"NSF Policy Trends and Funding Opportunities"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
California State University Presidents' Retreat
Long Beach, CA
February 14, 2001
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The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703)
Good morning. Thank you, (Chancellor Reed), for your
generous introduction. To take a page from the Cal
State slogan, it's good to be here to talk about how
we can work together to fuel the "economic engine
Let me specifically thank Bob Suzuki for the invitation
to join you. We've tried each year since I arrived
at NSF to find a time to meet as a group.
Bob's built our awareness about the many Cal State
System contributions to both the region and nation.
He conveys a powerful vision through his work on the
NSB. And what he says matches the vision we're trying
to instill in NSF's programs.
I should add it's always a pleasure to visit California
on the brink of spring. It brings new warmth to this
Valentines' Day. To some of us, Valentine's Day means
flowers. To some of us, it means a nice dinner. I,
personally, can't help but think about chocolates.
When people ask me about the on-going transition in
Washington, I often feel like Forrest Gump when he
said, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never
know what you're going to get."
We'll all be busy unraveling the consequences of this
election for a long time to come. We expect elections
to bring new styles of leaderships and to alter policies.
So today, I thought I'd start with a quick update of
some newsworthy items in Washington-the latest buzz,
so to speak.
Second, I'll mention our overview planning framework
at NSF and how we are implementing the strategic plan.
I'll include some specific activities we're highlighting
as we approach the 2002 budget.
We'll see throughout how your work can feed right into
our overall effort.
To be blunt, your reach-in terms of reaching a diverse
student population and in terms of your reach into
the instructional workforce-is an invaluable asset.
It's invaluable to California, to NSF, and to the
So, what's new in Washington? One important-but under-reported-change
is the new chair of the House Science Committee.
Congressman Boehlert, the new chair, is from upstate
New York and he's a long-time friend of NSF. He gave
his first major speech as chair two weeks ago, and
he laid out a promising agenda.
He highlighted education as the most pressing dilemma
for the U.S.
Many of you will recognize his concerns:
- U.S. students lagging behind their peers in other
- a predominance of foreign students in our graduate
- an increase in H-1 B visas to meet workforce needs,
- and the underrepresentation of women and minorities
in science and mathematics.
The second newsworthy item is a very recent report-just
two weeks old in fact. It addresses a somewhat unwieldy
topic: National Security in the 21st Century.
It's the work of a commission led by former Senators
Warren Rudman and Gary Hart.
I don't normally talk about National Security reports.
But this one is different, and it's different for
one reason. It makes five recommendations for creating
what it calls a new strategic environment for the
US in the next 25 years.
The second recommendation is what's important to all
of us. It reads: "Recapitalizing America's strength
in science and education."
The report uses clear and lively language to make its
points. Here's a quote you may have seen in the newspapers
"Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating
in an American City, we can think of nothing more
dangerous than a failure to manage properly science,
technology, and education for the common good
over the next quarter century."
While the opening allusion may be disturbing, the words
are nonetheless inspiring to all of us who have devoted
our careers to advancing science and engineering for
the common good.
More and more people are finally realizing that our
work belongs at the top of the national agenda.
The third bit of newsworthy information from Washington
is the budget process. It's been even more mysterious
than in previous years.
In two weeks, the President will present his State
of the Union address. It will include the broad outline
of his spending plan. This won't include any budget
details-just targets for major categories of revenue
The budget details will be released April 3, which
is about two months later than most years. We're all
working to see that research and education remain
This brings me to part 2 of my talk: how we are approaching
the budget development process.
Don't be embarrassed it you haven't read our strategic
plan. It didn't make any best seller's lists. It is
none-the-less the starting point for our priority
Let me show just a few overheads to illustrate.
It begins with a clear and simple vision: "Enabling
the nation's future through discovery, learning, and
Not long ago, you would likely not have seen the word
innovation in a vision statement for NSF. Now it's
there-side-by-side with learning and discovery.
