Spotlight: National Science Foundation

Which federal agency can claim (at least some) credit for more than 190 Nobel Prizes? 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; and to secure the national defense.”  It is the only federal agency whose mission includes support for all fields of fundamental, nonmedical science and engineering research and education.  Rather than operating its own laboratories, NSF seeks to fulfill its mission by issuing competitive, limited-term grants to researchers and research facilities throughout the nation. With an FY 2012 appropriated budget of $7.033 billion, it funds about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities, making about 11,000 new awards annually in a variety of research areas.  It also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts each year. This funding has resulted in major scientific breakthroughs that have led to transformative technologies such as carbon dating, cloud computing, magnetic resonance imaging, nanotechnology and robotics. NSF-funded researchers have won more than 190 Nobel Prizes.

The foundation is led by a director—who oversees NSF staff and management and is responsible for program creation and administration, merit review, planning, budget and day-to-day operations—and by the 24-member National Science Board (NSB), which meets six times a year to establish NSF policies.  The director, deputy director, and board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.  NSF is divided into seven directorates—Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Education and Human Resources; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematics and Physical Sciences; and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences—each of which is headed by an assistant director.

The foundation’s 2,100 employees—including approximately 1,400 career employees, 200 scientists from research institutions on temporary duty with NSF, 450 contract workers and the staffs of the National Science Board office and the Office of the Inspector General—are based at its 556,466-square-foot headquarters in Arlington, Virginia’s Ballston area.  With its lease expiring next year, it is unclear whether the agency will remain in Ballston although, as we predicted last month, a move seems unlikely.