Córdova: Basic Research Is Key to Sustaining Innovation Written 9 January 2017
Speaker: France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA Web Editor
To ensure the U.S. maintains its standing as the global leader in innovation and scientific advancement, basic research needs support, said France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, during the Durand Lecture for Public Service on Jan. 9 at the 2017 AIAA SciTech Forum in Grapevine, Texas.
In her lecture, "NSF's 10 Big Ideas: Understanding Science, Discovering Breakthroughs and Influencing Public Policy," Córdova explained why it's vital the U.S. continue to fund the NSF and other supporters of basic research.
"Without sufficient investment in the scientific enterprise ... new opportunities and frontiers just beyond our reach will remain just that — or else seized on by other emerging nations with the hunger to advance," she said.
Córdova highlighted some of NSF's contributions to aeronautics and astronautics throughout the years, including the foundation's service as the lead agency for the International Geophysical Year, a scientific project in the late 1950s that led to a better understanding of weather, gravity and the upper atmosphere.
"All things important to aeronautics and astronautics today," Córdova noted.
NSF has provided American and international astronomers access to several observatories, and more recently, she said, the foundation provided "crucial" early research funding for additive manufacturing.
"NSF funded the very first 3-D-printing grant to a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin," Córdova said, adding that NSF also supported systems engineering for complex aircraft design.
Córdova also said that NSF's recent investments in quantum technologies "hold the promise of future transformative discoveries for computation and communications."
NSF investments in fundamental research have yielded incredible breakthroughs, she said.
"Those investments have brought us to the point where we can optimistically say that we're on the verge of entering new frontiers of discovery today," Córdova explained.
At the end of 2016, the NSF announced its 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments. One of those ideas includes an initiative — in partnership with the Department of Defense, NASA and other agencies — to help harness artificial intelligence and create a future collaborative work environment between people and machines.
Córdova said the goal is for complementary rather than competitive relationships between humans and robots.
Another big idea is centered on tackling the big data revolution, which Córdova said is "already fast upon us." She noted that the increased volume, variety and velocity of data offers unique paths to learning more about the world and that NSF's vision for the future calls for "bold approaches to data science and cyber infrastructure."
According to Córdova, the NSF is "poised to cross the threshold of our understanding of the universe that we inhabit at all levels: quantum, molecular, cellular and astronomical."
She stressed that both high-risk research funded by the federal government and further research funded by private investment are vital.
"Never has there been a more important time for private and public entities to come together to understand each other's roles and to leverage from each other the power of the partnership in bringing discovery to delivery in the marketplace," Córdova said. "Through examples of powerful programs that make a difference and captivating narratives, we can broadly communicate the value of basic research and its benefit to societies."