The outermost frontiers of knowledge

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency to further scientific progress, as Open Access Government reveals

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defence” according to the organisations website (2).

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an annual budget of $7.5 billion (FY 2017), NSF are the funding source for approximately 24% of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as computer science, mathematics and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

NSF fulfils their mission chiefly by issuing limited-term grants – currently consisting of about 12,000 new awards each year, with an average duration of three years – to fund specific research proposals that have been judged the most promising by an objective and rigorous merit-review system. Most of these awards go to individuals or small groups of investigators, while others provide funding for research centres, instruments and facilities that allow scientists, engineers and students to work at the outermost frontiers of knowledge.

NSF’s goals of discovery, learning, research infrastructure and stewardship all provide an integrated strategy that advances the frontiers of knowledge, cultivates a world-class, broadly inclusive science and engineering workforce and expands the scientific literacy of all citizens, as well as building the nation’s research capability through investments in advanced instrumentation and facilities. NSF also strongly supports excellence in science and engineering research and likes to say that they are “where discoveries begin.”

During the past few decades, NSF-funded researchers have won some 223 Nobel Prizes as well as other honours too numerous to list here. These pioneers have included the scientists or teams that have discovered many of the fundamental particles of matter, analysed the cosmic microwaves left over from the earliest epoch of the universe, developed carbon-14 dating of ancient artefacts, decoded the genetics of viruses, and created an entirely new state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate for example.

NSF also funds equipment required by scientists and engineers, but is often too expensive for any one group or researcher to afford. Examples of such major research equipment include Antarctic research sites, giant optical and radio telescopes, high-end computer facilities and ultra-high-speed connections, sensitive detectors of very subtle physical phenomena and gravitational wave observatories plus ships for ocean research.

Another crucial element in NSF’s mission is support for science and engineering education. The research NSF funds is thoroughly integrated with education, to make sure there will always be plenty of skilled people available to work in new and emerging scientific, engineering and technological fields, as well as sufficient capable teachers to educate the next generation.

No single factor is more important to the economic and intellectual progress of society, and to the enhanced well-being of its citizens, than the continuous acquisition of new knowledge NSF believes and as such, they are proud to be a key player in that process.

Research areas

NSF is divided into the seven directorates that support science and engineering research and education:

(1)   Biological sciences;

(2)   Computer and information science and engineering;

(3)   Engineering;

(4)   Geosciences;

(5)   Mathematical and physical sciences;

(6)   Social, behavioural and economic sciences and;

(7)   Education and human resources.

Every section named above is headed up by an assistant director and each is further subdivided into divisions, such as materials research, ocean sciences as well as behavioural and cognitive sciences. Within NSF’s Office of the Director, the Office of Integrative Activities also supports research and researchers and other sections of NSF are committed to activities such as award processing and monitoring, financial management, award processing and monitoring, legal affairs and outreach.

The main research areas of the NSF are summarised below:

Biological Sciences (BIO)

  • Biological Infrastructure (DBI);
  • Environmental Biology (DEB);
  • Emerging Frontiers (EF);
  • Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS);
  • Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB).

Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE)

  • Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure (OAC);
  • Computing and Communication Foundations (CCF);
  • Computer and Network Systems (CNS);
  • Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS);

 Education and Human Resources (EHR)

  • Graduate Education (DGE)
  • Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL)
  • Undergraduate Education (DUE)
  • Human Resource Development (HRD)

 Engineering (ENG)

  • Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET);
  • Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI);
  • Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems (ECCS);
  • Engineering Education and Centers (EEC);
  • Emerging Frontiers and Multidisciplinary Activities (EFMA);
  • Industrial Innovation and Partnerships (IIP).

Environmental Research and Education (ERE)

Geosciences (GEO)

  • Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS);
  • Earth Sciences (EAR);
  • Ocean Sciences (OCE);
  • Office of Polar Programs (OPP).

Integrative Activities (OIA)

International Science and Engineering (OISE)

Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS)

  • Astronomical Sciences (AST);
  • Chemistry (CHE);
  • Materials Research (DMR);
  • Mathematical Sciences (DMS);
  • Physics (PHY);
  • Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (OMA).

Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences (SBE)

  • Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences (BCS);
  • National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES);
  • Social and Economic Sciences (SES);
  • SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA).

