For more than 50 years, scientists, scholars and engineers supported by the National Science Foundation have expanded the boundaries of human knowledge while promoting the well-being of millions. Their discoveries have slowed the march of deadly diseases, aided in the struggle to reduce world hunger, pioneered technologies to reduce environmental degradation, and developed strategies to more effectively educate children in the United States and abroad.
"Congress established the National Science Foundation in 1950 to transform wartime research into a peacetime engine for prosperity and national security. The foundation has succeeded masterfully, albeit quietly, in achieving [its] goals," wrote broadcaster Walter Cronkite in celebration of the NSF's 50th anniversary. "Maybe that's because NSF does not operate any laboratories, conduct any experiments, or land any astronauts on the moon. Rather, NSF is the nation's single largest funder of laboratories and experiments, of the kind of exploratory research that quietly plants seeds today that make headlines tomorrow."
The new century has only accelerated the dizzying pace of exploration -- a pace that is sure to stretch the abilities and ambitions of a new generation of foundation-supported investigators. Unlike their predecessors, however, these young researchers will likely pursue their careers in a world where "quietly planting the seeds" of scientific discovery is not always possible, and where headlines are not always welcome.
Much of the nation, in fact, has become ambivalent about the fruits of scientific discovery, an attitude reflected in the public's opinion of scientists themselves. A 2003 Harris poll published by the New York Times found, for example, that only 57 percent of Americans saw scientists as having "very great prestige," a figure down sharply from the 66 percent who said they admired investigators in an earlier query.
And even as stunning advances in genetics, physics and biotechnology offer glimpses of a brighter future, so do more and more people fear the implications of new research. Genetic engineering, human stem cell investigations, experiments with deadly pathogens: these are just three of many areas that have come under fire from a public fearful of their potential for unintended consequences.
Education is key to an informed debate. Yet year after year Americans tell NSF survey teams that they know little about even the basics of scientific inquiry. Many blame a lack of adequate science education in schools and colleges.
Younger researchers on the front lines of tomorrow's scientific revolutions, NSF officials say, must understand that their role as educators will be every bit as important as their performance in the laboratory.
"When I started at NSF, the major focus was on the excellence of the research. If there was an ancillary benefit [to student education], that was value added," says Mark Courtney, program director of population and evolutionary processes in the foundation's Division of Environmental Biology and a 27-year NSF veteran. "Over the years that has changed."
NSF is currently spending millions on programs to encourage scientists to pay more attention to instruction. Among the most prominent is the Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER program. Its goal is to promote an integrated approach to research and teaching by funding a select group of "teacher-scholars" whom it identifies as most likely to become the "academic leaders of the 21st century." Some 400 young faculty members are chosen each year for the CAREER awards, which range from $300,000 to more than $750,000 over five years. The awards are competitive, with less than 20 percent of grant applicants typically receiving support.
"There is a two-fold intent," says Courtney. "The first is to provide young investigators with the resources they need to think creatively about ways to advance both their own careers and the goals of the institution where they are teaching and doing research."