The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) decades-long investment in science and engineering (S&E) research helped build the backbone of the U.S. scientific enterprise and transformed universities and colleges into centers of scientific innovation, creativity, knowledge and discovery. It also brought about the benefits of scientific discovery — new technologies, products and knowledge — that have fueled the economy, strengthened national security, enhanced the well-being of millions of Americans and shaped the nation as a world leader in science and technology. 

Today, NSF - funded research continues to advance the nation’s prosperity, welfare and leadership. As these pages reflect, outcomes from basic research across multiple scientific disciplines are transforming entire industries, from transportation to computing to manufacturing and agriculture. 

Scientific breakthroughs start with a big idea — a question about the nature of things that leads to a fundamental shift in thinking. The ability to pursue and investigate that question, and to innovate along the way, is what enables the discoveries that ultimately transform the world. 

Recently, NSF debuted a set of Big Ideas. These are bold, long-term research questions that look at critical societal challenges and aim to catalyze new breakthroughs from the S&E communities. They identify new frontier areas for basic research, from the Arctic to the quantum world, yet also underscore where greater investments are needed; for example, in the S&E infrastructure and workforce. 

If one factor unites these Big Ideas, it’s that they must be shared with the public by the entire scientific community committed to moving them forward. The Big Ideas also serve as invitations to other federal agencies, nonprofits, privatesector collaborators, industry partners and the public to help expand, develop and turn them into reality. 

As the only agency that supports all areas of S&E, NSF is committed to moving these ideas and the S&E enterprise of the nation forward. As highlighted in this book, this involves investing in people — the cornerstone of the scientific endeavor — through programs that ensure science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and careers are accessible to all citizens. And it involves supporting a vast physical infrastructure, from telescopes and polar stations to ecological sites to cyberinfrastructure/supercomputers capable of advancing the frontiers of science.

With bold leadership and an eye toward the future, the U.S. will remain at the forefront of scientific exploration.


France A. Córdova

Director, National Science Foundation


“The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this Nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”

-Science, The Endless Frontier, 1945 

Vannevar Bush wrote those words in response to a commission from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to plan the nation’s scientific future after the massive — and successful — research and development (R&D) mobilization following World War II. Roosevelt envisioned a postwar world with a brighter future than the preceding decades, one in which science and technology (S&T) could create more productive, more fulfilling lives for all Americans. Bush, as Roosevelt’s “General of Science,” proposed the nation’s first science agency to transition the wartime R&D experience —which yielded new discoveries such as penicillin, radar and the atom bomb — to peacetime. 

In 1950, Congress passed, and President Harry S. Truman signed, the National Science Foundation Act to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes” to continue this legacy. 

More than 60 years since, many aspects of S&T, as well as social and political shifts, have altered the research landscape, but NSF has adapted and held firmly to its core mission: belief in the value of basic research. It is indeed “where discoveries begin.” 

The Arc of Science: Research to Results

Science has revolutionized the way we live our lives. As the only federal agency specifically mandated to support fundamental research across all fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), NSF has supported discoveries and innovations that have transformed the way we live, sparked and expanded the limits of our curiosity, opened the world to entirely new occupations and industries and enriched our quality of life. NSF plays a vital role in keeping the United States at the forefront of discovery and innovation.

1. WILDFIRE: NSF funds research that takes a multifaceted approach to understanding wildfires from prevention and prediction of the fire’s path to expanding wireless communication needed for responders to studying subsequent re-growth.

2. ASTRONOMY: NSF-funded facilities house some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, providing new ways to peer into space to survey distant galaxies, detect cosmic particles and monitor the sun’s magnetic field and solar flares.

3. ARCTIC: Establishing a network of mobile and fixed observation platforms and tools across the Arctic will enable NSF to understand the far-reaching consequences of changing Arctic temperatures and seaice levels on the climate, weather and ecosystems.

4. OCEAN: The oceans are a complex and dynamic environment that houses tremendous diversity and promise for improving our quality of life. NSF addresses multiple dimensions of ocean research from mapping evolving ecosystems and forecasting sea-level changes to tracking and remediating oil spills to developing new ways to harness energy from ocean waves and clean contaminated water.

5. AGRICULTURE: With NSF funding, researchers have developed nutrient-rich vegetables, vertical farming, and methods to monitor pest levels, and sought to better understand the relationship among food, water and energy, thus protecting and improving the food supply.

6. QUANTUM COMPUTING: Harnessing the power and potential of quantum mechanics and the interaction of matter and energy at extremely small and discrete dimensions enables smaller, faster, more efficient sensors and computing. Looking ahead, NSF is prepared to lead the next computing revolution by addressing fundamental questions about quantum behavior and systems.

7. WEATHER: NSF-funded researchers are enabling a better understanding of weather patterns and more accurate weather predictions, through Doppler Radar, the Doppler on Wheels vehicle, airborne GPS technology, tornado trackers and computer modeling.

8. ECONOMICS: Understanding how U.S. goods and services are exchanged is vital for growth and sustainability, a mission NSF knows well. Fifty-five of the 78 Nobel Prize winners in Economic Science were NSF-funded.

9. EMERGING PANDEMICS: Zika, Malaria, West Nile. When and where will the next outbreak strike? NSF-funded researchers study vital aspects of the mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and fruit bats that carry viruses harmful to humans. Researchers track their movement, life cycles as well as what attracts and repels them, to determine and limit the spread of infectious diseases.

10. ANTARCTIC: NSF-funded research includes ice-shelf monitoring, cosmic neutrino detection, studies of the cosmic microwave background, and life in extreme environments. NSF also operates several important components of Antarctic research: the AmundsenScott South Pole, McMurdo and Palmer stations. The management of these facilities, as well as NSF’s unique relationship with the Department of Defense to support flight and vessel operations, play an indispensable role for the international research community to carry on their work.

11. EDUCATION: NSF is dedicated to STEM education, from educating teachers and cybersecurity experts and funding students to supporting tribal colleges and universities, with a special focus on workforce development and broadening participation by underrepresented groups. NSF also funds research to improve STEM education. 

12. CYBERTECH: Imagine a connected world with a safe, fast, and accessible internet; cutting-edge anti-virus software; more energy-efficient information technology systems and software; cloud computing; and global accessibility to data. NSF is poised to make major transformations, driven by the combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and robotics.

13. NATURAL DISASTER: From seismic shaking models and earthquake-resistant water pipelines to search and rescue robots to understanding the human response to emergencies to collecting data, NSF funding encompasses all aspects of natural disasters and increases preparedness and resilience.

14. LINGUISTICS: NSF funds research to understand the science of linguistics, including the psychological processes involved in the use of language; how children acquire language; the social and cultural factors in language use, variation and change; and the biological basis of language in the brain.

15. BRAIN: Understanding the brain, the most intricate organ in the body, requires the integration of multiple approaches and methods. NSF-funded researchers study how individual brain cells function and communicate with each other and how neural networks are formed and maintained, which will advance the understanding of the way neurophysiological systems operate and relate to behavior.

16. POLICING: Thanks to NSF research involving stronger bulletproof vests, DNA fingerprinting, retinal scans, improved explosive devise detection, work in cryptography and nonverbal communication education, our military and police are able to better perform their work and do so more safely, enhancing national security.

17. CAR: NSF drives the automotive field forward with research on advanced manufacturing; safer, more fuel-efficient cars and airplanes; and self-driving car technology.

18. ROBOTICS: From insect-sized robots to health and education assistance to robots working in tandem with humans, NSF is propelling forward the field of robotics.  

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