Policy: Republicans Eye Bigger Science Budgets; NSF Celebrates 70th, Names Idea Machine Winners

By John Russell

February 5, 2020

It’s a busy week for science policy. Yesterday, the National Science Foundation announced winners of its 2026 Idea Machine contest seeking directions for future NSF work. NSF is also celebrating its 70th birthday with a two-day symposium beginning Thursday. Meanwhile, discussion is just ramping up around a proposal from Republicans introduced last week to increase science spending by several government agencies over the next ten years.

Tackling the latter first, Republican members of the House Science committee submitted a bill that would roughly double the budgets of select science agencies by fiscal year 2029; those include:

  • Department of Energy Office of Science (from $7 billion to $13.2 billion)
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (from $425 million to $1 billion)
  • National Science Foundation (from $8.3 billion to $14.9 billion)
  • NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (from $590 million to $1.2 billion)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (from $1 billion to $1.8 billion)

The bill – H.R. 5685, the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act – was introduced by Representative Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma). It contends, “The U.S. is facing two fundamental challenges to our competitiveness and growth as a nation: First, foreign countries, especially China, are threatening to outpace us in the science and technology that has paid dividends to our country’s economy and national security for decades. Second, we must respond to a changing climate and develop next-generation technologies to understand it, address it, and mitigate it.”

There’s a long road between submission and passage. Stay tuned.

Priming the NSF Idea Machine

As described by NSF, “The NSF 2026 Idea Machine encouraged individuals from all walks of life, age 14 or older, to submit pressing “grand challenges” requiring fundamental research in science, engineering, or STEM education in order to inform NSF’s long-term planning. Approximately 800 entries were received from nearly every state in the U.S. and from established researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, teachers on behalf of their classes, and high school and middle school students. The submitted entries went through five selection stages, including a public comment phase. A blue-ribbon panel of 12 eminent, broad thinkers recommended seven ideas for the final prizes that were found to be exciting, ambitious, creative, and highly interdisciplinary.”

NSF has now announced four Grand Prize winners ($26,000 each) and three meritorious prize winners ($10,000 each) for its Idea Machine contest launched in the summer of 2018.

The grand prize winners are:

  • Engineered Living Materials: Neel Joshi, Anna Duraj-Thatte and Avinash Manjula-Basavanna – Harvard University
  • From Thinking to Inventing: Matthias Scheutz and Vasanth Sarathy – Tufts University
  • Public Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Karin Pfennig – University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • Emergence: Complexity from the Bottom Up: Abraham Herzog-Arbeitman* – University of Chicago

The meritorious prize winners are:

  • Unlocking the Future of Infrastructure: Juan Pablo Gevaudan* – University of Colorado at Boulder; Chelsea Heveran – Montana State University
  • Reinventing Scientific Talent: Jason Williams – Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Theory of Conscious Experience: Vincent Conitzer – Duke University

All of the efforts will require significant computational firepower but perhaps the one focused most on computational technology itself is Thinking to Inventing, from grand prize winners Scheutz and Sarathy. Here’s NSF’s brief description (lightly edited): 

“[W]hat if machines could do more than execute tasks? What if, like their inventors, machines could exhibit enough common sense to evaluate real-world problems, imagine and execute solutions? “From Thinking to Inventing” proposes a new era of AI research, where machines could learn to model human creativity and thought processes in order to evaluate, improvise and ultimately solve new and complex challenges. It asks what can machines invent and how?

“NSF investments have contributed fundamentally to modern AI research. Six decades of investments have enabled AI advancements that bear impact on all aspects of society, from severe weather predictions to life-saving interventions. “From Thinking to Inventing” builds upon that foundation.

“This research could revolutionize AI from pattern-matching machines to problem-solving allies. It could examine the very nature of problem-solving through computational and cognitive scientific lenses. It will aim to develop a deeper understanding of human creativity and apply that insight to the realm of AI.”

To view the video pitches of the top 33 ideas submitted to this competition as well as more information on this competition, visit the NSF 2026 Idea Machine website.

NSF is 70 Years Young

Lastly let’s turn to NSF itself and its 70th celebratory symposium being held at NSF in Alexandria, VA. On Thursday, NSF Director France Córdova will moderate a panel discussion with six former directors of the agency, and the biographer of eminent electrical engineer Vannevar Bush will reflect on the legacy of “Science, the Endless Frontier,” Bush’s landmark 1945 report that led to the creation of NSF in 1950. Leaders of several federal science agencies will also discuss the “importance of forming partnerships to address national priorities,” with a focus on quantum science, artificial intelligence, and the future of work.

The first day will conclude with remarks from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. The second day will feature panel discussions on NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, the agency’s role in supporting “Industries of the Future,” and the National Science Board’s forthcoming Vision 2030 report.

It’s worth mentioning another NSF historic moment –  the creation of the supercomputing centers. In 1983, Larry Smarr (then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) was the first to propose what would later become known as the NSF Supercomputer Centers program, followed shortly by a proposal from UCSD’s Sid Karin. The two went on to become the founding directors of the first two NSF supercomputer centers — Larry Smarr, of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at UIUC; and Sid Karin of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego. Smarr is also the founding director of Calit2 at UCSD.

Link to H.R. 5685: https://republicans-science.house.gov/sites/republicans.science.house.gov/files/SALSTA%20for%20Introduction.pdf

Link to NSF 2026 Idea Machine release: https://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=299946&org=NSF&from=news

Link to NSF 2026 Idea Machine web site: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/nsf2026ideamachine/index.jsp

Link to NSF 70thCelebration Symposium agenda: https://www.nsf.gov/about/history/70th%20Symposium%20PUBLIC%20full%20Panel%20Agenda_v8%20final_508w.pdf

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