National Science Board and NSF, With Big Ideas in Hand, Intend to “Play Offense”

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Publication date: 
16 August 2016

At the August National Science Board meeting, leadership of the board and the National Science Foundation outlined plans for both organizations to become more proactive in their engagement with stakeholders and presented further details on the “big ideas” for future investment the foundation unveiled at the last board meeting.

On Aug. 9 and 10, the National Science Board gathered for its first meeting led by the newly elected chair and vice chair—Maria Zuber, vice president for research at MIT, and Diane Souvaine, vice provost for research at Tufts University. The presidentially-appointed panel serves as the governing board for the National Science Foundation and provides advice to the president, Congress, and the public on science. In her opening statement, Zuber highlighted the uniqueness of this dual role and noted that the board plans to take a significantly more proactive approach to its advisory responsibilities.

“In our role as advisors, this board is going to play offense, increasing its focus on strategy and outreach,” she emphasized, noting that the board has already started to engage more actively with the Executive Branch and Congress. She then laid out a set of principles for how the board plans to contribute to the policy process:

We are offering our expertise to inform decision making that would benefit from objective scientific input. In reaching out, we need to clearly explain facts, theories, and uncertainties. In doing this, we must be unafraid and unambiguous that science is nonpartisan. Scientific facts don’t change with election cycles. A scientific story changes when new evidence demands it.

Another area which Zuber identified as worthy of a strategic rethink is NSF’s annual analysis of its merit review process which includes numerous statistics on grant proposals and awards. Zuber reminded attendees that the board instituted this reporting requirement in the 1970s in response to congressional scrutiny of NSF, implying that the report could be used to respond to contemporary criticisms of the merit review process.

Declined proposals chartFor its part, NSF’s presentations to the board at the meeting made clear that it too is eager to take a more proactive stance toward stakeholder engagement. It appears likely that a central focus of NSF’s engagement strategy over the coming years will be the “big ideas” NSF Director France Córdova announced at the May board meeting, as reported in FYI #72. At the August meeting, Córdova described the motivation for developing these ideas in similar terms as Zuber framed the board’s plans for increased outreach: “[It’s] about being on the offense, about providing a big vision going forward.”

Big ideas taking shape

When Córdova first presented the big ideas, they consisted of six “research” ideas and three “process” ideas. Since then, NSF has added INCLUDES—its new program for broadening participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields—to the set of process ideas. Cordova justified this addition by noting that INCLUDES was developed not long before the other big ideas, that the STEM education community has responded enthusiastically to the program, and that inclusion is integral to implementing all the other big ideas. She asked rhetorically, “What's more important in a process sense than inclusion and really ensuring that in implementing a big idea that you have outreached and embraced our entire populace?” A description of the ten ideas is available here.

NSF’s ten big ideas.Córdova emphasized that these ideas are not completely new because NSF already supports research in these areas. In addition, the ideas do not represent the totality of what NSF wishes to support in the future. Rather, NSF believes that it has not been funding these areas as much as it should relative to their promise and that together they represent a framework for communicating the unique value of NSF-supported research to the nation and the world. As evidence of their international relevance, Córdova noted that since the announcement of the big ideas, heads of agencies analogous to NSF in other countries have been inquiring about how to partner with NSF in these areas.

After Córdova’s introductory remarks, the heads of NSF’s research directorates explained how they have been refining the research ideas over the past few months. Video of their discussion, along with the rest of the meeting, is available here. (The bulk of the big ideas discussion occurs in the Committee on Strategy and Budget session.)

Each of the directorate heads is leading a cross-directorate team tasked with fleshing out each of the research ideas through a series of internal meetings and consultations with the research community. In their presentations, many of the directorate heads emphasized the interrelationships between the research and process ideas, especially the convergence idea. To demonstrate the convergent nature of the research ideas and the extent to which NSF directorates currently support projects relevant to each, NSF displayed the below visualization.

Depiction of how NSF directorates support activities relevant to each of the six research ideas.

Board enthusiastic but curious about implementation details

The board appeared unanimous in its support for the big ideas framework, although some asked probing questions about the challenges to implementing them. For example, board members inquired about whether NSF has adequate mechanisms for reviewing and funding proposals which straddle multiple directorates and whether these types of proposals would be at a disadvantage to more traditional single-directorate proposals.

Fleming Crim, head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate, noted that NSF has experience fielding proposals that span multiple directorate jurisdictions, citing the Computational and Data-Enabled Science and Engineering program as an example of a successful “meta-program. However, Córdova cautioned that NSF still has a lot of work to do to operationalize this sort of cross-directorate work at a larger scale. “Fleming has some good examples, but the universe of non-examples is really outstanding.”  In particular, she noted the difficulties NSF will face in growing its portfolio of convergent research:

Maria [Zuber] and I were on a panel with [National Academy of Sciences President] Marcia McNutt on this business of how to do convergence research better when MIT had its [report] rollout on convergence and health, and I went through a long list of all the things we really are going to have to change. Not just in one program or the other at NSF, but it's a whole mind-set of how we're doing the reviews, getting the reviewers, the publications. … And that's why it is a big idea. We by no means have solved it.

Board members also inquired about the extent to which the ideas can or should be integrated with cross-agency initiatives, such as the BRAIN Initiative and the National Strategic Computing Initiative. Córdova explained that NSF is trying to strike a balance between complementing the work of other agencies while still selecting topics that the foundation is uniquely suited to support:

This is very delicate business because while we do want complimentary partnerships with other agencies, one of the reasons why we settled on these ideas and not a plethora of others that were introduced at the same time is because we think that NSF has a unique role, and uniqueness is really, really important.

Despite these challenges, the board members and NSF leadership seemed to be very enthusiastic about the big ideas. The enthusiasm appears to have spread to Congress as well. Zuber recounted a recent visit to Capitol Hill as evidence: “We talked primarily to many members who were chairs and ranking members of important committees and they all knew about [the big ideas] and, in fact, there were some discussions about things in their states or district where they had expertise and how excited they were in getting involved in this.”

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