National Science Foundation

views updated Jun 08 2018


The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is a federal independent (non-cabinet) agency, established by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950, as amended, and related legislation, passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the president. Its funds come through appropriations in the federal budget each year. Its budget in fiscal year 2003 was approximately $5.5 billion. These funds go mostly in the form of grants to the nation's colleges and universities for research and educational projects in all the sciences and engineering.

In the fall of 1975, NSF began a program to support research projects and related activities on ethics and science, technology, and society. The program continues in the early twenty-first century and, with continuing attentiveness, it could continue for many more years. This entry highlights some of the adventures in its survival and identifies past and continuing challenges.

Initial Stages (1972–1976)

In the early 1970s, NSF program officers began discussing ideas for research activities that would examine ethical issues associated with new developments in science and technology. Biologists in particular recognized that people would raise questions about the social implications of their research and findings, and that such questions were thus worthy of study. Because NSF supported research and educational projects, support for these activities seemed appropriate. Not all NSF staff agreed that these issues merited NSF consideration or support; some were concerned that such questions did not lend themselves to scientific study; others were concerned that such a program might be too inclined to accentuate the negative. Correspondingly, there was also disagreement about how best to organize such an effort. Should it be a separate program with its own funding authority, or should decisions about ethics projects be left to the other research programs?

In association with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the NSF organized an advisory committee to consider what should be done. After several years of deliberation and attempts to have existing programs solicit and review proposals, the advisory committee recommended that NSF establish a separate program. Using processes for review similar to other NSF programs, the new program could cooperate with the NEH in considering proposals; some could be funded individually by each agency, and some could be funded jointly.

Middle Years (1977–1985)

What was originally called the Ethical and Human Values in Science and Technology (EHVIST) program made its first awards as a program in fiscal year 1976. NSF and NEH cooperated in support of projects through 1980; in that year, NEH decided to focus on questions about science, engineering, and technology of interest in basic humanities research, and the cooperation ended. While planning for EHVIST was underway, the effort was housed in the office of the NSF director. When the grants program began, the foundation decided to place the new program in the Directorate for Science and Engineering Education, which was hospitable to the idea. An intellectual rationale was that the new program would support research to examine ethical issues in all of the sciences and engineering; thus, it would not be appropriate to house the program in one of the research directorates. At this time, NSF had three research directorates: Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Engineering; Astronomical, Atmospheric, Earth, and Ocean Sciences; and Biological, Behavioral, and Social Sciences.

Shortly after, Congress authorized and appropriated funds for another program at NSF, one to provide scientific assistance to citizens' groups (Hollander 1984). The foundation decided to house both programs in an organizational unit with the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) program (by the early 1990s known as the Informal Science Education Program) and programs involving state and local governments. As other bureaucratic reorganizations developed, the head of this unit made the case that these programs, minus PUS, which was clearly educational, would be better placed in the Directorate for Scientific, Technological and International Affairs (STIA). STIA housed international programs and statistical studies of science and technology and could also include these other special activities. Thus, EHVIST moved to STIA in 1980. It was a fortuitous move, because the administration of President Ronald Reagan zeroed out the budget for the Education Directorate for fiscal year 1981. Had ethics funds still been part of that directorate's budget, the program might have easily vanished and been very difficult to resurrect. As it was, given general budget difficulties, the administrators of the NSF might have decided not to continue the program. Although the administrators did indeed cut the program budget, they listened to numerous voices in the scientific and other scholarly communities and kept the program alive.

At the time the program began, social and intellectual movements in the United States and abroad were focusing on issues of science, technology, and society (Dickson 1984). These movements recognized the need to examine ethical and value dimensions in that interaction. The concerns are international, not just national, although they take distinctive shapes in different parts of the world. Interest among scientists and engineers in these kinds of problems might be said to have developed prominence with the nuclear bomb and the founding of the Pugwash conferences on science and world affairs in 1957. World War II also posed challenges to biologists and physicians, with the atrocities of Nazi scientists in the name of eugenics, and biologists and physicians began to recognize that new developments in genetics would pose increasing ethical questions. Environmental hazards and climate change issues, problems of scientific misconduct, new monitoring technologies—the list of concerns continues to grow. In addition science and technology create ethical opportunities that are worthy of study. They range from uses of forensics in criminal justice to uses of computer technology for disabled populations. The distinctive and increasingly powerful roles of engineering, science, and technology in modern life assure that subject matter for careful research will not be lacking anytime soon.

