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Building Stronger Bridges Between Discovery, Innovation, and Prosperity

May 10, 2021 | Sethuraman Panchanathan

The Biden-Harris administration recently released its budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2022. The discretionary spending request includes $10.17 billion for the US National Science Foundation, which represents a 20% increase over the agency’s current budget.

The President’s request affirms the importance of the agency’s role in advancing the frontiers of science and technological progress and NSF looks forward to working with Congress and other stakeholders to ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of science, engineering, and STEM workforce development.

It is more important now than ever to catalyze innovation, at speed and scale, as the US is looking to the science and engineering community for solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges. We need to rapidly scale our investments and build even stronger bridges between discovery, innovation, and commercialization in order to develop innovative ways to mitigate the pandemic, advance the industries of tomorrow, promote economic recovery, ensure racial equity, address climate resilience, and more.

NSF is poised to drive discovery and innovation along two key axes that undergird the health of our research ecosystem: by training the next generation of STEM leaders and through seeding bold, large-scale foundational and transformative research with meaningful societal and economic impact.

Sethuraman Panchanathan

Sethuraman Panchanathan

Strengthening STEM pathways

Today’s STEM students and researchers are the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. One of my key priorities is realizing the full potential of the American workforce. There is tremendous talent throughout our nation, but only a fraction of it becomes part of the broader STEM community.

US competitiveness depends on reaching that talent, because we need an agile and adaptable workforce that can upskill, reskill and succeed through creative and innovative mindsets. The need is perhaps more urgent now than ever as the pandemic has deeply impacted pathways to STEM education and careers.

As we work to spur recovery and provide relief, we are looking at how we can scale up the reach of the broader STEM community so that anyone—from any background and from any part of the country—who has the aspiration and talent to go into a STEM career is given the opportunity and provided the support to do so.

This will require strengthening pathways into STEM fields and expanding our reach into communities where talent exists. We are going to have to develop new approaches and tailor educational experiences for communities to be more effective at bringing talent into the STEM enterprise.

NSF is also working to develop a diverse workforce capable of driving the industries of the future. For example, we are currently on the cusp of a new quantum revolution and we need a well-trained workforce to accelerate it.

NSF has funded quantum research and education since the 1980s by providing support for thousands of graduate students, post-docs, and early career researchers. Now, the agency is finding new ways to train students in the flexible thinking needed to learn about quantum and to adopt education concepts that could have broad benefits across the country.

Through the National Q-12 Education Partnership, NSF has invested $1 million in linking top industry and academic leaders to build a better-trained, more diverse group of quantum learners, ready one day to enter the quantum workforce.

This effort includes investing in projects such as a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and University of Chicago collaboration to create curricula and implement tools that will increase quantum awareness and literacy at the K-12 level—and ultimately for all age groups.

Another project, run by the American Association of Physics Teachers, will host summer workshops for teachers and build a community of educators working to deploy QIS-focused content at schools.

Seeding bold, large-scale foundational and transformative research with meaningful societal and economic impact

By seeding strategic investments, NSF steers the frontiers of discovery and innovation toward breakthroughs that address pressing societal challenges and that places the US at the vanguard of global leadership.

The global pandemic has dramatically underscored the importance and uniqueness of NSF’s long-term support for foundational research coupled with use-inspired innovations across the entire spectrum of STEM fields.

NSF rapidly responded to the pandemic by deploying decades of discovery and innovations in support of researchers across all fields of science and engineering working to understand and combat the virus. The results ranged from new designs for vital personal protective equipment and testing devices more easily deployable in the field to new models that advanced our fundamental understanding of the virus’s structure and how it functions, to name a few.

Additionally, NSF’s early support for projects like CRISPR and the science that led to the creation of the technique polymerase chain reaction have enabled major advancements in our ability to understand the COVID-19 virus and the development of vaccines to slow its spread.

Years of NSF support for dark matter research even resulted in surprising outcomes that facilitated pandemic response efforts. When particle physicists working in Italy on NSF-supported dark matter research were forced to halt their work because of the global pandemic, they quickly shifted focus to look for solutions. Familiar with using and building sensitive detection equipment involving handling and pumping gases, it was a natural transition to adjust focus from the argon used in their dark matter detector to oxygen and lungs instead. Their quick work resulted in an FDA approved ventilator constructed from low cost and easily accessible materials.

These innovations began as exploratory-based research projects aimed at better understanding the world around us. They exemplify the potential benefits of science, technology and engineering solutions that are driven by the unbelievable power of curiosity-driven research.

In other words, NSF supports both fundamental explorations and use-inspired innovations that make possible technological progress and produces solutions to challenges facing society. This is because the scientific pursuit of knowledge and understanding cannot be separated from the development of new technological capabilities.

And, in turn, these new capabilities allow us to pursue new research questions that were once out of our reach, forming a virtuous cycle.

The DNA of NSF

It is this double helix of curiosity-driven, discovery-based explorations in synergy with use-inspired, solutions-focused innovations that makes up the DNA of NSF.

And it is this synergy that NSF is uniquely capable of cultivating that will lead us toward transformational leaps in discovery and innovation.

Consider, for example, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. This is a project that was decades in the making at NSF. Early on, there were questions about whether detecting gravitational waves was possible—not as a matter of theory, but as a practical matter of whether it would ever be possible to develop the technology necessary to make those detections.

NSF DNA static graphic

In 1979, NSF made a grant to Kip Thorne for a new approach to quantum measurement to help bridge that technological gap and bring gravitational wave detection into the realm of the possible—an unbelievable feat that would happen thirty-six years later.

Our pursuit of discovery science—in this case, gravitational waves—was part of a cycle that included innovative technical solutions for quantum sensing. That cycle has continued. Today, we are relying on the culmination of decades of research to peer even deeper into the cosmos to understand the fabric of the universe, and at the same time, we are building on the knowledge we have gained to develop a new generation of quantum sensors that will be critical to technological applications ranging from cutting-edge research to commercial products.

Thanks to strong support from Congress and a team of incredibly talented, hardworking employees, NSF has helped lead the way in American leadership in R&D for decades. As we look to the future, NSF will continue investing in discoveries and discoverers, innovations and innovators who will enable the breakthroughs and advancements that will ensure societal and economic prosperity into the future.

The author is Director of the National Science Foundation, an $8.5B independent federal agency and the only government agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and STEM education. Panchanathan was unanimously confirmed as Director by the US Senate on June 18, 2020. He previously served as the executive vice president of the Arizona State University (ASU) Knowledge Enterprise, where he was also chief research and innovation officer. He was also the founder and director of the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing at ASU. Panchanathan is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, where he also served as vice president for strategic initiatives. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Society of Optical Engineering.

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