Monday, October 17, 2011

U.S. Federal Innovation 20: The National Science Foundation

Throughout American history, politicians have embraced the scientific enterprise. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was a great lover of science and commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition. Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Science in 1863.

Politicians love the economic benefits of the innovations that come forth through science. They also abhor the sometimes bothersome findings and opinions that scientists put forth. The current struggles between climate scientists and politicians is one current example.

In 1950,  Congress created the National Science Foundation (NSF) "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…" Establishment of the NSF has become innovative in two respects:

  1. A merit-review system was implemented to ensure that the federal investment in science was based on well-conceived and innovative research, thus detaching many research funding decisions from politics; and
  2. The agency has been managed extremely efficiently. Only 5-6% of its budget is used for administrative costs.
Sometimes the object of intense political scrutiny, the NSF is an innovation that Americans should truly be proud of.

Sources: National Science Foundation; Study of NSF's Administrative and Budget Costs

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