Order Code 95-307 SPR
Updated January 24, 2007
U.S. National Science Foundation: An
Christine M. Matthews
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created by the National Science
Foundation Act of 1950, as amended (P.L. 81-507). The NSF has the broad mission of
supporting science and engineering in general and funding basic research across many
disciplines. The agency provides support for investigator-initiated, merit-reviewed,
competitively selected awards, state-of-the-art tools, and instrumentation and facilities.
The majority of the research supported by the NSF is conducted at U.S. colleges and
universities. Approximately 82.6% ($3,174.9 million) of NSF’s FY2005 $3,844.2
million research and development (R&D) budget was awarded to U.S. colleges and
universities.1 Preliminary data reveal that for FY2005 the NSF provided approximately
60.3% of all federally funded basic research conducted at the nation’s colleges and
universities, with the exclusion of biomedical research sponsored by the National
Institutes of Health. In addition, NSF provides more than 30% of the total federal
support for science and mathematics education. This report will be updated periodically.
Background. The NSF’s primary responsibility is to maintain the health and
vitality of the U.S. academic science and engineering enterprise. In addition to ensuring
the nation’s supply of scientific and engineering personnel, the NSF promotes academic
basic research and science and engineering education across many disciplines.2 Other
federal agencies, in contrast, support mission-specific research (i.e., health, agriculture,
National Science Foundation, Federal Funds for Research and Development: Fiscal Years
2003- 2005, Detailed Statistical Tables, NSF06-313, Arlington, VA, April 2006, Table 10.
The NSF does not provide funding for research in clinical medicine, commerce, social work,
or the arts and humanities. However, its investments in basic research contribute to scientific
advances in drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and the design and manufacturing of
The NSF provides support for investigator-initiated, merit-reviewed, competitively
selected awards, state-of-the-art tools, instrumentation and facilities. In FY2005, the
agency received approximately 41,700 proposals for research, graduate and postdoctoral
fellowships, and science, mathematics, and engineering projects, and made about 10,000
new funding awards. Support is provided to academic institutions, industrial laboratories,
private research firms, and major research facilities and centers. While NSF does not
operate any laboratories, it does support Antarctic research stations, selected
oceanographic vessels, and national research centers. Additionally, NSF supports
university-industry relationships and U.S. participation in international scientific ventures.
Most of the research supported by the NSF is conducted at U.S. colleges and
universities. Approximately 82.6% ($3,174.9 million) of NSF’s estimated FY2005
$3,844.2 million research and development (R&D) budget was awarded to U.S. colleges
and universities. Preliminary data reveal that in FY2005, NSF provided approximately
60.3% of all federally funded basic research conducted at the nation’s colleges and
universities, with the exclusion of biomedical research sponsored by the National
Institutes of Health.3
Figure 1. NSF R&D Support in FY2005 Constant Dollars,
FY1997 - FY2006
Dollars in Millions
Source: National Science Foundation FY2007 Budget Request to Congress, p.32
While the FY2005 R&D appropriation of $3,844.2 million for NSF was only 3.6% of the total
federal R&D budget, the agency plays a significant role in maintaining the academic research
enterprise. Preliminary FY2005 data reveal that the NSF provided 13.1% of all federally
supported basic research and 13.5% of federal academic research. In addition, NSF was the
second largest federal supporter of academic research in FY2005, eclipsed by the Department of
Health and Human Services, which provided 67%. The Department of Defense, the third largest
supporter of academic research, provided 6.6%. Federal Funds for Research and Development:
Fiscal Years 2003-2005, Tables 10 and 29.
The NSF is an independent agency in the executive branch and under the leadership
of a presidentially appointed Director and a National Science Board (NSB) composed of
24 scientists, engineers, and university and industry officials involved in research and
education. The NSB and the Director make policy for the NSF.
Organization and Fiscal Year 2007 Request. The NSF has witnessed
considerable growth during a period of constrained research budgets. When measured in
current dollars, its total appropriation increased more than 69.2% in 10 years — FY1997,
$3,298.8 million; FY2001, $4,459.9 million; and FY2006, $5,581.2 million. Even when
inflation is taken into account, its growth increased (in constant FY2005 dollars) by 42%
during this 10-year period. The FY2007 request for the NSF was $6,020 million, a 7.9%
increase ($439 million) over the FY2006 level of $5,472.8 million. The President’s
American Competitiveness Initiative proposed to double the NSF budget over the next
10 years. The FY2007 request was to be the first installment toward that doubling effort.
NSF planned an investment of approximately $640.0 million in programs targeted at those
groups underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. NSF asserts that
international research partnerships are critical to the nation in maintaining a competitive
edge, addressing global issues, and capitalizing on global economic opportunities. To
address these particular needs, the FY2007 request proposed $40.6 million for the Office
of International Science and Engineering. A first-year investment of $62.0 million was
provided to address major challenges in polar research. Other FY2007 highlights
included funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative ($373.2 million), Climate
Change Science Program ($205.3 million), homeland security ($384.2 million), and
Networking and Information Technology Research and Development ($903.7 million).
