National Science Foundation

Fact Box

National Science Foundation

Founded on May 10, 1950
Headquarters- Arlington, Virginia
Director- Subra Suresh
Employees- 1,700
Annual budget (2014) $7.0 billion

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for supporting fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering (the National Institutes of Health [NIH] is its counterpart for medical research). NSF funds approximately 20% of research programs conducted at colleges and universities. In some fields, such as mathematics, computer science, economics and the social sciences, the NSF is the main source of financial backing. Working with the 24-member National Science Board, the NSF’s director and deputy director work to plan, budget for and carry out daily operations of the foundation. The National Science Board (NSB) determines NSF’s policies.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) was established when the National Science Foundation Act was signed in 1950.  The National Science Foundation Act was signed to “advance the national health, prosperity and welfare, and to secure the national defense.”

In the years prior to World War II, scientific research was not considered part of the federal government’s responsibilities. Private contributions and charitable foundations provided much of the funding for scientific experimentation. During WWII, American military success brought about greater awareness of the need for continued scientific and engineering research, and Congress began to consider funding initiatives in these areas. 

In 1945, the head of the federal government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development gave a report to President Harry S. Truman. Called “Science, the Endless Frontier,” the report laid out a strong case for having the federal government fund ongoing scientific research. It characterized the rich rewards society would reap from such research, including better health care, a more robust economy and a stronger national defense. The report concluded with a suggestion to create a new federal agency to administer these efforts. 

During the next five years, there was much debate on the future of such an agency, but no real consensus. Finally, on May 10, 1950, President Truman signed Public Law 507, which created the National Science Foundation. The law provided for a National Science Board to be comprised of 24 part-time members, a director and deputy director, all of whom would be appointed by the president. In 1951, Truman nominated Alan T. Waterman, the chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research, to become the agency’s first director. At first, little funding was approved because the Korean War was absorbing the bulk of the nation’s available capital.

By 1952, the first few research grants were awarded, but the agency’s budget was still only $3.5 million, which was about 10% of the amount requested. The launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on October 5, 1957, made science research a lot more important in the minds of Americans, who did not want to lose the space race to the Communists. For 1959, Congress increased the NSF’s budget to $134 million, nearly $100 million more than the previous year. This would grow to nearly $500 million by 1968.  

In 1959, the first national observatory was established at Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Arizona. This site became a research center that made state-of-the-art equipment, especially telescopes, available to a larger pool of researchers. Over the next few years, several additional observatories, including the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the National Solar Observatory, the Gemini Observatory and the Arecibo Observatory, were created. The astronomy program forged an ongoing relationship with NASA, which handles U.S. space-based astronomy (NSF handles the country’s ground-based astronomy). That same year also brought about a treaty between the United States and the other nations operating in Antarctica to ensure the continuance of peaceful and scientific research. 

The 1960s witnessed a good deal of NSF growth, based around international scientific and technological competition. The Institutional Support program, designed to fund research infrastructure at American universities, was established. The number of grants reached 2,000 per year. Additionally, the Deep Sea Drilling Project was begun. The project revealed brand new information about continental drift, sea floor spreading and the general usefulness of the ocean basins. Several other countries joined in this project in a cooperative way.

In the 1970s, the NSF became engaged with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and encouraged physicists, chemists, engineers, and metallurgists to cross-existing departmental boundaries in order to solve larger problems.  Many NSF laboratories expanded into a nationwide network of Materials Research and Science and Engineering Centers. A biennial report on Science and Engineering Indicators is sent to the president and Congress.       

DARPA and NSF created the first “Internet” in 1977. NSF scientists organized this loose collection of networks into a three-tiered system of internetworks managed by several universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. By the mid-1980s, the NSF assumed financial support for this growing project. 

Throughout the 1980s, the agency budget increased, topping out at more than $1 billion for the first time in 1983. The NSF helped to deliver ozone sensors to the South Pole to help researchers measure stratospheric ozone loss. In the 1990s, NSF’s appropriation passed $2 billion for the first time. Some of the foundation’s new initiatives included development of curricula devised by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. These standards were widely adopted by school districts over the next decade, but they also launched a controversy popularly called the “math wars” that brought complaints that schools were skipping teaching of basic skills in favor of this new math curriculum.

In 1991, the NSFNET, as the fledgling Internet was called, was altered to allow commercial traffic. By 1995, NSF decommissioned NSFNET, making way for public use of the Internet. In 1993, students and staff at the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) developed Mosaic, which was the first available browser to load World Wide Web pages with both graphics and text. It became the browser of choice for more than a million users within 18 months of its release. 

In 1994, the NSF and DARPA launched the Digital Library Initiative. At Stanford University, two graduate students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin received an NSF grant and began to develop a search engine using links between web pages as a ranking method. Later, they commercialized their discovery under the name Google.

By 1996, NSF-funded research revealed that the chemistry of the atmosphere above Antarctica was abnormal, and that levels of key chlorine compounds were greatly elevated. This eventually became known as the “hole in the ozone layer” and spurred more research into global warming. Other NSF-funded research found that the expansion of the universe was speeding up due to a previously unknown force, now called “dark matter.” As a result, many galaxies are being pushed apart as never before.