In these middle years, the program shortened its name slightly, from Ethical and Human Value Implications of Science and Technology (EHVIST) To Ethics and Values in Science and Technology (EVIST). It distributed more than 150 awards, ranging from a high of twenty-three in the year the program began, to a low of eight in 1983, as a result of the diminution of the program budget that year. (In the early twenty-first century, the program averages twenty-five to thirty awards per year; average award amount is $80,000 for an award of twelve to eighteen months.)

The awards covered a wide range of topics. One major area was environmental and hazards issues, which when coupled with agricultural ethics issues, formed a grouping representing about 20 percent of the total awards. These kinds of projects focus on the ethical and value dimensions of interactions of science, technology, and society, and these interactions continue to be a prominent area for program support. For awards made after 1985, this same grouping represents about 25 percent of the total. Areas that began to emerge—such as the use of animals in research, university–industry–government relations, and publication ethics—primarily examined issues in the conduct or practice of science and engineering. Awards in 1978–1979 to investigators Judith P. Swazey, Karen Seashore Lewis, and Melissa S. Anderson, for example, resulted in some of the first and most complete reports on perceptions of misconduct among science and engineering faculty and graduate students. This trend toward awards for such studies has continued and grown as societal concerns about professional accountability have increased. In the early twenty-first century, the program invests considerable resources in both research and educational projects in areas of research ethics. For example, support to the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics in 1999 through 2003 provided training in research ethics for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in science and engineering. While the number of awards from 1989 to 2001 approximately doubled from the earlier period of 1976 to 1987, the number of awards in research and publication ethics increased eight times.

Principal investigators on ethics projects come from humanities, social science, and natural science and engineering fields. Over the period 1976 to 1987, the split among the three groups was almost even. By the early twenty-first century, a greater proportion of awards was going to social and behavioral scientists. During the period 1976 to 1987 the ratio of male to female investigators was about three to one and improving. This trend continues to be an area of program strength: From 1990 through 2002 the ratio of principal investigators was two males to one female. Support for minority and handicapped investigators in the earlier period was low. It is increasing, especially for Hispanic investigators, and there have been a few notable efforts; for instance, the award to a deaf historian of science, Harry G. Lang, resulted in the 2000 book, A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection against Ma Bell, which won a number of awards. The program made a grant in 1998 to the American Philosophical Association to sponsor panels at its meetings, as well as to award small grants for investigators to research the implications for diversity of developments in science, engineering, and technology. A book containing some of the presentations and research results has been published (Figueroa and Harding 2003). Despite such examples, much room for improvement in this area remains. Finally, as with other NSF programs, investigators at universities granting postbachelor degrees received and continue to receive the majority of grants.

Years of Trial (1986–1992)

The EVIST program's support for new projects reached a low in 1983 because of the Reagan administration budget cutbacks. It was struggling back up when another blow hit. This time, the attack came from within. NSF Director Eric Bloch was looking for funds to support more large-scale projects such as engineering research centers, and he concluded that the million or so dollars per year that went to ethics should be shifted to help in this effort. Thus the NSF budget request to Congress for fiscal year 1986 contained no funds for ethics.

When news of this plan filtered out, the program's supporters, particularly grantees, members of the panel that reviewed proposals to EVIST, and officers and staff at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other professional societies, protested to members of the Congressional committees that oversaw the NSF budget. They were able to make a persuasive enough case that the legislators insisted that NSF maintain support for ethics projects. The foundation heeded this advice, while deciding to manage its support for the activity in a new way—as a foundation-wide responsibility (Hollander 1987).

The Directorate for Biological, Behavioral, and Social Sciences agreed to assume primary responsibility for the program, but funds to support projects would have to come from all the foundation's directorates. Fortunately, directorates at NSF had been multiplying during this time. New ones included the Directorate for Engineering and the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. They agreed to participate, effectively increasing the program's budget by 33 percent. The number of new projects being supported rose to twenty-one by 1987.

