This month, the National Science Board convened to review multiple initiatives from the National Science Foundation. The board discussed the NSF’s activities to support the skilled technical workforce, provided an update on appropriations, unveiled the agency’s new stewardship model and presented plans to generate new research ideas.
Supporting the skilled technical workforce
For the past year, the board has been conducting a number of listening sessions to better understand the United States’ skilled technical workforce. Early in the life span of many academic institutions, there was a closer relationship with industry than currently exists. While the social contract has shifted, students graduating with degrees in STEM have still been expected to have the skills and training necessary to be successful in industry.
To address the training shortfalls across different disciplines, board members discussed creating funding streams for faculty to step away periodically from their institutions to work in industry and use their experiences to ensure that their courses are better aligned with industry skills and needs.
Moving forward, the board plans continue conducting listening sessions and to establish a set of goals and metrics to make its efforts in this space sustainable. The board will produce a list of preliminary findings, a summary of outcomes from its recent activities, and develop a web portal to direct stakeholders to relevant information.
Update on appropriations
The NSF sent its plan to Congress for how it will use the additional $408 million provided by lawmakers for fiscal year 2018. The particulars of the plan, however, remain confidential pending congressional approval. What we do know is that this plan is markedly different from the budget reductions proposed by President Donald Trump. The agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, if enacted, would return NSF funding back to fiscal year 2017 levels, which include a 4 percent overall budget reduction and a reduction of new Graduate Research Fellows to 1,500 students.
The new stewardship model
NSF Director France Córdova presented the agency’s new program management model and its Convergence Accelerators. Under the revised stewardship model, none of the agency’s 10 big ideas will belong to any directorate but instead will be managed across the agency. In addition, the Convergence Accelerators will implore a model that is designed to be more intentional than the agency’s current research programs by leveraging new and existing external partnerships for projects with fixed terms.
Selection of Convergence Accelerators will occur through an evaluation of team pitches instead of the current 15-page research proposal driven paradigm. Successful pitches will lead to large awards culminating in a competition for monetary prizes. The NSF has already identified the first two accelerator tracks, “Harnessing the data revolution” and “Future of work at the human technology frontier,” which have been included in its fiscal year 2019 budget justification.
Generating new research ideas
Lastly, the board announced the NSF 2026 Idea Machine. Through this initiative the agency plans to open up scientific research to the full community, allowing anyone over 14 years old to submit a project idea with prizes awarded to winning entries. The NSF 2026 Idea Machine will launch in August, and the agency will announce the first set of winners in August 2019. It should be noted that ideas created through the NSF 2026 Idea Machine will help inform the agency’s research areas but not will serve as formal research proposals.
Recordings from the open sessions can be viewed here.
Slides from the open sessions can be viewed here.