Chemistry (CHE) focus

One of the above areas is explored here, as we take a closer look at the Chemistry (CHE) division, within Mathematical & Physical Sciences (MPS). This section of the NSF envisions:

  • Being a global leader in transforming chemical innovation and discovery, whilst also advancing chemistry education, literacy plus America’s competitive edge.
  • Encouraging chemists to lead multi-disciplinary efforts that expand humanity’s knowledge and address both short- and long-term societal problems;
  • To be a major voice in the communication of the value of chemistry to the public and;
  • Being comprised of outstanding staff, all of whom are dedicated to the vitality of the chemistry field.

In addition, the Division of Chemistry (CHE) strongly supports innovative research in chemical sciences, integrated with education, through strategic investment in developing a globally engaged U.S. chemistry workforce that reflects America’s diversity.

Reflecting NSF’s values, CHE believes in:

  • The importance of fundamental scientific research for society’s benefit;
  • Empowering future generations in science;
  • Maintaining the highest standards of both integrity and ethical behaviour;
  • Fairness, openness and clear communication as well as;
  • The diversity of America’s scientific workforce and broadening participation in all CHE activities, at every level.

Biological Sciences (BIO)

Another division of the NSF worth looking at is the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO), which sets out to enable discoveries for understanding life. BIO-supported research advances the frontiers of biological knowledge, increases understanding of complex systems, and provides a theoretical basis for original research in many other disciplines of science.

The Directorate supports research to advance understanding of the principles and mechanisms governing life. Their research extends across systems that encompass biological molecules, cells, tissues, organisms, organs, populations, communities, and ecosystems up to and including the global biosphere.

On NSF’s website, we learn more about the Directorate’s important work. “Comprehensive concepts that bridge and unify the diverse areas of biology include complexity, robustness, communication, resilience, adaptability and cooperation. Achieving a coherent understanding of the complex biological web of interactions that is life is a major challenge of the future.

“This challenge will require that knowledge about the structure and dynamics of individual biological units, networks, sub-systems and systems be compiled and connected from the molecular to the global level and across scales of time and space.  Integral to all activities across the directorate is a commitment to integrate research and education, broaden participation, and promote international partnerships” (1).

The Directorate of Biological Sciences is organised into a number of divisions, which you can learn more about at:, but they are listed in summary below:

  • The Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI);
  • The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB);
  • The Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS);
  • The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) and;
  • The Emerging Frontiers (EF) Division.

In recent news, we discover that NSF funds the future of materials science, as evidenced in news that eight new 2017 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centre (MRSEC) awards will drive cutting-edge science and engineering in the future. Totalling a staggering $145 million, these six-year grants aim to support innovative work in materials science and help train the next generation of materials researchers.

“These awards are representative of the incredibly broad, highly multidisciplinary research portfolio spanning all Division of Materials Research priority areas,” Linda Sapochak, director of the NSF Division of Materials Research (DMR) says. “These centres will forge new research frontiers through team-based development of novel materials that are relevant to future high-tech applications” she adds.

The centres address a national priority: fostering collaboration among universities, national laboratories, industry and international scientific organisations to address complex fundamental research challenges. Such challenges include extreme miniaturisation, atomically thin “paper” materials that self-fold into functional structures, and control over the assembly and reconfiguration of nano particles connected at the molecular scale.

We read that the MRSEC awards will have far-reaching impact on fields ranging from telecommunications and clean energy, to quantum information sciences. “Research outcomes from these awards could revolutionise computer memory and wearable medical devices,” Sean L. Jones, DMR’s deputy division director comments.

“The MRSEC centres provide leadership for the country concerning new materials and new materials phenomena addressing national needs, including sustainability and innovation,” Sapochak says. “We are especially excited about the international, industrial and national laboratories’ collaborations that will give junior researchers in the centres experiences valuable to their lives as scientists and engineers, and the incredibly diverse and highly skilled personnel participation.”

Of the eight awards, three are for new centres: The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign plus the University of Washington. The other five awards support centres that have stood out for successful, collaborative and ongoing research. You can read more about the 2017 MRSEC awards at:


One final point to highlight is that when it comes to the all-important subject of funding, it is certainly true to say that NSF funds research and education in most of science and engineering fields. It does this diligently through grants, and cooperative agreements to no less than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses and other research organisations all over America. NSF accounts for about one-fourth of federal support to academic institutions concerning basic research needs.

According to NSF’s website, NSF receives around 40,000 proposals each year for research, education and training projects, of which approximately 11,000 are funded. In addition, NSF also receives several thousand applications for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships.

In addition, it is well worth noting in closing that the agency operates no laboratories itself, but does fully support national research centres, user facilities, certain oceanographic vessels and Antarctic research stations. NSF also supports co-operative research between universities and industry, as well as US participation in international scientific and engineering efforts, plus educational activities at every academic level.


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