Before the NSF was founded in 1950 under the National Science Foundation Act, the US Department of Defense (DOD) funded much of the nation’s scientific research. In fact, the first incarnation of the Internet was created with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The National Science Foundation (NSF) gave academics a voice in determining how research was funded. Academic oversight and peer review have always been critical aspects of NSF function. Important innovations funded by the NSF include MRIs, bar codes, the Doppler radar, and artificial retinas.
NSF funding has changed only a number of times since its origin (Graph 1). In 1958, when the Russians launched the first satellite into space (Sputnik), the US drastically increased space-related NSF funding. In 1982, President Reagan cut the NSF budget for all education funding except for graduate fellowships. In 1988, the NSF Authorization Act, also signed by Reagan, doubled its budget over 5 years (NSF). In general, funding for the NSF has increased slightly over time (Graph 2, lower purple bar). Compared to other countries, most notably South Korea and China, growth in US funding for research has been relatively stagnant (Graph 3) (AAAS). *ARRA stands for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the stimulus package).
NSF funding since 2007 has been authorized by the America COMPETES Act. Incremental funding increases (except in 2011 and 2013) have been accompanied by contentious attempts to follow up the 2010 COMPETES reauthorization. A series of bills introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has been Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology since 2013, incited partisan debate over the way NSF allocates funding. Smith targeted specific research awards and programs and claimed that NSF had spent taxpayer dollars on research grants with little merit. He insisted that government-funded research should only be directed towards strengthening the economy, national defense, or advancing the health and welfare of the country. However, Democrats and members of the scientific community interpreted the language and provisions of these bills as an indication of mistrust and hostility towards the scientific community and as a lack of appreciation for basic scientific research. These bills and battles eventually shaped the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA) of 2017. You can read more about the process of developing the AICA and what it means for the operation of the NSF in our next post.
Lauren Castro, Rebecca Tarvin, and Katie Lyons contributed to this post.