Included in the FY2007 request was $4,666.0 million for Research and Related
Activities (R&RA), a 7.7% increase ($334.5 million) over the FY2006 level of $4,331.5
million. R&RA funds research projects, research facilities, and education and training
activities. The Administration proposed increased funding for the physical sciences in
FY2007 — $248.5 million, a 6.6% increase over FY2006. R&RA includes Integrative
Activities (IA), and is a source of funding for the acquisition and development of research
instrumentation at U.S. colleges and universities, disaster research teams, Partnerships for
Innovation, and the Science and Technology Policy Institute. The FY2007 request for IA
was $131.4 million, a 4.2% decrease ($5.8 million) from the FY2006 level. The Office
of Polar Programs (OPP), funded in the R&RA, was proposed at $438.1 million in the
FY2007 request, 12.5% above FY2006. Significant increases in OPP for FY2007 were
directed at the programs for arctic and antarctic sciences. In FY2006, responsibility for
funding the costs of icebreakers that support scientific research in polar regions was
transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to NSF.4 The NSF will continue to operate and
maintain the three icebreakers.
The FY2007 request provided support for seven major directorates and other
programs and activity accounts. The directorates are the Biological Sciences; Computer
and Information Science and Engineering; Education and Human Resources; Engineering;
Geosciences; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; and Social, Behavioral, and Economic
While the NSF does not own the ships, it is responsible for the operation, maintenance, and
staffing of the vessels. NSF has been directed to pursue alternative sources of funding for the
icebreaking fleet beyond 2006.
Sciences. Six of the seven directorates are in the R&RA. In addition to the directorates,
the R&RA includes the OPP and IA. The seven major directorates are described below.
Biological Sciences (BIO). The FY2007 request of $607.9 million for the BIO
Directorate supported programs structured to improve scientific understanding of
biological phenomena, ranging from the study of fundamental molecules of living
organisms to the complexity of biological systems. Types of support provided include
research workshops, symposia, conferences, the improvement of research collections,
purchase of scientific equipment, and operation of research facilities.
Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). The CISE
Directorate, proposed at $526.7 million in FY2007, supported programs focused on the
fundamental understanding of computing and information processing, and the use of stateof-the-art computational techniques in scientific and engineering research. Currently,
areas of research emphasized are parallel processing, automation and robotics, large-scale
integrated electronic systems, scientific computing, and networking.
Education and Human Resources (EHR). The FY2007 request of $816.2
million for EHR supported science, engineering, mathematics, and technology education.
People receiving funding from the EHR include senior researchers, postdoctoral
associates, graduate and undergraduate students, and teachers and students at the
precollege level. Additional support is provided to individuals through informal science
Engineering (ENG). The activities of the ENG, at $628.6 million in FY2007,
were directed at enhancing the long-term economic strength and security of the Nation by
fostering innovation and excellence in engineering education and research. The ENG is
focused on integrating education and research in interdisciplinary areas such as
information and communication technologies, biotechnology, and environmental research.
Geosciences (GEO). The FY2007 request of $744.9 million for the GEO
Directorate provided support to programs that promote knowledge and discussions
concerning earth, including the sun, atmosphere, continents, oceans, and interior, and the
linkages among them. One of the objectives of the GEO is to expand the knowledge of
the biological, chemical, geological, and physical processes in the ocean, and at its
boundaries, with the atmosphere and the earth’s crust.
Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). The FY2007 request of
$1,150.3 million for the MPS was to fund programs designed to increase the knowledge
base in the relevant sciences; improve the quality of educational programs, with emphasis
at the undergraduate level; improve the rate at which research efforts are translated into
societal benefits; and increase the diversity of approaches and individuals in the
mathematical and physical sciences.
Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE.) The SBE Directorate,
proposed at $213.8 million in FY2007, supported programs directed at developing basic
scientific knowledge about human behavior, culture, interaction, and decisionmaking, and
about social, political, and economic systems, organizations, and institutions. The SBE
also has served as the nation’s primary data source on science and engineering human,
institutional, and financial resources.
Other Program Activities and Accounts. The Major Research Equipment and
Facilities Construction (MREFC) account was funded at $240.5 million in the FY2007
request, a 26% increase over FY2006. The MREFC supports the acquisition and
construction of major research facilities and equipment that extend the boundaries of
science, engineering, and technology. First priority for funding is directed at ongoing
projects, and second priority is given to new starts. Five ongoing projects and two new
starts were scheduled for support in the FY2007 request — the Atacama Large Millimeter
Array Construction ($47.9 million), EarthScope ($27.4 million), IceCube Neutrino
Observatory ($28.7 million), National Ecological Observatory Network ($12 million),
Scientific Ocean Drilling Vessel ($42.9 million), Alaskan Region Research Vessel ($56
million), and Ocean Observatories Initiative ($13.5 million).