We pursue this vision through three goals: people,
ideas, and tools. They are the stock in which NSF
Although we speak of them separately, they are, in
fact, inseparable. They form the core of our strategic
Through peer review, we choose the most capable people
with the most insightful ideas.
About twenty percent of total NSF spending goes directly
toward supporting a diverse, internationally competitive
workforce for science, engineering, and a well-prepared
The total investment in people is actually much larger-because
of the students supported through work on research
grants. The word diversity is front and center in
the people goal.
Over 50% of NSF investment portfolio comes under the
We provide the opportunity to advance a field in a
new direction, accelerate its pace and, increasingly,
help it build a bridge to another field.
We continually help break new ground through the research
and education we support, but we can't let the new
knowledge lie fallow. That's why the word connections
is central to this goal.
Of course, none of this can be done without state-of-the-art
tools. In this case-tools mean not only instruments,
equipment, and laboratory facilities-but also overarching
infrastructures such as networks and centers. These
tools open up new vistas and frontiers for learning
Integrating research and education is one of our highest
priorities. We estimate broadly that nearly 200,000
people participate directly in NSF programs and activities
This includes researchers, postdoctoral students, undergraduates,
and K-12 students and teachers.
How do we identify these people? The peer review process
is the chief mechanism.
We call upon over 50,000 scientists, engineers, and
educators to make many of our funding decisions.
These grant reviewers, who are working pro bono,
are the heart of our merit review system. They constitute
the voice of our science and education community.
The NSF criteria for merit review are concise, but
- What is the intellectual merit of the proposed
- What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?
The first asks about the quality of the idea, the qualifications
of the research team, and the capability of the organization.
The second covers how well the activity correlates
with education and learning, societal benefit, and
how it will impact our infrastructure.
This second criterion addresses our mandate to work
in the national interest, and to broaden participation.
NSF is committed to enhancing diversity in the S&E
workforce, and we know that this is one area where
all of us can work together more effectively.
To satisfy both criteria, NSF's budget portfolio must
be large and diverse-addressing all fields and activities
of science and engineering while catalyzing promising
opportunities in education.
Our investments range from single investigators to
large multi-purpose research centers.
Like any sound investor, we adhere to the practice
of maintaining a balanced portfolio to maximize our
So in implementing our budget, we have two major integrative
strategies: Strengthening core activities and supporting
major initiatives. Let's start with the investment
in the core disciplines that we see here.
Funding core activities keeps all of science and engineering
disciplines strong. We fund those with the most creative
and innovative ideas.
And, in turn, these ideas lead to new and emerging
fields. A strong and vital investment in the core
disciplines generates new ideas and human resources.
Under this core investment, we want to provide incentives
for young people to pursue S&E careers.
We are currently studying how best to increase annual
stipends in our flagship graduate education programs,
GK-12, GRF, and IGERT.
Currently, the annual stipend for graduate students
in science and engineering is less than half the average
wage of bachelor's degree recipients.
A graduate student with children could well find him
or herself below the poverty level.
We also need to strengthen support for formal and informal
science, mathematics, engineering, and technology
education at all levels-pre K-12, undergraduate, graduate,
professional development, and public science literacy
projects. We call this the "K to Gray" approach.
Another key area is preparing the instructional workforce,
including new activities to provide teachers and faculty
with solid grounding in IT for use in the classroom.
At present, NSF's investments for science and mathematics
education represent only 2 percent of the overall
federal investment for education.
Sad to say that 2% accounts for almost one-third of
the total federal funding for math and science education.
That's too little for such a big responsibility!
On the other side of the coin, we need to pursue research
at the frontiers of discovery where the promise of
return is high.
We'll continue investments in the areas of emerging
opportunity that you all know: Biocomplexity in the
Environment, Information Technology Research, Nanoscale
Science and Engineering, and the 21st Century
In addition, this year, we'll launch a Mathematics
Initiative, which is long overdue. Prioritized investments
in mathematics education will be necessary to reverse
a substantial drop in upper level math majors, a decline
of 23 percent from 1992 to 1999.
