Some fun and interesting summer reading: A brief history of the National Science Foundation

I blog regularly about annual appropriations for the National Science Foundation (NSF), and about NSF policies that might affect you. But, what is the NSF? When did it come to be? Why? What makes it different from all other federal agencies?

Read on. I will try not to get too weedy.

The NSF will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2020, and planning for celebratory activities is underway. It is important to recognize this anniversary, as the relationship between science and government is under some strain right now and the symbiotic relationship is old and to be cherished. In the best of times, legislators and other policymakers turn to and rely on scientists for vision, evidence and guidance on scientific matters, and, in turn, support scientists’ work.

NSF headquarters, Alexandria VA

The NSF is the major source of federal funding for mathematics research done at colleges and universities in the US. Overall, the NSF funds about 24% of all federally funded basic research done at colleges and universities (it is over 64% in the mathematical sciences). The Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Energy are other significant funders of mathematics research. Money (“appropriations”) for these agencies is allocated each year, and making the case for our country’s continued and strengthened investment in basic research is part of my job.

The NSF is only one of several Executive Branch agencies that funds scientific research. NSF is unique as it is the only agency of the federal government

  • devoted to supporting basic research and education across all scientific and engineering fields, without a mission guiding its choices of projects to fund, and
  • without any “in-house” labs.

In other words, the NSF program officers determine which proposals to fund based on potential, and there are no scientists employed doing research at the NSF.

Though the NSF is relatively young, the importance of investment in science has been recognized as long as our country has existed. On January 8, 1790, President Washington, in his first Annual Message to Congress (now the State of the Union address), asserted

“… there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness.”

He spoke about several science-related topics in that address (e.g., establishing a standard for weights). At his request, Congress passed an act in 1790 that led to our current Patent and Trademark Office. This can be considered as the first congressional action on science policy.

Prior to the Civil War, public health, agriculture, and geography were of great concern. As just one example, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition was commissioned by President Jefferson. In 1862, President Lincoln’s Morrill Act established the land-grant university system focusing on agricultural research. Military concerns rose in importance during the Civil War. Concerns about food safety, public health, and environmental conservation increased in the early 20th century.

In 1884, the Senate took up the question of how the federal government might interact with science (should they fund it, get advice from scientists, etc.). The “Allison Commission” (named for Senator William Boyd Allison of Iowa who led this examination) considered establishing a federal Department of Science (and a national university, which had also been suggested by Washington in that very first State of the Union address), but this agency did not come to be. This said, several science agencies were established between the Civil War and World War I. For example, the Weather Bureau (now called the National Weather Service) was signed into law by President Grant in 1870 and in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act, establishing what we now call the Food and Drug Administration.

During the 1940s, the Senate continued to discuss the role of the federal government in science and vice versa. During this period, President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned a report by his science advisor Vannevar Bush. This now famous reportScience, the Endless Frontiergave a vision for how federal government and science and technology might interact and led directly to the NSF’s establishment. The report came out in 1945 and, after five more years of congressional visioning and compromise, the NSF was finally established in a law signed by President Truman on May 10, 1950. As an incidental note, President Truman gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1948 that discusses a proposed NSF, and he discussed the agency in State of the Union addresses; in contrast, imagine our current President giving speeches to large groups of scientists.

Ok, that was a very quick version of the complex and seriously interesting history of how the federal government supports science (e.g., the Morrill Act) and even quicker on how science supports the government (e.g., weather information used for military purposes). You can read more at the NSF’s great history page.

Fast forward.

Today, the NSF

  • has an annual budget of $8.1 billion (FY 2019);
  • distributes 93% of this money to researchers across the country;
  • supports “disciplinary” research through seven directorates;
  • supports further research through interdisciplinary programs, including the “Big Ideas”.

The NSF funds research in all 50 states, at about 2,000 academic and other private and public institutions across the US, supporting the research of 386,000 individuals. In 2018, the NSF received over 48,000 research proposals; the overall success rate was about 25% that year. It funds everything from oceanographic research vessels to the world’s largest and highest power magnet lab to the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation.

Another cool thing the agency does is to collect reams of data and publish the Science & Engineering Indicators. These reports give interesting statistics on education, research and development, the global marketplace, and public attitudes toward science. “The State of US Science and Engineering,” summarizing indicators, will be released on January 15, 2020. In the meantime, you can look at thematic reports (on a particular topic), examine state comparisons, and lots more. If you are into this sort of thing, you can spend a lot of time at this website; it is fascinating.

Of the roughly 2,100 employees, about 200 are rotators (there temporarily, typically on leave from an academic institution). The Director of the NSF, currently Dr. France Córdova, is appointed by the President and confirmed by the US Senate. March 18, 2020 will be Dr. Córdova’s last day of her six-year term; I am eagerly waiting to see who the next Director will be (super important for our community). The President also appoints the Deputy Director and the 24 members of the National Science Board (NSB); Senate confirmation is required for the Director and Deputy Director. The NSB meets regularly, and I attend open portions of their meetings.

Most mathematicians who work at the NSF work in the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS). Some work in Education and Human Resources (EHR). You can spend a year or two at the NSF as a “rotator”.

Whether you are personally supported by an NSF grant, or ever have been, it is important for all of us in the mathematics community to recognize the non-partisan role this agency plays in advancing science in this country. Happy 70th NSF!






About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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