NSF Director Córdova Proposes Nine Big Ideas for the Foundation

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At its May meeting, the National Science Board praised National Science Foundation Director France Córdova’s proposed set of nine new ideas for the agency – including six “research big ideas” and three “process ideas” that she believes will lead to transformative discoveries.

NSF Director France Córdova

NSF Director France Córdova speaks before the National Science Board on May 6. (Image credit – National Science Board)

Calling it “intellectual horsepower that’s unparalleled anywhere in government that I have seen,” then chairman of the National Science Board (NSB), Dan Arvizu voiced the board’s enthusiasm for a series of nine ideas for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) future direction presented by Director France Córdova at the board’s May 6 meeting. Other NSB members peppered their feedback with similar praise, saying the foundation’s ideas are “fabulous,” “tremendously exciting,” and “fascinating.

At the last NSB meeting in February, Arvizu bemoaned that for the past few years the foundation has been occupied with “playing defense” and addressing concerns about oversight and accountability. An impetus for switching the narrative about the foundation came out of this exchange, explained Cordova:

[Arvizu] asked us to consider playing offense: that is, putting forth bold ideas for the future, transformative ideas that NSF is uniquely suited to address.

At a two-day offsite retreat in April with the NSF director, chief operating officer, assistant directors of the six research directorates and their office heads, the foundation’s leadership engaged in strategic thinking about future directions for science in multiple disciplines, discussing a large number of ideas that had surfaced from the directorates. Córdova explained that out of that “plethora of ideas” emerged nine big ideas, six of which she calls “research big ideas” and three “process ideas.” All of them, she added, may lead to transformative discoveries and will build on ongoing work within the foundation.   

Córdova’s research big ideas would draw heavily on the physical sciences

In the last section of this FYI are excerpts from Córdova’s speech in which she addresses and explains each of the nine ideas.

The foundation’s six research big ideas are:

  • Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science and Engineering;
  • Shaping the New Human - Technology Frontier;
  • Understanding The Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype;
  • Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution;
  • Navigating the New Arctic;
  • Windows on the Universe: the Era of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics;

And the three process ideas are:

  • Growing Convergent Research at NSF;
  • Mid-scale Research Infrastructure; and
  • NSF 2050: Integrative Foundational Fund.

While two of the research big ideas fall directly within the physical sciences - Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution and Windows on the Universe: the Era of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics – all six will either draw on or have a significant bearing on the physical sciences.

NSB calls on NSF to leverage research investments beyond the foundation

The praise among the board members for Córdova’s presentation and the nine ideas was palpable, and a number of the board members suggested the foundation consider how these ideas might serve as what Arvizu called “the catalyst for broader investment” in innovation, especially in other federal agencies and in the private sector. Arvizu pointed out,

There’s an ecosystem out there that’s beyond just NSF, and living in Silicon Valley these days there’s an incredible amount of private sector - philanthropic and otherwise - that can be brought to bear. ... There’s an opportunity to think way outside of what the traditional boxes have been…and there’s so much that could be done in terms of collaboration with other agencies.

Sethuraman Panchanathan, chief research and innovation officer at Arizona State University, concurred, adding that the U.S. private sector is investing in a number of so-called “moonshot” initiatives that NSF could complement with its investments:

Industries now like Google and others are looking at moonshot kind of thinking. For example, the human technology touch issues are something that’s near and dear to them and data science is near and dear to them, so having them as part of the process…might be important to engage interagency as well as industry.

During her report to the board on May 5, Córdova highlighted a new Silicon Valley leadership group “that’s become quite close to NSF,” which she said has been promoting the importance of basic research on Capitol Hill.

Excerpts from Córdova’s speech elaborating the nine big ideas

“I want to give you an overview of how NSF came to identify several robust ideas for future investment and briefly highlight each of our ideas. You’ll see there and nine in number so they are all going to have to be brief, but there’s a great deal of background work that’s been done on these by the [assistant directors] and all through the directorates.

Harnessing Data. The first one we call harnessing data. With an increase in the volume, variety and velocity of data as we have heard discussed a lot at this meeting, the very nature of scientific inquiry is changing, and we expect it to change a whole lot more. We propose to develop a national scale initiative aimed at fundamental data science research, research data infrastructure, cyberinfrastructure, and the development of a 21st century data capable workforce. To do this, we must fund research that’s at the intersection of mathematics and statistics and computational science to enhance data-driven modeling, simulation and visualization. We must fund research on things like predictive analytics, data mining, machine learning, data semantics, reproducibility, privacy and protection, and the human-data interface. The cyberinfrastructure system has to be robust and open and science-driven and capable of mining the enormous quantities of data that we expect from our large facilities. We must develop innovative learning opportunities and education pathways to develop the skills needed by tomorrow’s workforce. New government, industry and international partnerships will maximize the impact of this investment. ...

Shaping the New Human Technology Frontier. The second big idea is called shaping the new human technology frontier. The ways that we work, live, and learn are increasingly infused with technology. We talk to people halfway around the world with a watch at our ear. ... The vehicles that we drive have embedded sensors, communications, and increased autonomy. The sculptures we enjoy can now be printed in 3D, and there’s a splendid example of a very famous sculpture over at the Renwick Gallery right now. You would swear looking from a distance it was made of marble but get up close it’s all in 3D. Our homes are becoming smart. ... And FitBits we wear monitor our health. In this emerging techno-world research examining this human technology frontier becomes paramount. We would build on foundational investments we’ve made in machine learning and efficient engineered systems with cognitive and adaptive capabilities. We would fund studies about how technology affects learning, human behavior and social organization and how it will affect work and productivity, the very nature of work in the future, and education. And we will investigate how we as humans can shape the future of technology so it serves to better human life.

