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The National Science Foundation celebrates its 70th birthday

by France A. Crdova
March 28, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 12


This is a guest editorial by France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created in the same spirit that put US scientific capabilities forward to win World War II. This year, NSF is 70. As we confront the urgency of COVID-19, NSF is working diligently with the research community to respond. When we emerge from this crisis, just as we did from WWII, basic research will be an engine to drive US progress.

As the NSF director, I oversee research funded at 2,000 institutions across the country. This is what I know: researchers are pursuing groundbreaking discoveries and bold ideas; they are confronting challenges, unflinchingly. The agency itself is resilient. During my tenure we navigated government shutdowns, expanded partnerships, and grew our budget by $1 billion. The reason: resilience is in our foundation. We remain committed to our mission of advancing scientific progress for American health, prosperity, and enterprise.

Fittingly, NSF’s anniversary coincides with the centennial anniversary of polymers. NSF-funded researchers won Nobel Prizes for the development of electrically conductive polymers and efficient, environmentally sound metathesis reactions. Polymers revolutionized consumer products. Researchers are developing a new paradigm for the plastics life cycle and chemical recyclability in which polymers can be broken down into their simplest components and reassembled into new products. NSF seeks ideas that tackle fundamental questions underlying micro- and nanoplastic characterization, behavior, and reactivity in environments.

NSF-funded researchers at the Center for Sustainable Polymers are exploring how to remove trace impurities and contaminants from water. About 15 million people in 27 US states use drinking-water systems affected by perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a perfluorinated alkylated substance. The start-up Cyclopure is commercializing the process to remove PFOA and has the first per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) test kit on the market.

That’s one of the fruits of NSF-seeded discovery: innovative start-ups. We’ve seen this type of success in materials. It takes thousands of transistors and capacitors to build our cell phones, computers, and displays. Tinier electronic components mean tinier fabrication structures. NSF-funded research, including atomic layer deposition and etching processes, are widely cited in patent literature as methods for controlling structures on levels an atom thick.

The NSF-funded Centers for Chemical Innovation developed high-resolution metal oxide photoresists for electronics fabrication. The outgrowth of this idea created Inpria, a successful start-up that uses commercial extreme ultraviolet lithography equipment to produce photoresists with 7 nm-sized features. With $31 million in series C funding and backing from major chipmakers, Inpria is a key competitor in the semiconductor manufacturing sector.

Looking at the horizon, NSF is prioritizing areas including emerging industries of the future, such as advanced manufacturing, which involves the design and development of new catalysts for the chemical industry, and quantum information science, involving the development of molecular qubits to create next-generation quantum computers and algorithms.

NSF is taking a convergent approach to research in the use of artificial intelligence to accelerate molecular synthesis and manufacturing. NSF launched the National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes to expand our understanding through research, yield new technologies, and catalyze new markets.

Ultimately, 70 years of investments in fundamental research have proved fundamental to economic growth and national health. Thus, NSF’s 70th anniversary remains a milestone worthy of reflection.

We’re celebrating digitally. We’re sharing stories on social media using the hashtag #NSFstories; these are stories from NSF-funded scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and people whose lives have been touched by research or technology developed with NSF funding.

In the next 70 years, we will talk about this moment and what happened after. Because NSF will continue to invest in basic research across all fields of science and engineering, we will be able to write the next chapter of success through discovery.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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