We will also emphasize training for a mathematically
literate workforce to bolster fragile U.S. leadership.
As you all know, progress in mathematics is essential
to every branch of science and engineering. Here,
my hat is off to you.
I know your campuses have taken up the challenge of
improving undergraduate mathematics and it shows with
a decreased need for remedial math education.
The 21st Century Workforce initiative remains
the centerpiece of NSF's Workforce. We're hoping to
establish a new mechanism to integrate both multidisciplinary
research on learning and research on IT-enabled learning
Looking further down the road to 2003, we know research
in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences is
ready for a major boost.
Research in cognitive neuroscience, learning environments,
and human and computer interactions will advance understanding
of how students learn, frame questions, solve problems,
and employ skills to derive answers.
The increasing scientific and technological nature
of civilization had been an undisputed force that
we must work together to understand.
This speaks to the larger challenge we face. At the
beginning of the 20th Century, 83% of Americans
held jobs that involved working with things.
We were farmers, craftspeople, and laborers. Now, professional
and technical workers in the service sector dominate
This shift to knowledge and technological work has
important implications for the role of education in
We know that technologies bring rapid change, and the
need for continual training and retraining is ever
Knowledge has become the currency of everyday life.
The coming years will be anything but business as
usual for basic science and engineering research and
for our educational system.
This point again brings me back to the box of chocolates.
My daughters-I would never incriminate myself-always
like to choose one and take a sampling bite. (I'm
sure none of you have done this.)
If they don't like one, they'll put it back and choose
another. And yet still another.
It can be likened to today's college graduate that
can expect to change careers four-to-seven times before
We know that technology has created this dynamic. And
we know that our universities are reinventing themselves
for a seamless system of learning over a lifetime.
All of these changes-the changing face of education,
the pace of technological change, the glimmerings
of public dissatisfaction with new technologies, the
remaking of the world economy-raise challenges for
the next fifty years and beyond.
An investment in basic science and engineering research
and education is paramount.
Let's look at NSF's efforts in a larger context for
perspective. Today, we are looking at a total U.S.
economy in the order of $10.4 trillion, yet the Federal
government spends barely $20 billion on basic research.
Using these numbers as a guide, we see that basic research
efforts constitute only two tenths of one percent
of the overall economy. That is what we are devoting
to our future.
The numbers are equally disconcerting in context of
the federal budget. Out of the $1.9 trillion federal
government budget, basic research constitutes 1.1%
of the total budget.
Where does NSF fit into all of this? In the larger
context of federal support, NSF is a small player-accounting
for only 3.5% of total federal investment in research
It is a very important 3.5%, however. It underwrites
nearly one-quarter of all federal support for basic
research at academic institutions.
At the same time, we see that the National Institutes
of Health receives over half of the federal academic
But that investment strategy will continue to work
only if we maintain a healthy foundation of basic
science and engineering research and education from
which the life sciences can draw. One last chart to
illustrate that thought. [NIH and NSF research obligation]
This shows some major disciplines, and where their
federal funding comes from.
While NIH is concentrating on the life sciences and
psychology, NSF is building up computer science, basic
engineering, and the physical sciences.
In the non-medical areas of the life sciences, NSF
provides the majority of federal support. Our small
percentage of the federal portfolio is a necessary
But with the meager amount of federal investment, enormous
pressures tug at the NSF purse strings.
We are forced to make tough decisions, with the inevitable
result that people and discoveries are lost in the
Currently, we are only able to fund approximately one
third of the proposals we receive. Thirteen percent
of the remainder are rated excellent or very good,
but must be denied due to budgetary constraints. I'm
confident that as a community we can continue to address
this and other pressing issues.
You may have heard that last year NSF received the
largest budget increase in its history--13.6%. That's
a great start toward doubling the NSF budget, but
it's only one step.
As Will Rogers said, "Even if you're on the right track,
you'll get run over if you sit there." The coming
years will be anything but business as usual for all
I'll stop on that note and open the floor for discussion.
This is clearly an occasion for lively exchange.