The rationale for supporting ethics across the foundation may have had both intellectual and control components. On the former, it was supposed to assure the involvement of the scientists and engineers who managed various NSF research programs. On the latter, it could provide oversight of the treatment of science and engineering in the senses of accuracy and circumspection, as these fields perceived those attributes. These goals were, to some extent, met. Any potential for good, however, was more than outweighed by the management problems. For instance, what could be done when more good proposals came in, say, in biology rather than fields in other directorates? Fortunately, the directorate housing the program provided a greater amount of funds so that adjustments could be made. And what could be done when a program officer simply did not want to be bothered, or did not think that such activities should be supported through NSF? Luckily, sympathetic division directors with a few loose dollars could often be found. But the management headaches—for the program manager—were numerous.

Other organizational changes affected the program at this time. It joined forces with NSF's History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) program; both program directors argued that the two programs, with similar interests in science, technology, and society relations, should be housed in one unit. Management agreed. Separately, the social and behavioral sciences argued for a directorate of their own. This happened in 1992, and the two programs—with HPS now called Science and Technology Studies (STS) and EVIST now called Ethics and Values Studies (EVS)—moved to the new Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE).

The increasing complexity of managing a program across all the directorates at NSF became ever more apparent and, finally, upper management agreed that funds for the effort should once again be consolidated. All the directorate heads signed a memorandum to that effect, and the NSF budget to Congress for fiscal year 1994 included funding for an independent ethics program. One unusual component remains: Because the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) has its own line in the foundation's appropriation, its support for ethics education projects remains separate. It has continued its support, and EHR, Engineering, and SBE are taking the lead in developing a foundation-wide program for 2005, on ethics education for scientists and engineers, especially science and engineering students.

In the midst and irrespective of this bureaucratic turmoil, the academic interest in the ethical and value dimensions of science and technology continued to develop. Growing numbers of journals, programs at colleges and universities, and professional associations indicated increased institutionalization of the field. New ethics centers and courses in issues of ethics for the professions continued to appear at the nation's colleges and universities. A 1990 article by Nicholas H. Steneck and Rachelle D. Hollander reviewed the EVS program. One major research areas highlighted in the report was engineering ethics. From 1999 to 2003 several of the nation's engineering colleges established chairs in engineering ethics. The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) was founded in 1991. Besides its individual members, who represent many different disciplines and fields, APPE has more than 100 institutional members. In 1995 the journal Science and Engineering Ethics was established, with coeditors in the United States and the United Kingdom. An even more recent example, Ethics and Information Technology was founded in 1999; its editors are from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. The affiliation of the two NSF programs—EVS and STS—reflects broader synergies as departments of science and technology studies are becoming more numerous at colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere.

Years of Consolidation and Challenge (1993–)

Basically, the characterization of research topics and methods in the Hollander and Steneck article from 1990 remain appropriate for the program. Many projects fall into more than one category. Research methods remain diverse. Approaches involve individual investigations as well as collaborative research and workshops. Research includes analytical or conceptual philosophical analysis, case study or issue-oriented research, empirical research in the social and behavioral sciences, and science and technology assessment. A research approach of increasing importance is that of science and technology studies. The program supports numerous educational activities and has helped other NSF programs include ethics education in their activities.

Within NSF, EVS began a successful effort to incorporate ethics activities into the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Sites projects in the early 1990s. All the research directorates support these summer programs, which bring small groups of undergraduate science and engineering majors to campuses, where they participate with faculty in research projects. The sites projects encourage promising undergraduates to continue their science or engineering education, expose them to interesting research, and promote diversity among undergraduates and in the science and engineering professions. The ethics component began with a successful pilot effort in chemistry in 1992. By the next year, the other NSF directorates had signed on and the next REU program announcement indicated that projects were eligible for small amounts of funding specifically for ethics education as part of their summer programs. Each year since the beginning of the new century, more than twenty-five projects receive ethics funds. The field with the most REU projects with an ethics component funded through EVS is biology, but all of the directorates participate, and the Engineering directorate funds many of these projects on its own.

In 1997 NSF began a foundation-wide program called Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT). This program supports interdisciplinary graduate education projects around a research theme. These large awards, for amounts in excess of $2.5 million, extend over five years. EVS succeeded in incorporating ethics activities into IGERT. The program requires that these projects include ethics in their curricula; the announcement for IGERT states that "The graduate experience should ... equip students to understand and integrate scientific, technical, business, social, and ethical issues to confront the challenging problems of the future" and that IGERT projects must include specifically "integrated instruction in ethics and the responsible conduct of research" (NSF, "IGERT Program" Internet site). EVS is undertaking a small-scale initial evaluation of these efforts.

