From imagination to impact

As the National Science Board (NSB) testified before Congress in early 2020, “The past has shown that investment in basic research now will give us the keys to meeting the security, health, and economic challenges of the future — challenges we know will arise but whose nature we cannot predict.” 

How uncannily prescient those words proved to be. Now more than at any time in recent memory, Americans can see the fruits borne from decades of federal investment in science as researchers and innovators developed novel technologies, deployed at scale, to respond to COVID-19 in record time. 

For more than 70 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been a cornerstone of that long-term federal commitment. NSF funds ground-breaking fundamental research in all fields, from astronomy to zoology and nurtures and supports tens of thousands of talented people who are embedded in every sector of our economy as researchers, educators, technicians, entrepreneurs, and innovators. I chair NSF’s National Science Board, which is the agency’s governing board and advises Congress and the president on science and engineering issues.

For over seven decades, advancements in science and engineering have driven much of U.S. economic growth, underpinned our national security and transformed Americans’ daily lives. As the U.S. begins to emerge from this devastating pandemic, the country finds itself at an inflection point. Today, as the NSB described in our Vision 2030 report, urgent action is needed to ensure that the U.S. stays at the forefront of innovation. While the U.S. science and engineering enterprise is growing in absolute terms, the U.S. share of discovery is dropping as other nations, notably China, ramp up investments in research and development. In addition, the growth of knowledge- and technology-intensive industries has increased the worldwide demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent. If revolutionary insights and technological innovations are to be made in America, then the scientists and engineers that imagine and create those insights and innovations must be developed, attracted to, and nurtured here in America, too.

What needs to happen to make this a reality? What actions must be taken now to ensure U.S. global leadership in science, technology, and innovation in the decades to come?

The president and Congress are proposing action to meet the challenges NSB identified in Vision 2030: The need to speed up delivering benefits from research and to do more to develop domestic STEM talent. The President’s Budget Request is a historic investment in U.S. science and engineering, and in NSF. Congressional proposals also leverage NSF’s unique strengths to address this national need. NSF is the right agency for this job, this is the right scale of investment, and this is the right time.

Building on its strengths, NSF will pursue both the curiosity-driven research that leads to unexpected advancements and the use-inspired research that solves societal challenges. The research community has far more ideas than NSF can fund. Countless discoveries with no known use or application eventually proved to be seeds that decades later grew into world-changing breakthroughs. The proposed budget will allow more of those seeds to germinate. NSF will accelerate the path from imagination to impact by building capacity in translational research and strengthening partnerships between academia, the private sector and government. And NSF will work to ensure that all Americans have the chance to contribute talents and skills, from skilled technical workers to PhDs. 

Talent is the treasure on which the nation’s prosperity, health and security depend — yet even as STEM knowledge and skills become more essential, the U.S. is not developing the full potential of its people.  My experiences at NASA taught me that teamwork is needed to solve big problems and to innovate — and that those teams are most creative and effective when they include diverse perspectives. Yet despite some progress, women and racial and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce relative to their proportions in the U.S. population. To be a STEM powerhouse, the U.S. must capitalize on talent in every state and recruit the “missing millions” from across the many dimensions of diversity. 

As America’s STEM talent agency, NSF is focused on just that. The White House and congressional proposals will supercharge the U.S. science and engineering enterprise, equipping NSF with the resources needed to help the agency provide pathways for all who find their passion and purpose in science and engineering. Just as Sally Ride inspired me to explore space, the scientists and engineers nurtured by NSF will serve as role models for the next generation. Science is truly the endless frontier, and everyone can be an explorer.

Ellen Ochoa is the chair of the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, and was the first Latina in space. She is honored to have six schools in four states named after her.


Tags American innovation Engineering Innovation NASA National Science Board NSB Science STEM

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