National Science Foundation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The National Science Foundation provides funding for basic research and development to promote and advance science and engineering in the United States.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. The act was an outgrowth of the important contributions science and engineering made to advancing technology during World War II. The foundation’s mission is unique among all United States government scientific research agencies. The NSF supports the development of all scientific and engineering disciplines, awarding annual funding for research and educational advancement to over two thousand universities, colleges, primary and secondary schools, businesses, and public and private research institutions within the United States. Many other government agencies support research, but they usually focus on specific areas such as space exploration, medicine, or defense.National Science Foundation

The NSF promotes interdisciplinary research and supports the overall development of science and engineering, seeking to expand the number of trained scientists, engineers, and science educators within the United States. The NSF annually provides almost half of all federal support for nonmedical basic research conducted at academic institutions. Nearly all NSF funds are grants and cooperative agreements resulting from competitive, peer-reviewed proposals submitted to the foundation. The proposal review and decision process involves nearly 60,000 scientists and engineers each year. The NSF annually receives about 40,000 proposals for research, fellowships, and projects. It makes about 16,000 awards, supporting the work of over 200,000 scientists, teachers, students, and engineers.

The foundation is administered by a director, who is appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It is overseen by the National Science Board (NSB), whose membership consists of twenty-four eminent scientists appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to six-year terms. The role of the NSB is to establish policies for the foundation, to oversee its programs and activities, and to approve strategic directions and budgets.

Board decisions and directions for the NSF are often based on political agendas and the perceived strategic or economic needs of the nation, and budgets are set accordingly. The NSF’s annual budget for research and development is approximately $6 billion, accounting for approximately 5 percent of all U.S. government-funded research. The role the NSF plays in promoting and maintaining basic research is vital to American scientific and engineering advancement.

Economic estimates suggest that much of American industrial, financial, and intellectual growth after World War II has been the result of federally funded scientific and engineering research and development. Estimates also suggest the annual monetary return on investment for government-funded research and development is between 25 and 30 percent, a significant economic dividend. The transfer of basic scientific discoveries and engineering developments to the private sector results in new products, growing industrial and financial markets, higher standards of living, improved quality of life, further intellectual advancement, and increased national prestige.

Further Reading
  • Belanger, D. O. Enabling American Innovation: Engineering and the National Science Foundation. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1998.
  • England, J. M. A Patron for Pure Science: The National Science Foundation’s Formative Years, 1945-1957. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1983.
  • Federal Research and Development Budget and the National Science Foundation: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the United States House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004.
  • Kleinman, D. L. Politics on the Endless Frontier: Postwar Research Policy in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

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