Building stronger bridges between discovery, innovation, and prosperity

With increased global competition, how can we build a robust science and engineering enterprise empowered by discoveries and discoverers that accelerate advancements and technological innovations to further advance our nation’s place as global leader? How can we ensure that S&E research contributes to much-needed solutions for pandemic response, climate change, racial equity and economic recovery?

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan explains why NSF stands ready to lead the charge. 

April 9, 2021
NSF Director Sethuraman Panchathan
Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, Director, U.S. National Science Foundation Photo Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

Today, the Biden-Harris administration released its budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2022. The discretionary spending request includes $10.17 billion for the U.S. National Science Foundation, which represents a 20% increase over the agency’s current budget.

The President’s request affirms the importance of the agency’s role in advancing the frontiers of science and technological progress and NSF looks forward to working with Congress and other stakeholders to ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of science, engineering, and STEM workforce development.

It is more important now than ever to catalyze innovation, at speed and scale, as the U.S. is looking to the S&E community for solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges. We need to rapidly scale our investments and build even stronger bridges between discovery, innovation, and commercialization in order to develop innovative ways to mitigate the pandemic, advance the industries of tomorrow, promote economic recovery, ensure racial equity, address climate resilience, and more.

NSF is poised to drive discovery and innovation along two key axes that undergird the health of our research ecosystem: by training the next generation of STEM leaders and through seeding bold, large-scale foundational and transformative research with meaningful societal and economic impact.

 

Research scientist in lab with microscope
Recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will require a strong investment in STEM education and making opportunities available to all who are interested. Photo Credit: ProStockStudio/Shutterstock

Strengthening STEM pathways

Today’s STEM students and researchers are the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. One of my key priorities is realizing the full potential of the American workforce. There is tremendous S&E talent throughout our nation, but only a fraction of it becomes part of the broader STEM community.

U.S. competitiveness depends on reaching that talent, because we need an agile and adaptable workforce that can upskill, reskill and succeed through creative and innovative mindsets. The need is perhaps more urgent now than ever as the pandemic has deeply impacted pathways to STEM education and careers.

As we work to spur recovery and provide relief, we are looking at how we can scale up the reach of the broader STEM community so that anyone—from any background and from any part of the country—who has the aspiration and talent to go into a STEM career is given the opportunity and provided the support to do so.

This will require strengthening pathways into STEM fields and expanding our reach into communities where talent exists. We are going to have to develop new approaches and tailor educational experiences for communities to be more effective at bringing talent into the STEM enterprise.

Science will make possible a new normal where the full scope and potential of both domestic and global talent combines to ensure our nation’s competitiveness and prosperity. NSF has a unique opportunity to envision a recovery that facilitates a more equitable and innovative enterprise that catapults the nation to a brighter future.

Microscope with COVID virus
NSF supported researchers across multiple fields are working to understand and fight the COVID-19 virus. Photo Credit: Chanyanuch Wannasinlapin

Seeding bold, large-scale foundational and transformative research with meaningful societal and economic impact

By seeding strategic investments, NSF steers the frontiers of discovery and innovation toward breakthroughs that address pressing societal challenges and that places the U.S. at the vanguard of global leadership.

The global pandemic has dramatically underscored the importance and uniqueness of NSF’s long-term support for foundational research coupled with use-inspired innovations across the entire spectrum of STEM fields.  

NSF rapidly responded to the pandemic by deploying decades of discovery and innovations in support of researchers across all fields of S&E working to understand and combat the virus. The results ranged from new designs for vital personal protective equipment and testing devices more easily deployable in the field to new models that advanced our fundamental understanding of the virus’s structure and how it functions, to name a few.

Additionally, NSF’s early support for projects like CRISPR and the science that led to the creation of the technique polymerase chain reaction have enabled major advancements in our ability to understand the COVID-19 virus and the development of vaccines to slow its spread.

Both innovations began as exploratory-based research projects aimed at better understanding the world around us. They exemplify the potential benefits of science, technology and engineering solutions that are driven by the unbelievable power of curiosity-driven research.

In other words, NSF supports both fundamental explorations and use-inspired innovations that make possible technological progress and produces solutions to challenges facing society. This is because the scientific pursuit of knowledge and understanding cannot be separated from the development of new technological capabilities.

And, in turn, these new capabilities allow us to pursue new research questions that were once out of our reach, forming a virtuous cycle.

Exploration and Translation DNA
The DNA of NSF Photo Credit: NSF

The DNA of NSF

It is this double helix of curiosity-driven, discovery-based explorations in synergy with use-inspired, solutions-focused innovations that makes up the DNA of NSF.

And it is this synergy that NSF is uniquely capable of cultivating that will lead us toward transformational leaps in discovery and innovation.

Consider, for example, NSF’s early support for academic supercomputing centers in the 1980s. Those investments not only paved the way for the modern internet but also our more recent involvement in the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. NSF co-led the establishment of this public-private consortium one year ago at the outset of the global pandemic.

The consortium offered researchers access to expertise and world-class computing facilities. The NSF-funded XSEDE project, which served as its hub, provided a portal and associated services to match researchers to resources. These computing investments enabled scientists to develop the initial models of the novel coronavirus—work that was critical to developing treatments to fight it.

Thanks to strong support from Congress, NSF has helped lead the way in American leadership in R&D for decades. As we look to the future, NSF will continue investing in discoveries and discoverers, innovations and innovators who will enable the breakthroughs and advancements that will ensure societal and economic prosperity into the future.

Image Credit & Caption

DNA Photo credit: Billion Photos