In the new millennium, the NSF joined with other federal agencies in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which directed funds toward research into matter at the molecular and atomic levels. The agency’s appropriation continued to grow, passing $4 billion, then $5 and $6 billion. Although the NSF’s Survey of Public Attitudes Toward an Understanding of Science and Technology revealed that the public had a positive attitude but poor understanding of science, the agency continued to press forward with its plans.  In 2005, NSF’s deployment of “rapid response” research teams in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina helped to undercover why levees and other human-designed protective measures failed to protect citizens. That same year, the NSF partnered with the National Endowment for the Humanities in a program to document the more than 3,000 endangered languages around the world.  

In 2009, an international team of 47 scientists—funded by the NSF and other organizations—completed the reconstruction of “Ardi,” the oldest known Hominid skeleton, a 4.4-million-year-old two-legged female that lived in trees and was a common ancestor of the chimp and the human.

What it Does

The National Science Foundation (NSF is responsible for furthering research and education in the non-medical fields of science and engineering. It does this largely by distributing funds to universities and colleges across the nation. The NSF receives approximately 42,000 proposals each year and funds around 28% of those proposals. The reviews are conducted by panels of independent scientists, engineers, and educators who are experts in relevant areas of study. To avoid conflict of interest issues, these scientists cannot work for NSF or for any institution employing the proposing researchers. NSF grants support researchers and research facilities, as well as science, engineering, and mathematics education from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. Undergraduates can receive funding through Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer programs, and graduate students are supported through Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeships (IGERT) and Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) programs, as well as through the Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF-GRFP). 

NSF organizes its research and educational support through seven divisions, each of which oversees a variety of scientific disciplines:

  • Biological Sciences - This office oversees research and educational initiatives in molecular, cellular, and organismal biology, as well as environmental science. 
  • Computer and Information Science and Engineering - This office oversees research in the areas of fundamental computer science, computer and networking systems, and artificial intelligence. 
  • Engineering - This office oversees bioengineering, environmental systems, civil and mechanical systems, chemical and transport systems, electrical and communications systems, and design and manufacturing.
  • Geosciences - This office is responsible for geological, atmospheric, and ocean sciences. 
  • Mathematical and Physical Sciences - This office handles initiatives in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and materials science.
  • Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences - This office oversees neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and economics. 
  • Education and Human Resources - This office handles education initiatives in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at every level, from pre-kindergarten up. 

The NSF also supports scientific research through several offices within the Office of the Director, including:

  • Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI), which coordinates and supports the acquisition, development and provision of state-of-the-art cyberinfrastructure resources, tools, and services. This includes supercomputers, high-capacity mass storage systems, system software suites and programming environments, scalable interactive visualization tools, productivity software libraries and tools, large-scale data repositories and digitized scientific data management systems, networks and an array of software tools and services to enhance usability.
  • Office of Polar Programs (OPP), which manages and initiates NSF funding for basic research and its operational support in the Arctic and Antarctic. OPP supports individual investigators or research teams and U.S. participation in multinational projects. Projects are funded on their ability to help understand Earth and its systems, explore the geographical frontier and perform science enabled by the polar setting.
  • Office of Integrative Activities (OIA), which supports the efforts and policy of the director and deputy director of the NSF to promote unity and alignment in support of the agency’s mission. This includes strategic planning, establishing partnerships, policy support, and analysis of external reports.
  • Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE), which serves as a focal point for the international science and engineering communities internally and externally. This office supports programs to expand and enhance research and educational opportunities for U.S. scientists and engineers at the early stages of their careers.

The NSF has also launched a number of crosscutting projects coordinating the efforts of experts across an array of disciplines. A few of the current projects include: Nanotechnology, cloud computing, explosives and related threats, and climate change education.

Where Does the Money Go?

The National Science Foundation FY 2013 Budget Request to Congress outlines these planned disbursements of funds from its proposed $7.373 billion budget:

Research & Related Activities                                                            $5,983,280,000

Education & Human Resources                                                             $856,100,000

Agency Operations & Award Management                                          $299,400,000

Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction                          $196,170,000

Office of Inspector General                                                                     $14,200,000

National Science Board                                                                              $4,440,000

Total Budget                                                                                        $7,373,100,000

The NSF spent $16.6 billion on nearly 180,000  transactions this decade. According to, the agency paid for a variety of services, from operation of government-owned facilities ($1.286 billion) to professional services ($1.194 billion), ADP and telecommunications ($951.5 million), and building maintenance ($676 million). 

The top five contractors were as follows:

1. Raytheon Company                                                                       $1,258,789,721

2. Lockheed Martin Corporation                                                           $430,729,371

3. Miscellaneous Foreign Contractors                                                   $430,672,002

4. Joint Oceanographic Institutions Inc.                                                $266,314,701

5. Hewlett-Packard Company                                                               $203,059,209 

NSF’s largest contractor is the Raytheon Company, which is best known for its work with the U.S. military on guided missiles, engineering, night vision equipment, radar equipment, and defense missile and space systems.  In Centennial, Colorado, Raytheon operates a research & development center for the National Science Foundation. According to the National Science Foundation’s Web site, Raytheon oversees the Raytheon Polar Services Company, which provides services for researchers at the South Pole through NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

In addition to spending money on contractors, the NSF distributes millions of dollars in grants to support research. The foundation’s Active Funding Opportunities details projects for which organizations can submit proposals. It also reports oncenters (pdf) that NSF has funded.

Data on National Science Foundation