Rebecca Keiser, Head of the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science & Engineering sheds light on why basic research is integral to the progress of science
The touchscreen on your cell phone. The bar code scanner in a grocery store check-out line. Doppler radar for weather prediction and GPS – these are all part of everyday life. None would be possible without basic scientific research.
And, they would not be possible without the National Science Foundation (NSF), the only U.S. government agency charged with supporting fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. For more than 70 years, NSF has invested in pioneers. Our mission is to promote the progress of science; advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and secure the national defense. Each year, we make about 11,000 awards, chosen after a rigorous review process from more than 50,000 proposals. NSF funding provides resources to individual scientists and engineers, students, teachers, institutions and centers, in all 50 states and U.S. territories.
We funded the early innovators of the Internet and supported robotics and synthetic biology when they were nascent fields. Through our science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs, we’ve also supported the next generation of scientists and engineers, students who have gone on to make astounding discoveries, win Nobel Prizes and even start a company called Google.
The beauty of basic research, the kind NSF funds, is that it can take us anywhere. Discoveries lead to new questions and new discoveries – and then usually more questions – and down the line society has an innovation like 3D printing (3 of the patented technologies used in this process were developed with NSF support). Even slightly odd research questions – like how are human populations distributed with respect to altitude? – can lead to insights used today by the food, semiconductor and biomedical industries.
Broadly speaking, investing in basic research expands knowledge. It teaches us more about the molecules that make up our bodies, the bodies that make up our universe, and everything in between. Yet basic research is also a major economic driver.
The spectrum auction policy used by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, for example, came out of NSF-funded economic research. This method for apportioning airwaves has brought in millions of dollars in government revenue. Early NSF investment in digital wireless technology laid the groundwork for the creation of Qualcomm, now a global company worth more than $100bn.
Today’s discoveries are often made in a global setting. More than ever before, research involves collaborators from around the world. Over the past 20 years, the percent of all scientific papers that are internationally co-authored has more than doubled, according to a July Plos One article. In fact, the more elite a scientist is, the more likely it is that they collaborate internationally.
NSF places a high value on the importance of international cooperation; it, too, has tangible benefits to both the U.S. and our international partners.
Our work with Japan and Chile, for example, has helped scientists comprehend earthquake causes and effects, ultimately helping countries better understand and plan for these hazards. A partnership between NSF and the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council collected a diverse group of researchers to tackle the issue of nitrogen fertiliser pollution. The ensuing research projects, still ongoing, could help develop crops of the future.
Working together ensures we leverage both scientific resources and scientific funding. With our international awards, NSF funds the U.S. researchers, while our partner agencies abroad fund their portion. This enables engineers from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, for example, to collaborate with leading roboticists in Korea on artificial muscle technology.
It gives a graduate student studying marine microbes the chance to spend a summer working in a Japanese lab specialising in that research. Our world is facing major challenges – a changing climate, growing pressures on resources like energy and water, emerging infectious diseases. Science and engineering will play a major role in tackling these challenges. Continued support of basic research – and continued collaborations between NSF and countries around the world – will ensure the health and prosperity of citizens around the world.
Head of the Office of International
Science & Engineering
U.S. National Science Foundation