Rules of Life. The third big research idea we call rules of life. When you take your next bite of Romanesco broccoli, you probably won’t stop to admire its fractal form or appreciate that the number of spirals on its head is a Fibonacci number. Why is this pattern repeated so often in nature? The universally recognized biggest gap in our biological knowledge is our inability to predict the phenotype of a cell or organism from what we know about the genome and the environment. We do not understand the rules that govern phenotypic emergence at scale. To understand the rules of life will require research across biology, computer science, mathematics, the physical sciences, behavioral sciences, and engineering. Among the key questions we might ask for our research is how can computational modeling and informatics methods enable the data integration needed to predict complex living systems and how might we predict the behavior of living systems from single molecules to whole organisms, and to what degree is an organism’s genome affected by the microorganisms that live in symbiosis within it.

Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution. The fourth idea we call the quantum leap: leading the next quantum revolution. Quantum mechanics has led to many of the technologies we take for granted today like lasers and the transistors in computers and all electronic devices. There’s a new quantum revolution afoot. It will exploit quantum phenomena like superposition, entanglement, and squeezing to enable the next wave of precision sensors and more efficient computation and simulation and communication. NSF would invest in research that addresses the manipulation of quantum states and the control of material light interactions involving physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. There will be strong connections to industry of course, other federal agencies, and international partnerships.

Navigating the New Arctic. The fifth big research idea: navigating the new Arctic. There are vast and rapid environmental changes in the Arctic that will have a climatic effect on the rest and will also bring new global access to the Arctic’s natural resources. Knowledge of the changes underway and their potential local and global effects are incomplete due to sparse and varied sampling. NSF would establish an observing network of mobile and fixed platforms and tools across the Arctic to document biological, physical and social changes, and invest further in theory, modeling, and simulation of this changing ecosystem, and its broader effects on the planet. This effort will be leveraged with participation of other agencies, both local and federal.

Windows on the Universe: the Era of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics. And the sixth big research idea is what we call windows on the universe: the era of multi-messenger astrophysics. As our scientific instrumentation improves in sensitivity, observations of the universe have revealed exciting new cosmic phenomena which bring with them ever new and larger mysteries. We know very little, for example, of the nature of 95 percent of the mass energy content of the universe. We continue to pursue theories that would validate theories of the universe’s origin in evolution. We do not yet have a unifying theory of quantum and gravitational fields, nor do we know the origin of high energy cosmic rays. We have many questions about the nature and behavior of stars in their death throes, like black holes and neutron stars. We’ve come to a special moment in our understanding of our universe. For the first time, we can explore its mysteries in the electromagnetic regime, the particle regime, and now in the gravitational regime. NSF is the agency that can uniquely do this with ground-based observations, from our observatories like [the Atacama Large Millimeter Array] that observes at millimeter wavelengths; IceCube, which detects neutrinos; and LIGO, which detects gravitational waves. With so much potential for discovery we need to increase our investment in the large number of potential U.S. users in exploiting big data that these observatories are producing and increasing the sensitivity of these and other large ground-based facilities.

That’s our six big research ideas. And I’m now going to summarize three big process ideas. Each of these would give science and engineering communities additional capacity to stimulate breakthrough science.

Convergent Research. The first is growing convergent research at NSF. Convergence is a relatively new way of thinking about bringing people with their disciplinary knowledge together to address grand challenges. A recent National Academy report on convergence stated, “merging ideas, approaches and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge at a high level of integration is one crucial strategy for solving complex problems.” The convergence approach would frame challenging research questions at inception and foster the collaborations needed for successful inquiry. NSF is well positioned to foster convergence because of its deep connection to all fields of science and engineering. To support convergence research, we have a lot of challenges. We need to address the key technical, organizational, and logistics challenges that hinder true transdisciplinary research and the people who propose such research. This involves a critical look at criteria and metrics for convergence research and for NSF adapting the merit review process to represent the broad expertise that’s needed to identify the best ideas.

Mid-scale Research. Our second idea you have heard a lot in the last two board meetings about mid-scale research, so we have really laid the groundwork for this idea. At those meetings, Jim Kurose and Fleming Crim talked about the limitation of our [Major Research and Equipment Facilities Construction (MREFC)] process with respect to funding opportunities that cost between several million dollars and $100 million. Examples would be cyberinfrastructure, cost microwave background measurements, sensor networks, dark matter experiments, nuclear astrophysics measurements, and instruments for current major experiments or facilities. Lowering the threshold for MREFC expenditures with appropriate modification of processes would increase the flexibility for excellent science to be done across the agency.

NSF 2050. And the last big idea, a process idea, we call NSF 2050. We have to start getting ready now. It’s a proposal for an integrative foundational fund. NSF wants to create a breakthrough scientific pathway to its centennial in 2050. With this initiative, NSF would dedicate a special fund now to invest in bold research questions that originate outside of any particular directorate or are larger in scope and innovative in character than what we often propose for the next fiscal year and require a very long term commitment. Similar to NIH’s common fund…NSF 2050 would invite community input into long term program development and capture the imagination of critical stakeholders. This fund might be initiated off the top of the FY18 funding request but would hopefully become important enough in scope and visibility that we would expect increases in future budget requests.”


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