Policy Update: NSF Big Ideas for Future Investment

The National Science Board (NSB) met on August 9 and 10, 2016, under its new leadership of Maria Zuber (MIT) as Chair and Diane Souvaine (Tufts University) as Vice-Chair.  During the meeting, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Director, France Córdova and a number of Assistant Directors presented an update on the ten “big ideas” for future investment that Lewis-Burke has previously reported on.  These six research and four process ideas aim to drive NSF’s future research agenda in collaboration with universities, scientific societies, other federal funding agencies, industry, private foundations, and others.  NSF already supports a broad portfolio of research under these themes, which were selected in part for the unique role NSF has in the advancement of these fields.  The themes are expected to feature strongly in the NSF budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2018.

More detailed information on each of the themes

Outlined below is a summary of the conversation at NSB around each of the themes, Lewis-Burke is happy to discuss how individuals and organization could engage with NSF to develop these ideas, which are likely to be discussed at the fall NSF advisory committee meetings.

  1. Rules of Life – led by Jim Olds, Assistant Director for Biological Sciences (BIO)
  • This theme goes beyond biological sciences: includes physical principles through to urban systems
  • Across federal government, this links to the White House microbiome initiative; White House BRAIN initiative
  • Potential collaboration with USDA
  • NSF “Processes Ideas” of relevance: this will involve convergence and NSF 2050
  1. Human Technology Frontier – led by Fay Cook, Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE)
  • The World Economic Forum calls this technological change the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  • NSF will be focusing on work and productivity within this theme
  • Want to support research into the risks and benefits of new technology in the work place and society; how to best produce goods and services
  • NSF “Processes Ideas” of relevance: INCLUDES, Convergence, harnessing data
  1. Astrophysics – led by Fleming Crim, Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS)
  • Multi-messenger aspect in that we can see different things when we look in different ways
  • We need to coordinate those responses to better understand what’s going on
  • This will be an international effort
  • Includes theory and smaller scale projects
  • NSF “Processes Ideas” of relevance: rests on mid-scale infrastructure, harnessing data
  1. Arctic – led by Roger Wakimoto, Assistant Director for Geological Sciences (GEO)
  • Lots of community engagement for this topic including:
    • AGU will hold a session on the Arctic at this fall’s Annual Meeting
    • White House Ministerial on the Arctic coming up
    • NAS board on Polar Programs will be meeting to follow up on the WH Ministerial
    • OSTP have an interagency council on this topic and they are developing a plan for 2017-2021
  • Modelling will be very important for this topic
  • NSF “Processes Ideas” of relevance: INCLUDES is key due to role of indigenous people
  1. Harnessing Data – led by Jim Kurose, Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE)
  • Have five thrusts:
    • Research at the confluence of math, statistics, and computer science
    • Algorithms and systems research
    • Will enable data driven research
    • Infrastructure to support the research
    • Workforce development
  • NSF “Processes Ideas” of relevance: Convergence is very evident, INCLUDES, Mid-scale
  • Lots of NSF Ad Coms have had sessions on data, so this is prevalent across NSF
  • Ties to Big Data, BRAIN, National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI)
  • [Note: a number of other theme leads included data science as one of their relevant “process” areas even though it is included as a “research” area]
  1. Quantum – led by Fleming Crim, Assistant Director for MPS
  • Includes Quantum- Computing, Sensors, and Communications (not just quantum computing)
  • Will support fundamental research on quantum, move towards devices
  • Have connections to the engineering directorate
  • This is an opportune time
  • OSTP released its quantum report (Denise Caldwell from NSF Physics was the co-chair); that committee also includes Homeland Security representation
  • This topic has a lot of interest internationally; the EU has a Quantum Manifesto
  • NSF has a working group set up that includes: math, statistics, materials, engineering, CS
  1. Process Ideas – led by Suzi Iacono, Office Head, Office of Integrative Activities (OIA)
  • All research topics are at different stages of readiness
  • NSF is looking at how to include stakeholders
  • Some topics are holding “all hands” meetings
  • There is lots of buzz around these topics
  • Important to link these topics to other agencies
  • Need to communicate effectively to Hill, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the White House
  • NSF is analyzing these topics relative to the current NSF portfolio (see chart below)





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