directorates and offices, which support research and education in the various fields and administer grants to lead researchers and institutions. The directorates include biological sciences; computer and information science and engineering; education and human resources; engineering; geosciences; mathematical and physical sciences; and social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

In addition to support for core fields, NSF funds interdisciplinary research teams and centers, such as its science and technology centers, which encourage the integration of research and education. NSF also provides grants to small businesses through its Small Business Innovation Research Program to encourage them to focus on important science, engineering, and education problems and opportunities with potential for commercial and public benefit.

Partnerships among academic institutions, industry, and government entities are integral to the way NSF implements its mission. Partnerships foster the use of new knowledge to stimulate innovation that will create new wealth and benefit the public. Some major programs are the Engineering Research Centers, Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Since its beginning, NSF has recognized that the conduct of science is intrinsically global, and the agency has encouraged international cooperation. NSF supports cooperative international activities, such as research collaborations, data sharing, and international partnerships in large-scale research facilities.

Although NSF itself operates no laboratories or research facilities, it provides funding for large, multiuser, state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory, the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, the International Gemini Observatory, and the Terascale Computing Facility. NSF also is the designated federal manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Within NSF's broad portfolio, a few opportunities emerge that are so revolutionary that they promise to reshape science and engineering and ultimately change the way people think and live. Typically, these opportunities cross disciplinary boundaries, encompass the full range of NSF programs, and require coordination with other federal agencies. NSF investments that evolved into high-performance computing exemplify this type of emerging opportunity.

Priority areas that NSF has selected for increased attention during the early years of the twenty-first century are:

  • information technology research: support for the people who will create new knowledge, and an upgrade of computational infrastructures;
  • nanoscale science and engineering: research and technology at the confluence of the smallest human-made devices and the largest molecules of living systems;
  • biocomplexity in the environment: the dynamic web of often-surprising interrelationships that arise when components of the global ecosystem interact; and
  • learning for the twenty-first century: building and sustaining a competent, diverse work force and integrating research and education to produce that work force.

Involvement with the External Scientific Community

Researchers and educators in all fifty states and the U.S. territories receive NSF support through competitively awarded grants and cooperative agreements. More than 2,000 colleges, universities, academic consortia, pre-kindergarten through grade twelve (pre-K12) school systems, small businesses, nonprofit institutions, informal science organizations, and other research institutions receive such support.

Funding decisions are made through the process of competitive merit review, in which expert evaluation by external peer reviewers contributes to recommendations by NSF program managers. Each year, NSF receives approximately 30,000 proposals, solicits reviews from approximately 50,000 scientists and engineers, and funds approximately 10,000 proposals. Reviewers evaluate proposals according to two criteria:

  • the intellectual merit of the proposed activity: the importance of the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields; the extent to which the proposed activity explores creative, original concepts; and
  • the broader impacts of the proposed activity: how well the activity promotes teaching, training, and learning; how well it broadens the participation of underrepresented groups; and the extent of benefits to U.S. society.

In addition to the use of external reviewers, NSF recruits outstanding scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to serve on advisory committees or to join the NSF staff for short periods through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act and the Visiting Scientists, Engineers and Educators programs. Through these mechanisms, NSF involves thousands of working scientists in evaluating emerging opportunities for new knowledge and ensures its access to cutting-edge ideas in all fields of science and engineering.

Support for Education

NSF's support for research is highly integrated with its investment in science and engineering education. Thousands of students at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels contribute to research activities at their education institutions and benefit from involvement with them. In addition, each year NSF provides graduate research fellowships to approximately 900 outstanding graduate students in science, mathematics, and engineering. To provide teaching experience for graduate students and strengthen pre-K12 education, NSF provides graduate teaching fellowships to graduate students who assist teachers with the content of their mathematics and science classes. NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeships help prepare doctoral candidates for a broad spectrum of career opportunities in education. Through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, NSF provides funding to educational institutions to increase the research and development competitiveness of twenty-one states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Although the integration of research and education is most obvious at the graduate and postdoctoral levels, NSF also funds pre-K12 science and mathematics education in state, urban, and rural school systems and invests in comprehensive reform of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. NSF supports the development of high-quality instructional materials, teacher enhancement, and the use of learning technologies in the classroom. Its funding encourages educational systems to prepare all studentsnot just STEM majorsfor the demands of a highly technological society.

NSF's systemic initiatives in education have catalyzed change in the teaching of mathematics and science by cultivating partnerships between local school systems and other organizations involved in education. Each partnership addresses curriculum, professional development, assessment, policies, resources, stakeholder support, evaluation, and improved student performance as the ultimate goal of any reform effort. As of 2001 NSF had encouraged experiments in comprehensive reform in twenty-six states, fifty-eight urban school districts, and twenty-eight rural initiatives in regions usually composed of more than one state. In the 1999/2000 school year, NSF systemic initiatives affected 227,000 teachers in 11,900 schools with approximately 4.6 million students.

In fiscal year 2002 NSF began implementing the Math and Science Partnerships program, which provides funds for states and local school districts to join with institutions of higher education in strengthening mathematics and science education. The goals are to improve mathematics and science standards, provide teachers with mathematics and science training, and create innovative ways to reach underserved schools and students.