In 1995 NSF management asked EVS to merge with a small NSF program called Research on Science and Technology (RST). RST supports projects that examine the role of public investments in science, engineering, and technology. After consultation with its panel and the broader communities of EVS and RST investigators, the program agreed. With neither group wishing to lose its name, both were placed under the more general rubric, Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science, and Technology (SDEST). In the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the SDEST/EVS-RST budget stabilized at about $2.5 million per year, augmented by another $500,000 in assistance from other programs for ethics projects. Given NSF emphasis on foundation-wide priorities, and general constraints in the federal discretionary budget, the program is unlikely to see much direct budget expansion. One way to overcome this problem is to infuse ethics research and educational activities into other interdisciplinary research areas now getting NSF attention, such as information technology research and nanotechnology. While this is not easy, it is possible, and seems to be increasing.

Discussion was underway in Fall 2004 among the Science and Technology Studies program and the SDEST/EVS-RST program to consolidate their activities under the rubric Science and Society. The newly inclusive program would have four components:

  • Ethics and Values in Science, Engineering, and Technology
  • History and Philosophy of Science, Engineering, and Technology
  • Social Studies of Science, Engineering, and Technology
  • Studies of Policy, Science, Engineering, and Technology

The change in names is intended to assist applicants in determining where to apply. It may encourage further development of connections with the sciences and engineering programs, which are increasingly aware of the need to address social shaping of science and technology, and its implications. This increased recognition can be seen more broadly in federal funding for research on ethics and the human genome and the call for similar funding for ethics and nanotechnology.

EVS research faces problems similar to those facing other interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary areas in which NSF wants to encourage research: fostering interdisciplinary communication, defining researchable issues, and finding outlets where results will be recognized as valuable. Identifying the need for recognition captures an aspect of the difficulty. EVS research has distinctive frameworks, and investigators cite the prior literature. It is difficult, however, both to train new EVS researchers and to make the results visible for new and established researchers in the disciplines and fields that EVS researchers study.

Progress is being made. The wide variety of educational activities is making EVS results more accessible in the research communities to which they are relevant. All fields of science and engineering recognize the relevance of issues of ethics as they related to the practice of science and engineering. Most recognize the relevance of issues of ethics in connection with interactions among science, engineering, and society. This is a significant change from the situation in the early 1970s, when the thought of an ethics program at NSF was barely a gleam in one or two people's eyes.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics;Nanoethics;National Academies;Science Policy.


Dickson, David. (1984). "Science and Society: Public Participation vs. Democratic Control." In his The New Politics of Science. New York: Pantheon. Provides an interesting view of the beginnings of the EHVIST program.

Figueroa, Robert, and Sandra Harding. (2003). Science and Other Cultures: Diversity in the Philosophy of Science and Technology. New York: Routledge. Collection of essays about the influences of science and technology on and from cultures, persons, and traditions.

Hollander, Rachelle D. (1984). "Institutionalizing Public Service Science." In Citizen Participation in Science Policy, ed. James C. Petersen. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Includes a history of the rise and fall of the NSF program to provide scientific assistance to citizens' groups.

Hollander, Rachelle D. (1987). "In a New Mode: Ethics and Values Studies at the NSF." Science, Technology, and Human Values 12(2): 59–61. Describes the decision to manage EVS as a "distributed" program.

Hollander, Rachelle D., and Nicholas H. Steneck. (1990). "Science- and Engineering-Related Ethics and Values Studies: Characteristics of an Emerging Field of Research." Science, Technology, and Human Values 15(1): 84–104. Comprehensive review of the awards made in the programs first decade.


National Science Foundation (NSF). "Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Program: Program Solicitation." Available from Information on program goals and application procedures.

National Science Foundation (NSF). "Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU): Program Announcement." Available from Information about program goals and application procedures.

National Science Foundation (NSF). "Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science, and Technology (SDEST) Program." Available from Includes examples of program awards via link to award abstracts.

National Science Foundation

views updated May 18 2018


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

National Science Foundation

views updated May 14 2018


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 .

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