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The Sciences

How The National Science Foundation Drives US Innovation

By Chris MooneyJanuary 27, 2011 7:37 PM


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This is a sample post composed as part of the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop held in Lawrence, Kansas on January 27-28, 2011. The exercise here was to take a “message triangle” (a communication device) about the National Science Foundation and convert it into a written blog post. The NSF triangle that was used is pasted below.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama declared that this is our generation’s “Sputnik moment,” and urged a bold new investment in scientific careers, education, and research. Throughout the speech, the president then highlighted a variety of innovative companies that are using technology to make a difference.

The president didn’t directly discuss the crucial connection between basic, curiosity-driven scientific research on the one hand, and more applied research (leading to new technologies) on the other. This was, after all, the State of the Union, not a wonk fest! But the National Science Foundation epitomizes the importance of basic research in laying the groundwork for economic growth and innovation—and will certainly play a pivotal role in this new technology focused agenda.

NSF funds nearly two thirds of all non-life sciences basic research at universities in the U.S. Indeed, it’s the only federal agency that funds all of the scientific disciplines. The agency’s research portfolio thus has unique breadth and depth, meaning that the knowledge it funds has the potential to inspire entrepreneurs and spark innovation in a variety of economic sectors.

But how do we know that the funding of basic research—which, after all, is intended to enlarge our store of knowledge, not the national GDP—ultimately leads to jobs and the growth of companies?

In one sense, you never know where a particular study will lead, save with the benefit of hindsight. However, if we let history serve as our guide, it becomes clear that much of tomorrow’s economy is being born today in university research labs, as they conduct research funded under NSF grants.

Consider the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, who found that advances in knowledge and technology drove more than half of U.S. economic growth during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, as the National Academy of Sciences has put it (discussing what happened when scientists and engineers learned how to dramatically increase the capacity of the microchip): “It enabled entrepreneurs to replace tape recorders with iPods, maps with GPS, pay phones with cell phones, two-dimensional X-rays with three-dimensional CT scans, paperbacks with electronic books, slide rules with computers, and much, much more.”

From the energy industry to Pharma, it’s not hard to see the close relationship between pure knowledge generation on the one hand, and valuable products and jobs on the other. That’s why our government long ago made a commitment to funding basic research, laying down a baseline of knowledge that innovators could then pick up and run with. First after World War II, and then again after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, we turned to science not only for the purpose of national defense, but to ensure prosperity at home.

And now after the Great Recession, we’re going to do it again.

The triangle

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