Surprising research funded by the National Science Foundation, which may lose $1 billion | Popular Science
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Surprising research funded by the National Science Foundation, which may lose $1 billion

Cuts to the government agency's budget would impact a lot of science.

NSF science summit station

Science technician Marci Beitch launches a radiosonde (a small package of atmospheric sensors launched into the air) at Summit Station, Greenland, as part of the NSF-sponsored program, Integrated Characterization of Energy, Clouds, Atmospheric state, and Precipitation at Summit (ICECAPS).

August Allen, Polar Field Services

The White House’s proposed budget for 2020 isn’t looking good for science.

If passed, it would cut billions of dollars from crucial organizations like the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the Department of Energy, and NOAA. The National Science Foundation (NSF) alone would get cut by $1 billion. Congress may very well ignore the President’s suggestions, but it’s important to remember how much crucial work these organizations do for our nation.

We all know, or can hazard an easy guess what NASA and the EPA do (space and environmental research, respectively). But you might not be aware of some of the projects that more broad organizations like the NSF do. As one of the principal funders of basic science in the U.S., the NSF provides money for much more than the typical health and biological research you hear about in the news. Here’s just a small taste.

Watching for potentially dangerous asteroids near Earth

Lincoln Laboratory has been searching for near-Earth objects since 1998, and in that time they’ve discovered more than 24 percent of the asteroids we now known pose a potential threat to our planet. Their LINEAR program has found more than 6,000 new objects, four of which could be hazardous to Earth and eight are entirely new comets. They log an incredible number of observations annually, which they note is because they aim to schedule telescopes for observation as many nights as possible—they cover the entire observable sky at least once a month. And they do all of this in large part through federal funding.

Protecting the U.S. from bioterrorism

The Department of Homeland Security isn’t widely known for its research, but it actually has its own national lab: the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Armed with biohazard suits and clean rooms, federally funded scientists in Maryland are tasked with figuring out which bacteria and viruses might pose a threat to this country—and figuring out how to combat them. NBACC does everything from inventing new vaccines to planning responses to potential bioterror events. In the event of an airborne viral attack, you’ll know who to thank.

Sustainable ink, visual search tools, and more innovations from start-ups

Though much of the NSF's funding goes to large institutions and national labs, they also provide roughly 400 companies a year with hundreds of thousands of dollars each in grant money, all without taking equity in those businesses. These smaller grants have allowed them to fund all kinds of projects over the years, from a new ink made with cyanobacteria (rather than petroleum) to a visual search engine that would let you find products you want by searching styles instead of by name. Past awardees have also included a project to decrease phone scams and a machine learning tool designed to detect weeds in farmers’ fields better.

The system that keeps planes from crashing into each other

The Center for Advanced Aviation System Development is a federally funded research center that works with the FAA, and it’s had a major hand in developing a lot of the tools that make air travel so safe these days, even though you’ve probably never heard of them. Their Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, invented in the mid-’70s, is now the global standard for commercial aircraft. It didn’t get widely implemented until the early ‘90s, after a fatal mid-air collision between two planes over Cerritos, California in 1986 made Congress push for better safety precautions. The Center has also played a leading role in developing plenty of other tools that help keep millions of Americans safe on planes every single day.

Strategies for managing North Korea and how to improve soldiers’ lives

You may know the RAND Corporation as a policy think tank, but you may not realize that a number of the institutions they run are federally funded. The Arroyo Center is just one of their military research branches, and they publish various useful reports on how to manage both the U.S. Army itself and the many international issues that the military branch deals with. That includes relations with North Korea, but also things like how to improve living conditions for soldiers at home and abroad. Arroyo and its fellow military centers at RAND are doing the lion's share of the leading military research in this country, and they’re doing it with a lot of NSF money.

Making our legal system more efficient

Our judiciary system has never been known for its modernity, but the Judiciary Engineering Modernization Center is trying to pull it into the 21st century. Computers and big data, for instance, are playing an increasingly large role in the courts. But we need more research on how to implement those tools properly. Researchers at this center help the U.S. State Department and Department of Justice, among others, figure out new ways to make our federal justice system more efficient and fair. Their work is so good that the directors were asked to come advise the Council of Europe, a large human rights organization, and the World Bank on how to build effective judicial systems throughout the world.

Keeping the Internet of Things secure

Attacks on the billions of connected devices we all have in our pockets and homes are becoming an increasing security threat. A 2017 Executive Order called to strengthen our cybersecurity, and it’s researchers at the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence who are organizing that effort. The center is a subset of the Department of Commerce, and it works with a variety of private companies to figure out strategies to deal with this century’s most pressing online security issues. On top of keeping the IoT safe, they also take on projects to keep your health care and financial information secure.

One quarter of all federal research in the U.S.

This list didn’t address all the other research that you probably could have guessed the NSF funds. They help researchers who find exoplanets and study exoskeletons. They build genome libraries and catalogue biological diversity. They send scientists to investigate our planet’s poles. And they help American researchers doing important work all over the world buy equipment that would otherwise be too expensive, from giant telescopes to powerful microscopes. The researchers they fund have won 236 Nobel Prizes and made discoveries that have changed science forever.

They do so much vital work to fund basic research—roughly 27 percent of all the federal money for basic research—but it’s also never enough. The NSF can only fund about one in five applications they receive, and every budget cut decreases the number of scientists they can support.

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