At "Ground Zero" Since 1950
National Science Foundation Strives to Sustain U.S. Leadership Role
PHOTO BY DIANE BALDWIN
Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, explains that basic research "develops the human capital that, in turn, goes into industry and government."
For generations, the United States has been out front in fostering the basic research that has driven innovation at home and around the world. But that leadership role is now threatened by competition from abroad and by domestic budget constraints.
So warned Subra Suresh, the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the $7 billion independent U.S. federal agency created in 1950 and charged with advancing all fields of fundamental science and engineering (S&E) research and related education. Speaking at RAND's annual Haskins Lecture on Science Policy, Suresh described the value of NSF, the challenges it faces, and what it is doing to help the nation retain its S&E edge.
Jump-Starting the Future
Invoking the thesis of engineer and presidential adviser Vannevar Bush, who was instrumental in establishing NSF, Suresh argued that "innovation, driven by basic research in S&E, is essential for the prosperity of the country" and that "such basic research is best done in universities, where young minds put their creative juices to work along with faculty. Such basic research develops the human capital that, in turn, goes into industry and government." For example, today, according to Suresh, NSF funds 82 percent of the basic research in computer science and 22 percent of the overall basic S&E research that is conducted at U.S. universities.
"Since 1950," Suresh said, "NSF has been at 'ground zero' of the U.S. scientific and S&E education enterprise." He cited NSF support in the 1960s for basic research on the Global Positioning System (GPS), first used in military defense applications and satellites, and, ultimately, in today's portable communication devices.
"In the 1970s, when American industry thought mathematical and process modeling were more academically than industrially relevant, NSF supported it, which led to rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping played a huge role in our national manufacturing competitiveness in the 1980s, when Japan was seen as a major competitor."
NSF also created the first federal Small Business Innovation Research program in the 1970s, providing, as Suresh noted, "$25,000 in funding to Qualcomm and Symantec, which today employ 21,000 and 18,000 people, respectively." And in the 1990s, NSF supported Stanford University student Sergey Brin, who worked with fellow student Larry Page doing purely theoretical mathematical (page ranking) research that had no known practical application at the time but later became the kernel of Google.
Last year, for the first time, the top ten Asian countries invested $400 billion in research and development — the same amount as the United States.
— Subra Suresh, director, National Science Foundation
But there has recently been a dynamic shift in the global balance of expenditures on scientific research toward Asia. "Last year, for the first time, the top ten Asian countries invested $400 billion in research and development — the same amount as the United States." The number of engineers graduating from U.S. colleges continues to decline and is currently at about one-fifth of what it is in Asia. In the past, the United States overcame its lack of domestic engineers by attracting talent from abroad, but that is changing because of growing opportunities in Asia.
Suresh used his own engineering class at the Indian Institute of Technology as an example. "When I graduated in 1977, approximately 82 percent of the graduates came to the United States for graduate education and essentially all of them stayed afterwards, starting companies in Silicon Valley and launching successful careers in academia, business, and government," he said. By contrast, "in 2009, some 80 percent of the graduates would have had a chance to come to the United States, but only 16 percent came — and they were not necessarily the top 16 percent."
Priming the Engine
In the face of these trends — and growing budget pressures — NSF continues to focus on funding basic research to drive innovation, which means taking a long-term perspective and emphasizing human capital development. "No matter what happens to the NSF budget, we will not cut the number of graduate research fellowships," said Suresh. "They represent the future scientific workforce." That long-term view also explains why NSF invests in research into S&E education as well as S&E research, in programs that run, Suresh noted, from "K [kindergarten] through grave."
While most of NSF's funding goes into basic research to drive the innovation engine, NSF uses a small amount of funding to "nudge basic research closer to having economic value" through its Innovation Corps (or I-Corps) program. I-Corps is a public-private partnership that identifies nascent concepts originated by NSF-funded scientists and "strategically connects them to the national innovation ecosystem" to help them generate returns on investment more quickly.
I-Corps now supports up to 100 projects annually, at $50,000 each for up to six months, to expedite the production of useful technologies, products, and processes. "So far, a good number of funded projects have moved much further along than they would have otherwise," Suresh said. It is one way to sustain a long-term view in a world hungry for immediate profits.