The National Science Foundation is a U.S. federal agency created to provide support for non-medical scientific research. (Medical research is the responsibility of a sibling agency, the National Institutes of Health.) The National Science Foundation has existed since 1950, and now provides research grants and opportunities from a budget of slightly less than $7 billion per year. Like other federal agencies, the foundation is headed by a director appointed by the President and subjected to Senate confirmation, currently Arden Bement.
– History –
The National Science Foundation was created in 1950 to promote scientific research for purposes of national security, economic prosperity, and public health. From the beginning, it was not the only agency operating in this area – there was also the National Institutes of Health (mentioned above), nuclear research funding from the Department of Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission, space research from NASA, and other advanced research from the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense. Nevertheless, it represented the first attempt by the American federal government to take over scientific progress as an area of special government responsibility.
Since then, the National Science Foundation has played an important role in co-sponsoring or supporting a number of important activities, including Antarctic research, university grants, marine drilling, the Internet (after its invention under ARPA auspices), nanotechnology, and other areas.
– Current Activities –
The National Science Foundation directly employs over 1500 people, mostly in Arlington, but also funds and supports research in several areas, including biology, computer science, engineering, geology and oceanology, mathematics, chemistry, physics, high school education science curriculums, and the social sciences (psychology, political science, economics, anthropology, and sociology). Instead of operating specifically Foundation-owned research institutes and laboratories, it funds other facilities through thousands of annual grants, ranging from relatively small allocations to university scientists to carry out specific projects, to continuous funding to large-scale facilities in the U.S. proper, Antarctica, and elsewhere. Among the various laboratories and facilities which it continues to provide most or all of the funding for are a number that are near and dear to the interested public, like the instantly recognizable Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
In addition to promoting true scientific research, the National Science Foundation also does some work in assessing and encouraging public knowledge of scientific research. Its results in this area have been disappointing: according to Foundation data awareness of recent progress in areas like nanotechnology, the scientific method, and other issues by the American public lags behind higher levels of awareness in many other advanced Western countries.