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NSF review could re-engineer funder towards innovation

Report says a focus on translational research is needed to maintain US leadership in R&D

A report by the governing body of the United States’ National Science Foundation has recommended a major structural review of the funding agency, aiming to increase its focus on translational research and innovation.

Ellen Ochoa, vice-chair of the National Science Board and co-chair of the taskforce behind the report, said there was a “sense of urgency that we must take action for the US to remain preeminent in innovation”.

The NSB report, published on 5 May, says the review could recommend changes to the NSF’s structure, funding models and programmes.

Ochoa told Research Professional News she expected the review to be completed within the next two years. “Hopefully it will take even less time than that,” she said.

In addition, the NSB will focus on “enabling faster translation of NSF-funded research outcomes” and “expanding innovation capabilities across the country”, the NSF said in a press release.

One of the changes suggested in the report is a new NSF directorate focused on translation from basic research to innovation.

In 2019, China overtook the US as the leader in filing international patents, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. The US had held the top spot since 1978. NSF data also suggest China is likely to have overtaken the US as the global leader in R&D investment during 2019.

“Our nation is no longer the uncontested leader in science and engineering,” NSB chair Diane Souvaine said in a statement. “We cannot be complacent. We must adapt.”

The NSB report also makes recommendations for strengthening research integrity among US scientists, including comprehensive disclosure of conflicts of interest. Recently, US researchers have come under increasing scrutiny over links with China, while collaboration between researchers in the two rival R&D powerhouses continues to increase.

“We want that trend [of collaboration] to continue as long as the values we believe are important in research are agreed to,” Ochoa explained.

The NSB report also suggests more funding will be needed to maintain American leadership in fundamental research. “One of the things we would like to see as a board is more investment in NSF in general,” said Ochoa.

The NSF’s budget for 2020 is $8.3 billion. The budget has risen slowly in recent years, despite persistent attempts by the Trump administration to slash it.

“There are a lot of excellent proposals that NSF gets today that they are not able to fund,” said Ochoa. “If you were actually able to fund all the ones that get graded very good or excellent, that would be another billion-and-a-half dollars right there.”