Monday, May 10, 2010

NSF at 60

On May 10, 1950, Harry Truman signed Public Law 507 creating the National Science Foundation based on Vannevar Bush's Science - The Endless Frontier. The NSF is celebrating with the Sensational 60, a highlight of the greatest scientific ideas that came out of NSF funding including RSA, Google, Cloud Computing and the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. 

While no agency that receives its annual budget from the president and congress can remain politics-free, the NSF's decision makers are career scientists and grants are decided by peer review without having to be cleared by government bureaucrats to meet some outside goal. Many other countries have adopted the NSF model for their own scientific agencies and I feel sorry for the ones that haven't.

In 1986, computer science research came under a new Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineer (CISE). NSF CISE provides most of the government research funding in theoretical computer science including my own.

The entire theory branch of the NSF, save program director Tracy Kimbrel, changes this summer and who those new people will be remains a mystery. MIT Engineering dean Subra Suresh is rumored to being vetted as the new director of the NSF. Susan Graham is collecting nominations to replace CISE AD Jeannette Wing. The search goes on for people to take over for CCF Division Director Sampath Kannan and Theory program director Richard Beigel. If you have suggestions for people, let me know and I'll pass them along. The future of theory funding depends heavily on us getting good people in those positions.

On the CCC blog, John King a notes how computer scientists are quite harsh in their grant reviews and how that can ultimately hurt the amount of CS funding (Ed Lazowska also chimes in). Probably comes out of our unique conference culture where program committees usually have a fixed number of slots to fill so tearing down other papers opens more room for papers you like. But NSF grants are not a zero-sum game. You shouldn't lie about the quality of a grant proposal, but neither should you look for reasons to tear it down.


  1. Independent reviews are an increasingly problematic system because of accumulated grade inflation. The eventual solution, which is already partially in place, is to use panel reviews. I heard a rumor that the mathematics division (DMS) almost entirely relies on panels these days and hardly asks for any independent reviews; in any case I haven't been asked to do one for a long time.

    Panel reviews would allow the NSF to set more uniform "grading" standards, or at least guidelines, across different fields of research. Part of the problem with grade inflation, of course, is that it generally isn't uniform.

  2. Lance, are NSF Director positions considered desirable? Would you consider leaving your job for a few years for one of these positions?

  3. It does look good on your CV and most universities are happy to give you leave to spend time at NSF. Also helps when writing future grant proposals because you know how system works.

    Cons: Takes away research time and often requires moving which can be difficult especially for the family.

  4. Do they pay significantly more than full cs prof salaries at top schools (may be 15-20k per month).

  5. Do they pay significantly more than full cs prof salaries at top schools (may be 15-20k per month).

    As I understand it, there is a "standard" salary that NSF pays but if you are currently making more they will match your current salary.

    Email Richard Beigel with any specific questions; he has been more than willing to answer mine in the past.


    Dear Greg,
    I am the founder of post-science ( I read your comment on panel reviews with interest. I am against the peer review process, as was Rustin Roy. The market comparison method, similar in concept as the peer review process, has caused both the Savings and Loan Crisis and the Subprime Woe. The peer review process is causing an innovation crisis. Panel reviews are a better alternative, but is still backward looking. My solution is a review process based on valuation, similar to that at the US Patent Office, but with the qualitative utility replaced by the quantitative value, expressed in terms of price and the rate of return. The following Infinite Spreadsheet has easily predicted publicly both financial crises. In fact, the number of users automatically predicts the crises.
    I am glad I found you in the process of communicating with NSF. I am in the Bay Area (Fremont, Advisor of and Sacramento, North Highlands). If you are interested in post-science, I would be interested in intellectual collaboration. I am one of the most severe critics of NSF, and of science. I believe that economics needs mathematical rigor because it deals with the infinite reality. Thank you for your time and consideration.
    With best regards,