The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent United States government agency responsible for supporting basic science research mainly by providing research funding. It operates mainly through the establishment of research grants, particularly to universities or through individual grants (including to professors and graduate students).
History and mission
The NSF was established by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. The stated mission of the NSF is
- "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense." (http://www.nsf.gov/home/about/creation.htm)
In this day and age, the NSF is less concerned with national defense, and more concerned with the previous two items.
National Science Foundation Building
The NSF is generally considered by historians of science to be an inept compromise between too many clashing visions of the purpose and scope of the federal government. It has suffered from chronic underfunding for decades, even after the passage of the controversial Mansfield Amendment, which was partially intended to reaffirm the role of NSF as the primary civilian government agency for the funding of basic science.
NSF has traditionally competed for funding with defense research agencies like the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
The NSF attempts to promote various special programs, at times to help increase the participation in science of under represented minorities. For example, the Research Experience for Undergraduates (http://www.nsf.gov/home/crssprgm/reu/start.htm) (REU) program provides grants to research institutions for the purpose of providing undergraduate students the opportunity to perform research for a summer. This program targets women and minorities at many of the participant universities. The GK-12 (http://www.nsf.gov/home/crssprgm/gk12/) Crosscutting Program provides money to universities with graduate students for the purpose of having graduate students interact with K-12 students. The goal is to increase student retention in the sciences starting at an early age. Other interdisciplinary (http://www.nsf.gov/home/crssprgm/) programs unite various subfields of science, or the NSF and other funding agencies. And at this time all NSF grants carry with them a mandate to perform some form of outreach. See science education.
The NSF also funds projects of the National Science Digital Library.
The NSF and NASA
In the current (and past) age of space exploration and astronomical study, it is often unclear what aspects of these fields should be handled (and funded) by the NSF, and what aspects should be in the realm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although both agencies want to increase our knowledge of space, the universe, and the human body, neither wants to pay more than it has to for these. At this point in time, an uneasy truce has developed, with NASA paying for space-based operations such as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Chandra (an X-ray satellite telescope), and the Spitzer Space Telescope (an infrared satellite telescope), and the NSF paying for ground-based operations such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA, run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, NRAO), and Kitt Peak (located near Tucson, AZ).