"Government has a responsibility to see that our country maintains its position in the advance of science. As a step toward this end, the Congress should complete action on the measure to create a National Science Foundation." -- Harry S. Truman, State of the Union Address, January 4, 1950

In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of Scientific Research and Development, headed by Dr. Vannevar Bush, in hopes of providing scientific support for the war effort. Among the more noteworthy accomplishments housed within this office was the work of the Manhattan Project.

Perhaps anticipating a need to justify the continued existence of the Office of Scientific Research and Development when the war ended, in November of 1944, Roosevelt posted a letter to Dr. Bush, requesting his advice about how the OSRD could serve the nation in times of peace. In his letter, Roosevelt raised four specific questions (paraphrased for the sake of brevity):

  • What is the best way to inform the public about the war efforts' contributions to scientific progress?
  • How can we ensure continued research in the field of medicine?
  • How can the government encourage the research efforts of public and private institutions?
  • Can a program that seeks out and aids in the development of scientifically talented youth be established?

Eight months later, Vannevar replied with a lengthy collaborative report that addressed each of the president's questions, with an emphasis on the need to fund basic research and ensure continued scientific progress. The report specifically suggested the creation of a National Research Foundation, run by scientists, that could be responsible for the development and implementation of a national policy on science, as well as promoting and providing funding for budding scientists and scientific research.

Considering the goal of the scientists who produced it (that is, the creation of this National Research Foundation), the report is a masterpiece. The entire report is couched in terms of how science could benefit the American people--improving their standard of living with advances in medicine and agriculture, creating new jobs by allowing development in existing and new industries, etc. The section addressing the necessity for continual renewal of scientific talent makes specific suggestions about how to reintroduce to scientific pursuit those whose education had been sidelined by military service. Moreover, the report's authors mentioned specific contributions of science to the war, including examples with a high emotional impact (e.g., the use of penicillin to save the lives of wounded soldiers). All of this was backed with hard facts about the positive impact of recent scientific developments, the current costs incurred in dealing with problems that could be addressed by improvements in science and technology, and the costs associated with performing scientific research. All of this crossed the president's desk just nine days after the first test of the atomic bomb. To put it simply, the report not only included more than sufficient evidence to support the establishment of this foundation, but also demonstrated exactly how to present the information to the public, at a time when the president was likely considering the changes that could result from the end of the war.

I'd have supported the proposal, too.

On May 10th, 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed Congress' National Science Foundation Act which shared almost every point with the Dr. Bush's research foundation proposal, thereby creating the National Science Foundation. The specific mission established by the National Science Foundation Act was as follows:

"To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense."

The specific methods employed to that end include funding science and technology education programs, awarding fellowships to new graduate students who are pursuing a degree in the sciences, allocating funding to researchers in public and private research settings, and analysis of current scientific and technological resources in the United States. NSF also typically sets aside funding for a particular type of research each year, awarding special grants to people who propose research within the specified domain (for example, they are currently planning a special line of funding for people performing research in the field of nanotechnology). While NSF was originally intended to support only the "hard sciences", in 1958 they formally approved supporting research in the social sciences. More recently, the Foundation has taken on the mission of ensuring the inclusion of women and minorities in the sciences. Interestingly, in spite of the support of medical research and experimental psychological research, as well as Dr. Vannevar's discussion, in the initial proposal, of the high costs of treating mentally ill patients, NSF does not support research in clinical psychology.

The one thing that best characterizes the NSF is a fiscal inability to fund all of the research that qualifies for funding. Although NSF supports a much broader array of scientific research than the National Institutes of Health (whose support is limited to biological, medical, and related life sciences), they only receive a fifth of their budget (Compare NSF's 4 billion dollar 2001 budget to the NIH's 20 billion dollar budget for the same year). Despite this, they are able to fund about one third of the 30,000 proposals which are submitted each year, although the awards are typically much smaller than those made by NIH. Because of their emphasis on generating and maintaining interest in the sciences, as well as fostering new talent in scientific fields, the National Science Foundation is a particularly good resource for new graduate students. Since 1952, they have funded 34,000 graduate students, and they currently award graduate research fellowships to approximately 900 people a year.

The foundation recently published their strategic plan for the five year period from 2001-2006. While the majority of the plan involves continuing to do the same stuff--funding basic research, encouraging people to do research, and providing analyses of the country's scientific resources, there is talk of developing a "widely accessible, state-of-the-art science and engineering infrastructure". Given the recent debate centered around data sharing between researchers in the sciences, I suspect that future work in NSF will be geared toward supporting increased data sharing between investigators.

P.S. The history of NSF is really cool--I officially encourage you all to go check out their website and read Vannevar Bush's proposal as it was sent to President Roosevelt back in 1945.

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