See also: Science Education; Science Learning.


National Science Board. 2000. National Science Board: A History in Highlights, 19502000. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation. 2000. America's Investment in the Future. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation. 2000. Guide to Programs FY 2001. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation. 2000. NSF GPRA Strategic Plan, FY 20012006. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation. 2000. Resource Guide 2000: National Science Foundation Celebrating 50 Years. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation Act of 1950. Public Law 81-597. U.S. Code. Vol. 42, secs. 1861 et seq.

U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. 1945. Science, The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development.

internet resource

National Science Foundation. 2002. <>.

Marta Cehelsky

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"National Science Foundation." Encyclopedia of Education. . 22 Aug. 2017 <>.

"National Science Foundation." Encyclopedia of Education. . (August 22, 2017).

"National Science Foundation." Encyclopedia of Education. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from

National Science Foundation


NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION. The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that subsidizes scientific research and education, was created in 1950 after several years of debate over the proper organization of national science policy. Vannevar Bush, the head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore both felt that an extensive federal commitment to scientific research would ensure postwar prosperity and military strength. But Bush wanted to keep control of the new agency in the hands of leading scientists, fearing that any incursion on the self-organization of researchers would jeopardize their results, while the populist Kilgore argued that the government should direct research toward pressing social and economic issues, retain ownership of patents, and redistribute resources away from the top northeastern schools.

Bush originally gained the upper hand with an influential 1945 report entitled Science—The Endless Frontier and worked out a compromise bill with Kilgore in the spring of 1946. But some prominent scientists protested that government support of science was socialistic, while others chafed at the elitist and militaristic focus of the proposed agency. Meanwhile, army and navy leaders wanted to gain control of military research for themselves. Congress managed to pass a research bill in 1947 despite such opposition, but President Harry S. Truman vetoed it, probably because he was suspicious of Bush's drive to give experts so much freedom from government oversight.

The National Science Foundation Act of 1950 applied a strict budget cap of $15 million and authorized an initial allocation of only $225,000. The organization's scope was also limited, as the expanded National Institutes of Health (NIH) and new agencies such as the Office of Naval Research, the Research and Development Board, and the Atomic Energy Commission had captured important areas of research while NSF supporters fought among themselves. Nor could the NSF support the social sciences, which Kilgore had hoped to include. The budget cap was lifted in 1953, but annual expenditures remained in the low tens of millions until the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 drew Americans' attention to the nation's scientific capacities. The NSF appropriation jumped to $134 million in 1959 and reached almost half a billion dollars by the end of the 1960s.

Despite its slow start, the NSF came to play a critical role in funding basic research in the nation's universities. In the mid-1990s, for example, the NSF provided nearly a quarter of the government's support for university research, though its research budget was only 3 percent of total federal research spending—far smaller than the shares of the Department of Defense, the NIH, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The agency's mission has also expanded since its inception. Congress changed its charter in 1968 to include applied research and the social sciences, and President Richard M. Nixon actively pushed the agency in this direction. Engineering was added in 1986, reflecting a new desire to spur industrial growth in the face of overseas competition. President Bill Clinton redoubled this industrial emphasis after 1993, but the NSF soon became embroiled in a broad debate over the role of the state, as a new class of Republican congressmen sought to reduce the size of the federal government.


England, J. Merton. A Patron for Pure Science: The National Science Foundation's Formative Years, 1945–1957. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1983.

Leslie, Stuart W. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Smith, Bruce L. R. American Science Policy since World War II. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990.

Wang, Jessica. "Liberals, the Progressive Left, and the Political Economy of Postwar American Science: The National Science Foundation Debate Revisited." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 26 (Fall 1995): 139–166.


See alsoOffice of Scientific Research and Development .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"National Science Foundation." Dictionary of American History. . 22 Aug. 2017 <>.

"National Science Foundation." Dictionary of American History. . (August 22, 2017).

"National Science Foundation." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from

National Science Foundation

National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent agency in the executive branch of the U.S. federal government concerned with promoting a national science policy by supporting basic research and education in science. The National Science Board is the policy-making body of the NSF. It consists of 25 members appointed by the president with the consent of Congress. Founded in 1950, the NSF does not conduct research of its own but makes support grants to qualified educational and nonprofit institutions and awards fellowships to individual scientists, teachers, and students. The foundation supports projects in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and engineering sciences, including the U.S. Antarctic Program, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, and programs in global geoscience. It supports the development of improved science curriculum materials and fosters the interchange of scientific ideas nationally and internationally. Among the more important permanent NSF-supported facilities are: National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, Colo.), National Radio Astronomy Observatory (Green Bank, W.Va.), Kitt Peak National Observatory (Tucson, Ariz.), National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (Arecibo, Puerto Rico; see Arecibo Observatory), and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (La Serena, Chile).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"National Science Foundation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 22 Aug. 2017 <>.

"National Science Foundation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (August 22, 2017).

"National Science Foundation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from