National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is the only federal agency with the primary goal of supporting research across the full spectrum of science, technology, mathematics and engineering-- including chemistry, computer science, geoscience, astronomy, economics and many other fields. The NSF supports nearly a quarter of all federally supported basic research in the U.S. NSF-funded research ranges from studying how gun violence affects high-risk populations to studying malaria transmission.



NOTE: Does not include supplemental funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. 

Sources: NSF, House Committee on Appropriations.

Americans Support Increased Funding for NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) works to promote the progress of science; advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and secure the national defense. How important is it to increase funding for NSF? 


Source: A Research!America poll of U.S. adults conducted in partnership with Zogby analytics in January 2016.



World War II vastly intensified the level of government-science partnerships in the U.S. and federal involvement in and support for scientific research [1]. In 1950, President Harry Truman signed into law the National Science Foundation Act, creating the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes” [2]. Seven years later, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik sparked anxiety over the United States’ ability to scientifically compete with other nations. In fiscal year 1958, the Foundation received $40 million in federal funding. By fiscal year 1959, that funding level increased to $134 million, and by 1968 the NSF budget was almost $500 million [1].

Today, the NSF is funded at $8.1 billion [3], supporting basic and applied research at universities and other research institutions in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and three U.S. territories. The NSF, “plays multiple roles. It supports the basic research that makes possible the design of new technologies; it funds the development of ambitious new research infrastructure that creates new opportunities for science, often a decades-long process; and it provides researchers with access to cutting-edge instruments so that they can pursue research never before possible, creating the opportunity for new breakthroughs” [2]. As of February 2018, the NSF had funded over 220 Nobel Prize winners [2].

The NSF’s support for high-risk, high-reward research has led to exponential leaps in scientific progress and groundbreaking discoveries. For example, researchers use the NSF-funded Stampede supercomputer to design next generation batteries for use in renewable energy powered “smart electrical grids” [4]. In another project, NSF funded radiologists and astronomers came together and found that computer software developed for use in astronomy could be repurposed to more accurately identify signs of cancer in mammograms [2].

Driving Economic Growth

Congress noted in 2017 that “scientific and technological advancement have been the largest drivers of economic growth in the last 50 years” [5]. The NSF plays both a direct and indirect role in fostering the connection between scientific and economic progress. The NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program helps researchers think outside the lab and consider the commercial applications of their work. Armed with entrepreneurship training, participants in I-Corps have started 440 startups, attracting over $250 million in seed capital [2].

Scientist-entrepreneurs farther along in the process of capitalizing their research can apply for funding through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer program. Also known as America’s Seed Fund, this program annually provides $200 million in grants to entrepreneurs starting companies to develop and market high-risk, high-impact technologies [6]. America’s Seed Fund has made critical advances possible, including a rapid malaria test, AI technology that helps medical professionals interpret and perform ultrasounds, high-tech drug delivery systems that target tumors, a weather and crop monitoring system that delivers advanced insight to farmers, and next-wave 3D printers [7]. Check out the role research and development plays in your state’s economy.

NSF Research

Helping Develop the Modern Internet

The NSF helped shepherd the Internet into the form we know today and continues to support research that will shape the Internet of tomorrow. In the early nineties, the Internet boasted fewer than one hundred websites. Looking to make it more accessible, the NSF led the cross-agency Digital Library Initiative (DLI). Grants from the DLI supported various research projects including one called BackRub, a search engine founded by two Stanford graduate students that would eventually develop into Google. BackRub used a system that judged a webpage’s value by the number of other pages linking to it, and this PageRank method is still part of Google today [8]. While the Internet’s first iteration, ARPANET, was run by the Department of Defense, NSF provided stewardship and financial support for the next generation iteration of the Internet, NSFNET, which welcomed commercial traffic for the first time in 1991. Mosaic, the first publically available Web browser capable of processing text and images, also grew out of NSF-funded research [8].

The Internet’s integration into so many facets of our lives means the efficient exchange of information continues to be essential. NSF provides funding to the Broadband Wireless Access Center, a partnership of academia, industry, and government, which works to find creative solutions for tackling issues like data security and cyberattacks [9]. Public-private partnerships between the NSF and the wireless-sector industry are researching and building next-generation wireless technologies and services. In 2017, NSF launched a $50 million investment in the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research program with matching funds contributed by members of the wireless industry [2].

Showing the World What a Black Hole Looks Like

On April 10, 2019, researchers from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) announced the capture of the first image of a black hole. An international effort, the EHT project has received more than $28 million in funds from the NSF over a 19-year time period. Contrary to its name, the EHT is actually composed of eight virtually connected, ground-based radio telescopes whose data combines to create unified images. Telescopes involved in EHT are scattered around the globe in locations including Antarctica, Hawai’i, and Chile’s Atacama Desert. Regarding this milestone, NSF director Dr. France A. Córdova said, “This is a huge day in astrophysics... we're seeing the unseeable. Black holes have sparked imaginations for decades. They have exotic properties and are mysterious to us. Yet with more observations like this one they are yielding their secrets. This is why NSF exists. We enable scientists and engineers to illuminate the unknown, to reveal the subtle and complex majesty of our universe" [10].

Looking Forward 

From engineers and astronomers to biologists and chemists, NSF-funded scientists are working individually and collaboratively to address complex challenges and lay the groundwork for sustained economic growth and next generation jobs. Banking on NSF is a sound strategy for a better future. As other countries ramp up their R&D investments, it is essential that our nation treat NSF as the strategic asset it has proven to be, boosting its budget to at least $9 billion in Fiscal Year 2020 and providing robust funding in the years ahead.













Policy Contacts

You can change the image of things to come. But you can’t do it sitting on your hands … The science community should reach out to Congress and build bridges.
The Honorable John E. Porter