THE NATIONAL SCIENCE Foundation (NSF) is a U.S. government agency that supports research and education in science and engineering. The agency was created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense." With an annual budget of about $5.91 billion, the NSF funds approximately 20 percent of all federally-supported research conducted by U. S. colleges and universities. In some fields, such as mathematics, computer science, economics, and other social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal funding. NSF has funded several important studies in the area of global warming.
The President of the United States appoints the NSF's director, its deputy director, and the 24 members of the National Science Board (NSB), who are then confirmed by the Senate. The director and deputy director are responsible for administration, planning, budgeting and day-to-day operations of the foundation, while the NSB holds six meetings per year to establish its overall policies. The NSF is unlike other U.S. government agencies, in that it does not operate its own laboratories, but seeks to fulfill its mission mainly through competitive, limited-term grants, in response to specific proposals from the research community. NSF receives about 40,000 proposals each year, and funds about 10,000 of them. The projects that receive funding are selected in a merit review process carried out by panels of independent scientists, engineers, and educators who are experts in the relevant fields of study. These are selected by NSF with particular attention to avoid conflicts of interest;
for example, no-one of the reviewers can work for the institutions whose project is under examination.
NSF grants typically go to individuals or small groups of investigators who carry out research at their academic institutions. Other grants provide funding for mid-scale research centers, as well as instruments and facilities that are useful to researchers from different bodies. Finally, there are grants that fund national-scale facilities shared by the research community as a whole. Examples of national facilities include NSF's national observatories, with their giant optical and radio telescopes; its Antarctic research sites; its computer facilities and ultra-high-speed network connections; the ships and submersibles used for ocean research; and its gravitational wave observatories. In addition to research and research facilities, the NSF supports sciences through education grants from pre-Kindergarten through to post-graduate work.
NSF's workforce is made up of about 1,700 employees, nearly all working at its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. That includes about 1,200 career employees, 150 scientists from research institutions on temporary duty, 200 contract workers, and the staff of the National Science Board office and the Office of the Inspector General, which examines the foundation's work and reports to the NSB and Congress. NSF is divided into seven directorates that fund science and engineering research and education: Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematics and Physical Sciences; Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences; and Education and Human Resources. An assistant director heads each section which is further divided into smaller units such as materials research, ocean sciences and behavioral and cognitive sciences. Some of the divisions within the NSF's Office of the Director are also involved in supporting research and researchers. These include the Office of Polar Programs, the Office of Integrative Activities (covering a wide-range of activities), the Office of International Science and Engineering, and the Office of Cyber-infrastructure. The NSF also has offices charged with financial management, award processing and monitoring, legal affairs, outreach and other functions.
According to David M. Hart, the NSF was the result of an unsatisfactory compromise among too many contrasting visions of the purpose and scope of the federal government. In the years following its foun dation, the agency was superseded in importance by the more-specialized agencies established because of the postwar anxieties in the fields of medical research (National Institutes of Health), nuclear energy (U.S. Atomic Energy Commission), space science (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and defense-related research (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). With the end of the Cold War, however, NSF gained importance and acquired new fields of research that were not included in its original mission. Now the Foundation is the federal agency with the largest mandate, acting as a support for all scientific fields, except for medical research. The technological boom of the 1980s was another important factor in increasing the NSF's prestige. The awareness that scientific and technological research was necessary to keep the United States a safe and competitive nation ensured strong bipartisan support in Congress for the NSF. Its growing prestige is mirrored in its budget, which has increased from $1 billion in 1983, to the current $5.91 billion.
The grants and projects provided by the NSF have contributed significantly to technological advancement. For example, NSF-funded research helped to develop the internet as well as Mosaic, the first freely-available internet browser that allowed users to view World Wide Web pages with both texts and images. It has also launched the Digital Library Project to extend and develop digital library methods and technologies.
Several important projects funded by the NSF have dealt with issues related to global warming. It's interest in ozone depletion dates back to the mid-1980s when it supplied researchers at the South Pole with ozone sensors, along with balloons and helium, to measure stratospheric ozone loss. The action was taken due to data forecasts of a steep drop in ozone over a period of several years. In 1996, NSF-funded research led to the conclusion that the chemistry of the atmosphere above Antarctica is apparently abnormal, and that levels of key chlorine compounds are extremely high. NSF researchers contributed to further understanding and awareness about the ozone hole. In 2004, researches focused on the potential impact of global warming on high-altitude plants and animals. NSF researchers concluded that large-scale climate change (warming temperatures, receding glaciers, and the loss of permanent snowfields) could lead to a loss of many species of birds and plants. In the same year, researchers also assessed the potential of dissolved carbon in the Arctic ocean for the process of global warming. The international team of scientists concluded that most of that carbon was fairly young and not likely to affect the balance of global climate. Yet, they still cautioned that a well-documented Arctic warming trend could result in ancient carbon, a reservoir of the gas currently locked into peat bogs, being released and added to the mix contributing to the warming trend. Researchers stressed that, under the current warming trends in the Arctic, more of the old carbon would enter the carbon cycle as carbon dioxide. This would increase the greenhouse effect and accelerate global warming. This was the first time that gases trapped in the bogs were accounted for in climate change models.
In 2006, a joint research of NSF and Scripps Institution of Oceanography found out that global climate change may have quickly disrupted ocean processes and led to drastic shifts in environments around the world. Although the researchers were concerned mainly with a warming trend that took place over 55 million years ago, known as the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), their data were relevant to the contemporary warming trend. The results of the research indicated that deep-ocean circulation in the Southern Hemisphere abruptly stopped the conveyor belt-like process known as overturning, in which cold and salty water in the depths exchanges with warm water on the surface. This process became active in the Northern Hemisphere, causing a shift of unusually warm water to the deep sea, likely releasing stores of methane gas that led to further global warming and a massive die-offof deep-sea marine life. The researchers further stated that modern carbon dioxide input from fossil fuel sources to the Earth's surface was approaching the same levels estimated for the PETM period, and they claimed that this should raise concerns about future climate and changes in ocean circulation. Thus, the Paleocene/Eocene example suggests that human-produced changes may have lasting effects not only on global climate, but on deep ocean circulation. Richard Norris, one of the leading researchers on the team, went as far as stating that "the case described here may be one of the best examples of global warming triggered by the massive release of greenhouse gases. It gives us a perspective on what the long-term impact is likely to be of today's human-caused warming."
One of the most recent NSF-sponsored research studies carried out by climate modelers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research found out that, despite efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and a greater increase in sea level are inevitable during the 21st century.
SEE ALSO: Climate; Sea Level, Rising.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. D.M. Hart, The Forged Consensus: Science, Technology, and Economic Policy in the United States, 1921-1953 (Princeton University Press, 1998); National Science Foundation, www.nsf.gov (cited November 2007).
LuCA PRONO University of Nottingham
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