Better understanding the changing Arctic is one item on a new list of big ideas that should shape the National Science Foundation’s work.

Better understanding the changing Arctic is one item on a new list of big ideas that should shape the National Science Foundation’s work.

NASA/Kathryn Hansen

NSF director unveils big ideas, with an eye on the next president and Congress

France Córdova, the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, has unveiled a research agenda intended to shape the agency’s next few decades and win over the next U.S. president and Congress.

The nine big ideas (see list below) illustrate how increased support for the type of basic research that NSF funds could help answer pressing societal problems, she says, ranging from how humans interact with technology to how climate change in the polar regions will impact the global economy, environment, and culture. (Click here for a one-page description of each idea.) It’s unusual for a federal agency to talk publicly about its long-range budget plans, Córdova acknowledges. But she is betting that touting the agency’s capabilities during an election year will pay dividends after voters have chosen a successor to President Barack Obama.

“This comes at a time of transition,” she told the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body, on 6 May. “So that makes it a great opportunity for NSF to present a menu of the things it can do.” And NSF’s current budget of $7.46 billion is insufficient to tackle these questions, Córdova told Science after the meeting. “We can’t do any of these things without future investments. So yes, we need an infusion of money.”

But the federal government isn’t the only possible source of funding, she added. “We either need to get that investment from new dollars appropriated by Congress, or hope to get on the agenda of one or more of the candidates during the campaign, or spark the imagination of groups in the private sector, including industry and foundations.”

Córdova is counting on rank-and-file scientists to help sell the initiative by submitting more grant proposals that don’t fit traditional categories or are especially ambitious. “We want people to think about what’s missing, and how they would fill those gaps,” she says.

The presidentially appointed science board didn’t need much convincing after listening to her presentation. “I’m blown away by what I just heard,” said Dan Arvizu, the board’s outgoing chair and recently retired director of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. “It’s an intellectual exercise unparalleled in government, and demonstrates the value of NSF to the nation.”

NSF is already drafting its budget request for the 2018 fiscal year, which starts in October 2017. But the next president will ultimately decide what goes to Congress, and may even have a say in NSF’s 2017 budget if Congress can’t complete its work before Inauguration Day on 20 January 2017.

The list of ideas was finalized last month at a 2-day retreat of Córdova’s senior managers. They were asked to come up with two grand challenges facing the scientific disciplines their offices support, and told not to compare notes ahead of time. What eventually emerged both distilled and amalgamated those ideas.

Shaping the human-technology frontier, for example, began as “probably four related proposals,” Córdova notes. But some of the ideas weren’t grand enough to make the final list. “They weren’t things that we were ready to do, or they didn’t have broad community appeal.” Córdova says she wasn’t looking for a particular number of items for the list, but “the nine that came out covered the waterfront of really big ideas.”

The six “research” ideas are intended to stimulate cross-disciplinary activity and take on important societal challenges. Exploring the human-technology frontier, for example, reflects NSF’s desire “to weave in technology throughout the fabric of society, and study how technology affects learning,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who runs NSF’s education directorate. She thinks it will also require universities to change how they educate the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Other ideas on the list with no obvious short-term applications are meant to capitalize on newly available research tools. The “windows on the universe” frontier, for example, will build on the recent detection of gravitational waves, explains Fleming Crim, NSF’s head of mathematics and physical sciences. “We’ve thought for a long time about doing electromagnetic, particle, and gravitational-wave observations,” Crim says. “And now we have all the pieces.”

The three “process” ideas include a new no-strings-attached pot of money to seed all manner of fresh ideas. Córdova compared it to the Common Fund at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), created several years ago within the director’s office to encourage scientists to think outside the box.

“It started with money NIH had pooled,” she notes, “but Congress really liked it, and [the Common Fund] has grown.” Once a new NSF initiative “gets traction,” she says, it would likely be handed over to one of the agency’s seven directorates.

Here is a list of the nine big ideas:

Research

  • Harnessing data for 21st century science and engineering
  • Shaping the human-technology frontier
  • Understanding the rules of life (i.e., predicting phenotypes from genotypes)
  • The next quantum revolution (physics)
  • Navigating the new Arctic (including a fixed and mobile observing network)
  • Windows on the universe: multimessenger astrophysics

Process

  • More convergent research
  • Support for midscale infrastructure (costing tens of millions of dollars)
  • NSF 2050 (i.e., a common fund to seed large, ambitious projects)