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NSF director: Funding boost can steer research money to more states

Giving Mississippi and Wyoming a shot

Director  Sethuraman Panchanathan says the National Science Foundation will diversify grant recipients with a new program to break down barriers for underserved research institutions.
Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says the National Science Foundation will diversify grant recipients with a new program to break down barriers for underserved research institutions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When President Joe Biden signs legislation this week to boost U.S. science and technology funding, it would pave the way for the National Science Foundation to expand research grants to states and educational institutions that have traditionally not benefited from such programs.

Legislation passed the House last week with a bipartisan vote after winning similar backing in the Senate a day earlier, and Biden has said he would sign it.

The legislation would set aside 20 percent of NSF’s authorized funds for 25 states and three territories that typically lack the population and financial resources to compete with bigger states for research dollars. 

The new funding and measures would help NSF provide research grants in a variety of high-tech areas to educational institutions in states like Mississippi and Wyoming, Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in an interview Friday.

“These are states that have good leadership, good institutions emerging, and they are ready to play,” Panchanathan said. “They are playing already, but it’s just that they need more successes, more wind beneath their wings.”

To diversify grant recipients, NSF plans to launch a new program in fiscal 2023 aimed at breaking down barriers to competitiveness for underserved research institutions that may not have expert staff dedicated to writing complex grant proposals, he said. 

Large, established institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, may have enough experts to conduct in-house peer review of technical ideas, examine budget proposals and address intellectual property issues before even submitting a proposal to the NSF, Panchanathan said.

The new program, which goes by the acronym GRANTED, will be “a virtual research office, which is available to any institution that does not have the resources” to make a successful grant pitch, he said. 

The NSF receives about 43,000 grant proposals annually and funds about 11,000, or about 25 percent, he said, adding that as many as 30 percent to 33 percent of the proposals could get funded with the extra money. 

The legislation, known as the chips and science bill, includes $54 billion in grants for domestic semiconductor manufacturing, $24 billion in tax incentives for making chips, $67 billion for research and development efforts at the Energy Department of Energy, and $102 billion in funding over five years for the NSF.

The goal of the NSF boost is to “create revolutionary new ideas, including in areas such as the food-energy-water system, sustainable chemistry, risk and resilience, clean water systems, technology and behavioral health, critical minerals, precision agriculture, and the impact of satellite constellations,” according to a summary of the legislation provided by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office. 

Among other goals, the legislation would aim to expand science and technology education and create a new technology directorate at NSF to translate advances in basic science into commercial applications. The technology directorate would be authorized $20 billion over five years.

Among the areas ripe for immediate translation into commercially applicable technologies are quantum computing, artificial intelligence, biotech and software-based next generation wireless technology, or 6G, Panchanathan said.

To what extent each will move toward commercial production “is dependent upon what stage of evolution these technologies are and how ready they are for translation, rather than a preconceived notion that NSF will make the decision somehow of which needs to be moving forward,” Panchanathan said.

The agency will work with industry partners and venture capital firms and listen to “what they are ready to take and translate” into commercial products, he said. 

The NSF has a strong record of identifying emerging technologies and funding innovative ideas that later become global leaders, Panchanathan said, citing the agency’s early funding in the mid-1990s for search engine technology that later became Google.

In the early 2000s, the NSF funded synthetic biology research at MIT that helped two graduate students launch a biotech company called Gingko Bioworks, which also received funding through the agency’s small business innovation research program, Panchanathan said. 

Gingko Bioworks is now a $6 billion company, he said.

The Boston-based biotech company programs biological cells to create new strains that are more cost-efficient in developing medicines, food and other products.

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