The EHR was proposed at $816.2 million in FY2007, a 2.5% increase ($19.5
million) over FY2006. The EHR portfolio is focused on increasing the technological
literacy of all citizens, preparing the next generation of science, engineering, and
mathematics professionals, and closing the achievement gap in all scientific fields.
Support at the educational levels was: precollege, $215 million; undergraduate, $196.8
million; and graduate, $160.6 million. The Math and Science Partnership Program (MSP)
was funded at $46 million, 27.2% below FY2006. Support was directed at ongoing
awards (no new partnerships were proposed), data collection, evaluation, and
dissemination. Added support was given to programs directed at increasing the number
of underrepresented minorities in science, mathematics, and engineering. These included
the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Programs ($29.7 million), Tribal
Colleges and Universities Program ($12.4 million), Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority
Participation ($39.7 million), and Centers of Research Excellence in Science and
Technology ($24.9 million). Funding for the Experimental Program to Stimulate
Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was $100.0 million in the FY2007 request, a slight
increase of $1.3 million over FY2006.
Policy Issues. There has been considerable debate in the academic and scientific
community and in Congress about the management and oversight of major projects
selected for construction and the need for prioritization of potential projects funded in the
MREFC account. One continuing question has focused on the process for including
major projects in the upcoming budget cycle. Appropriation language directed the NSF
to improve its oversight of large projects by developing an implementation plan that
included comprehensive guidelines and project oversight review. In September 2005, the
NSB released its management report on the new guidelines for the development, review,
and approval of major projects — Setting Priorities for Large Research Facility Projects
Supported by the National Science Foundation.5 The report describes facilities under
construction and those being considered for future funding. Because of the changing
nature of science and technology, NSF finds it necessary to have the flexibility of
reconsidering facilities at the various stages of development. Also, the NSF states that
it must be able to respond, effectively, to possible changes in interagency participation,
international and cooperative agreements, or co-funding for major research facilities.
NSF encourages project planning from disciplines and fields in which scientists and
engineers have not traditionally partnered or collaborated. The report notes that while
National Science Board, Setting Priorities for Large Research Projects Supported by the
National Science Foundation, NSB05-77, Arlington, VA, September 2005, 31 pp.
some “concepts” may evolve into MREFC candidates, others may prove infeasible for
major project support. The facility plan will be updated as needed.
Several pieces of competitiveness legislation were introduced during the 109th
Congress that had as a key provision, funding and strengthening science and mathematics
education. There are concerns about the nation’s continued ability to compete in world
markets and to produce a scientific and technical workforce that would ensure economic
prosperity and military capability.6 The Administration’s American Competitiveness
Initiative contends that there are several “gaps” in the educational system that need to be
addressed in order to better prepare U.S. students for a workforce that is increasingly more
scientifically and technically proficient.7 A priority of the NSF is to advance the
productivity of research for students and teachers and to increase the number of U.S.
students pursuing scientific and technical disciplines. However, there were proposed cuts
or level funding for several science education programs in NSF’s FY2007 request. Also,
there were reported efforts to shift support for some programs to the Department of
Education. Overall, support for EHR has declined from $944.1 million in FY2004 to
$816.2 million in the FY2007 request. Questions are being raised as to whether the NSF
can address the “gaps” and effectively continue in its explicit mission and responsibility
to improve science and mathematics education with the current level of funding.8 In
March 2006, the NSB approved a commission to prepare a national action plan for
improving science and mathematics education. A report is expected in one year.
In September 2006, the NSF released the report, Investing in America’s FutureStrategic Plan FY2006-2011.9 NSF states that the report addresses the accelerating pace
of scientific discoveries that are occurring in a more competitive international
environment. The Strategic Plan lists several investment priorities that are targeted for
increased emphasis or funding over the next five years. The investments include
furthering U.S. economic competitiveness; promoting transformational, multidisciplinary
research; improving K-12 teaching and learning in science and mathematics; developing
a comprehensive, integrated cyberinfrastructure; and strengthening the nation’s
collaborative advantage through unique networks and innovative partnerships. In
addition, NSF will continue to improve management excellence, with a focus on joining
such areas as resource allocation, communication strategies, award management and
oversight, and the core processes of merit review.
See for example National Center on Education and the Economy, Tough Choices or Tough
times, the Report fo the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, Executive
Summary, January 2007, 26 pp.
Office of Science and Technology Policy, Domestic Policy Council, American Competitiveness
Initiative - Leading the World In Innovation, February 2006, Washington, DC, 23 pp.
Mervis, Jeffrey, “National Science Foundation: Is the Education Directorate Headed for a
Failing Grade?,” Science, v. 311, February 24, 2006, pp. 1092-1093.
National Science Foundation, Investing in America’s Future-Strategic Plan FY2006-2011,
NSF06-48, Arlington, VA, September 2006, 19 pp.