Document Number: NSB-93-127
Documentation Type: Board Statement
Meeting Number Dates: 05/14/93 to 05/14/93


As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States is reaping the benefits of a half-century of extraordinary scientific and technological progress. The development of drugs and vaccines allows us to treat or prevent many once devastating diseases; agriculture has been made unimaginably productive; entire industries, such as semiconductor manufacturing, have arisen; work and leisure have been remade; and vast quantities of information now flow freely around the globe.

Each of these transforming advances has its origin in a wide array of discoveries made by scientists, engineers, and mathematicians pursuing a deeper understanding of the world we live in. Using fundamental methods of scientific inquiry, these men and women have reshaped our world. This endeavor is basic research.

Basic research can be conducted in many settings: by individual investigators in colleges and universities or by groups of researchers working in scientific and engineering centers; by those pursuing a particular national strategic research interest; and by those in corporate and Federal laboratories, often in collaboration with academic scientists.

In the 21st century, our quality of life will depend in large measure on the generation of new wealth. Basic research, the underpinning of the scientific enterprise, will play a vital role in this process. As stated in a recent White House report, ". . . scientific advances are the wellspring of the technical innovations whose benefits are seen in economic growth, improved health care, and many other areas. " 1 Appropriately, the Administration has made continued world leadership in basic science, mathematics, and engineering a centerpiece of its strategy to revitalize the nation and to insure its well-being. Maintaining this leadership is a special responsibility of the National Science Foundation.

Challenged by a profoundly altered economic and political environment, the National Science Board established a special Commission on the Future of the National Science Foundation. The Commission's report affirmed the vitality of NSF's mission and underscored the critical importance of research and of an educated work force in advancing the national interest. 2 This statement responds to the specific Commission recommendations that the Board reaffirm the role of the National Science Foundation in the support of the U.S. research system and that the Board exercise leadership over a broader range of science and technology policy issues.

The conduct of basic research is international in character and, in today's global environment, its benefits are widely shared by all nations. At the same time, America' s economic competitiveness relies on the ability to exploit scientific and technological advances. The country in which a discovery is made has an enormous initial advantage in exploiting such advances in understanding. Furthermore, by maintaining strength in a variety of basic research fields, we will be positioned to benefit from the breakthroughs made by investigators in other parts of the world.

The Commission's report noted that research can be undertaken both to achieve strategic ends and to increase the base of knowledge. Basic research is the foundation and essence of both, assuring a deep reservoir of knowledge and providing choices and flexibility for addressing future needs. Moreover, in the age of technology, the problem solving approach of basic research helps prepare minds for work in all walks of life.

The new century will impose new demands and responsibilities on all who have a stake in the discovery and application of knowledge. This nation's superb research system must continue to respond to new intellectual opportunities and to devise new instruments and approaches for performing its work. The variety of institutional arrangements within which research takes place must continue to expand, complementing the activities of the individual investigator with complex multidisciplinary teams of researchers.

Basic research is one of many forces that contribute to the nation's economic development. Its benefits will be achieved only in connection with other parts of the nation's scientific and technological enterprise, including applied research, education, technology transfer and development, innovation, and manufacturing. More effective and focused partnerships among all sectors will be needed to secure the greatest possible benefit from the nation's investment in the discovery of fundamental knowledge.

Basic research is not intended--nor should it be expected--to advance short-term goals. Rather, it is an investment that, like education, takes time to mature but has tremendous practical payoffs in the long run. Assuring the knowledge base appropriate for economic growth, long term job creation, and social well being requires a conscious commitment to strong and consistent long-term support for basic research and education. Providing requisite support for this process is a matter of strategic national importance.

1Technology for America's Economic Growth A New Direction to Build Economic Strength. Washington, DC, 1993, p. 24 .
2National Science Board Commission on the Future of the National A Foundation for the 21st Century: A Progressive Framework for the National Science Foundation. Washington, DC, November 20, 1992.

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