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Organizational Spotlight

Spotlight on the National Science Foundation (NSF)


Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Associate Editor

February 2022

What is the National Science Foundation?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was founded in 1950 by the Congress of the United States "to promote the progress of science” and “advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare.” With a 2021 budget of $8.5 billion USD, the NSF is one of the largest sources of financial support for basic research in universities, institutions, and think tanks in the United States. Overseen by a director and board appointed by the US president and confirmed by the Senate, the NSF’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, has a staff of over 2,000 employees.

What does the NSF do?

The NSF provides grants to researchers at all levels in a wide range of academic disciplines, from anthropology to zoology. Not only does the NSF fund traditional academic scholarship, but it also identifies and provides financial support for high-risk, high-reward research and innovative collaborative projects that might otherwise be difficult to secure funding for. Instead of directly hiring researchers to work on specific projects, the NSF provides support for researchers at their home institutions working on independently developed projects. Funding is available for researchers at all stages in their career and at all levels of experience, from graduate students to tenured professors.

Through the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), the NSF also conducts research and publishes reports on trends in academic research in the United States. This work includes the development and monitoring of its Science and Engineering Indicators, which describe the state of US academic research and technological development.

The NSF also works to promote collaboration between researchers in fields as diverse as nanotechnology, digital libraries, and infection disease ecology, as well as between American researchers and their international counterparts. It also supplies financial support for research infrastructure around the world, including telescopes, polar observation stations, and ecological research sites.

How do I get NSF funding?

The NSF offers a wide variety of grants and fellowships for research in the following areas: Biological Sciences (BIO); Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE); Education and Human Resources (EHR); Engineering (ENG); Environmental Research and Education (ERE); Geosciences (GEO); Integrative Activities (OIA); International Science and Engineering (OISE); Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS); and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE). The NSF does not provide support for US medical research, however; this support is instead provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

To apply for financial support from the NSF, you can navigate to the webpage that corresponds to your area of research as listed above to see a list of current opportunities, or you can use the NSF’s new Funding Search tool. Eligibility for NSF funding varies depending on the specific grant or program, but typically requires an association with or appointment at a research institution in the United States.

While much of its funding goes to experienced researchers, the NSF is also committed to providing funding for graduate students in all of its supported research areas. Most notably, it does this through its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which provides three years of fellowship support for outstanding graduate students in the early stages of their academic careers, as well as access to unique networks and opportunities.

Though highly competitive, NSF grants are a useful resource for research support for those connected to a research institution in the United States, and winning one is a prestigious honor. While direct NSF funding is limited for researchers outside of the United States, the NSF still supports research across national boundaries through its funding of large-scale research infrastructure used by scholars across the globe.

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