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NSF History

50th Anniversary

Research Highlights

America's Investment in the Future (50th anniversary book)

"Nifty 50"

Advertorials and Articles

NSF50 Video and Radio Features

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The mission of the National Science Foundation is to promote progress in science and engineering research and education in the United States. It is the only federal agency whose mandate encompasses science and engineering research and education at all levels and across all fields. Its field of activity extends from butterfly wings to the distant galaxies being scanned for signs of life by NSF-funded radio telescopes. (In fact, NSF-funded observatories helped discover ten new planets outside of our own solar system.)


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Computer visualization techniques are widely used to predict weather patterns, assist surgeons, design buildings, and produce TV graphics—among literally thousands of other applications. All have been pioneered with NSF support.


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“Where Discoveries Begin” is the theme of NSF’s 50th anniversary celebration. Sometimes the real-world applications with the widest impact come not from what NSF-funded researchers discover, but how they go about doing it. The Internet had its germination in government-funded networking efforts including the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. NSF research also was instrumental in the development of Mosaic, the World Wide Web browser and forerunner to Netscape that popularized the Web.


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Fiber optics—the transmission of data by light pulses through very thin glass fibers—have turned traditional conceptions of data transmission upside down. Optical fibers can carry vast amounts of data, but are much smaller and lighter than conventional copper cables. NSF has played a role in research that refines and extends the basic technology of fiber optics to improve its abilities, and also has supported the development of basic communications theory, which is used to design and implement communications systems based on this technology.


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Microelectromechanical systems, also known as MEMS, are at the heart of new, high tech devices ranging from fighter aircraft to printers. MEMS engineers combine miniaturization, multiple components, and microelectronics to produce the world's smallest motors, switches, and circuits. Measured in microns, MEMS machines are so small they're invisible to the human eye. NSF funded early development work on MEMS, including research in microscale phenomena, manufacturing processes, and applications. This work, in turn, has fueled the current multibillion dollar MEMS industry.


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An active vent on Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii shot at dawn in December, 1986. Science does not confine itself to laboratories and research institutions. It is happening all around us in dramatic and sometimes mysterious ways. NSF-funded researchers can be found working in every kind of environment—from the streets of large cities to remote outposts in Antarctica, from the depths of the ocean to mountaintop observatories.


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Investing in leading-edge research and education is a well-calculated risk—and a bet on our future. Over the past fifty years, it has paid extraordinary dividends. According to economists, up to half of U.S. economic growth during this latter part of the 20th century has stemmed from technology and the science that supports it. In the 21st century, investing in education, science, and technology will be more important—and will serve our society in more fundamentally critical ways—than ever before.


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For 40 years, NSF has provided U.S. and international astronomers access to several world-class observatories. NSF supports three national astronomy centers—the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the National Astronomy and Ionosphere CenterŃthat operate large optical and radio telescopes and radar facilities. Research in ground-based optical, infrared, radio and radar astronomy and solar physics is conducted in facilities such as a 4-meter optical telescope on Arizona’s Kitt Peak, the 10 separate antennae of the Very-Long-Baseline Array spaced across the country, and solar telescopes on Kitt Peak and on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico. Virtually every branch of contemporary astronomy has been advanced by the national telescope facilities.


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