For the past year, the public has looked to the science community to develop countermeasures for COVID-19, from models of the virus structure and how it spreads, to novel tests and treatments. Researchers have risen to the occasion, as exemplified by vaccines produced at a speed faster than many thought possible. But our job is far from done. Americans will depend on scientists for new technologies to help us navigate this pandemic and recover from it, for innovations that can help our economy bounce back, and for solutions to other critical issues facing our country, such as racial equity and climate change.
We are on the precipice of revolutionary advances in science and engineering that will directly benefit the world. And now is the time for a new national commitment to invest in research that leads directly to major societal and economic outcomes. Such an effort will require strengthening our innovation networks at speed and scale.
Curiosity-driven, discovery-based explorations and use-inspired, solutions-focused innovations are indeed the double helix that makes up the DNA of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The scientific pursuit of knowledge and understanding cannot be separated from the development of new technological capabilities. And in turn, those new capabilities allow us to pursue new research questions that were either unseen or out of our reach.
For the past 70 years, NSF has made transformative impacts possible through strategic, long-term commitments to advancing the entire spectrum of research, and through partnerships to catalyze new ideas, new discoveries, and new technologies.
Decades of investment have positioned the U.S. as the world leader in curiosity-driven research and resulted in breakthroughs in emerging fields from renewable energy to quantum computing and artificial intelligence. These discoveries have also resulted in translation of those research and innovations that have changed the world — from smart phones to 3-D printing and much more.
To accelerate translation of knowledge to innovation outcomes requires looking at all the components that make it possible — partnerships, infrastructure and most importantly, people. NSF helps nourish scientific careers by providing the support needed for researchers to explore bold ideas. Take for example, the multitude of programs, fellowships and career awards NSF provides to strengthen pathways into STEM fields, increase diversity and expand our reach into communities where talent exists.
Or look to NSF Innovation Corps, an education program that endows researchers with entrepreneurial skills to take their research from their lab to the market, leading to the creation of nurse robots at hospitals, the ability to find victims of human trafficking using AI, a device that recycles waste carbon dioxide into chemicals and fuels, and air purification for clinical environments.
How do we scale the impacts of examples like these? We bring more people into the fold, from diverse backgrounds. And we break down barriers between academic researchers, industry, nonprofits, and state and local communities. NSF has experience in this area through the relationships we have built with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and efforts like the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, also known as EPSCoR, which increases research capabilities and capacity in targeted jurisdictions. We see the results in places like Alaska, where NSF has invested $20 million to support a research collaboration to produce improved models of how wildfires spread — a critical local issue as climate change shrinks glaciers and creates new risks for forests.
Imagine the impact of creating engines of economic and talent development like these in every state, working on a range of crucial issues facing society and ensuring global competitiveness. Imagine networks of innovation that bring together people from a range of socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, to tackle such challenges. NSF is taking this model to the next level — empowering regional innovation hubs across the country — to cultivate the dynamic collaborations necessary to tackle 21st-century science and engineering challenges.
Our nation is at a tipping point. We have a choice to make. We can unleash the full power of U.S. innovation, or we can risk diminished relevance. The choice is obvious, but we need to make it now.
Together, we must leverage all resources to speed pandemic recovery, strengthen our economy, and respond to environmental challenges. We can face these grand challenges together and make incredible discoveries in ways we have never done before. NSF is well positioned and ready to be that catalyst of innovation to make all of this possible.
Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan is a computer scientist and engineer and the 15th director of the U.S. National Science Foundation.
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