Before the internet was commercialized, before your phone was smart, before there was a picture of a black hole, there was an NSF-funded researcher pursuing their curiosity. NSF-funded research has laid the foundation for many of the groundbreaking discoveries and game-changing technologies we know today.
Here are 12 innovations and discoveries made possible through NSF support.
The Internet – Drawing on DARPA’s pioneering support for early computer networking projects and the development of internet protocols, NSF funds catalyzed the creation of the commercial internet that we know today. Starting with NSFNET in 1985, a high-speed network for the academic research community, NSF support created a major infrastructural backbone that would eventually link to smaller regional networks, spreading connectivity across the country and overseas. NSF leveraged public-private partnerships to broaden access to the network and to make it easier to navigate – including managing domain name creation and the development of one of the first internet browsers, Mosaic. By 1995, successful commercial networking efforts led NSF to decommission NSFNET, allowing for public use of the internet.
Google – When the internet first began, it had fewer than 100 websites, but searching even this small number was not a straightforward task. Recognizing this need, NSF led the multi-agency Digital Library Initiative (DLI). Two graduate students working on the project, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, created a new way to search the web. They used a page ranking system that was built on foundational NSF-supported work in economics and sociology. In 1998, Page and Brin launched an internet search website that used that system called Google. Today, Google’s parent company Alphabet is valued at $739 billion, making it the fourth most valuable publicly traded company in the world.
Smartphones – From the liquid crystal display and multi-touch screen zoom to the lithium battery and the much relied on mapping software and GPS, NSF supported research essential to the creation of many technologies contained in smartphones.
Spectrum Auctions – Spectrum licenses make communicating and connecting over the airwaves possible. To broadcast something across any portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, like television or telecommunications, companies need to purchase a license. When the federal government began selling portions of the telecommunications spectrum in 1994, it chose to auction them using rules based on auction theory research funded by NSF. Over the past two decades, the auctions have raised more than $100 billion for the U.S. Treasury. Several other countries have also adopted the auction approach to spectrum allocation.
Nanotechnology – Since 1991, NSF has invested nearly $10 billion in research to discover the fundamental mechanisms responsible for driving activity at the level of individual atoms and molecules. This science helps us build better technologies and materials that touch nearly all aspects of daily life, from medical imaging to protective gear for first responders.
Additive manufacturing – 3D printing has revolutionized manufacturing by offering a more efficient way to create prototypes or products by ”printing“ them from scratch, rather than laboriously whittling and cutting an object from an existing block of material, much like sculptors do. Today, manufacturers are creating everything from footwear and jewelry to automobile parts using 3D printers. Early research by NSF-funded engineers, Michael Cima and Emanuel, Sachs played a pivotal role in developing 3D printing techniques. In 2017, the additive manufacturing industry topped $7.3 billion.
American Sign Language – William Stokoe of Gallaudet University received his first NSF grant in 1960 for a study of the “linguistic structure of sign language.” At this time, linguists did not consider sign language a true language like oral languages. Stokoe’s research determined that sign language shared the same characteristics as oral languages and was indeed a language in the fullest sense. His work revolutionized education for the deaf in the U.S. and led to the first Dictionary of American Sign Language.
Weather Radar – Meteorologists use radar to track storms and precipitation as they move through the atmosphere. Through the years, NSF-funded research has helped improve the capabilities of the national radar network, which produces weather forecasting and provides advanced warning of impending storms. Such improvements have led to better rainfall estimations, the ability to track hailstorms, as well as the ability to track debris associated with tornados.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – One of the most widely used imaging techniques in medicine; MRI provides critical details on blood flow and the structure of internal organs. Doctors use it to diagnose anomalies in the body, such as tumors, brain or spinal cord problems, breast cancer and injuries. Since 1950, NSF has provided a significant part of the basic research infrastructure scientists used while developing the MRI technique. NSF continues to support MRI advances through research and instrumentation grants and support for the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, a facility that operates the world’s most powerful magnets.
Kidney Exchanges – According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant, and 13 people die every day waiting for a kidney. Many kidney patients who need a donation rely on a relatively small pool of potential donors among their friends and family. If the blood type of the patient and donor do not match, the transfer cannot happen, further dwindling hope of a successful transplant. While game theory and market dynamics may seem unrelated to kidney transplants, they have become the backbone of a nationwide life-saving kidney match program. With NSF support, economist Alvin Roth and a team of researchers created software that matched kidney recipients to compatible donors regardless of whether they know one another, greatly widening the donor pool. In 2012, Roth shared the Nobel Prize in economics for his research in game theory and market designs.
DNA Analysis – Two NSF-funded scientists isolated a heat-tolerant microorganism (Thermus aquaticus) from a sample of pink bacterium collected from a spring in Yellowstone Park. Twenty years later, scientists discovered that T. aquaticus produced an enzyme that was crucial in allowing DNA to reproduce rapidly, creating a simple way to make unlimited copies of DNA fragments. This enzyme is used in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA amplification, which is the cornerstone of modern genetic analysis used in fields such as medical diagnostics and forensic science.
First photo of a black hole – The first direct visual evidence of the existence of black holes unlocked one of the greatest mysteries of the universe – a place first theorized by Albert Einstein where overwhelming gravity cause matter, time and energy to disappear. The National Science Foundation played a pivotal role in the discovery by funding individual investigators, interdisciplinary scientific teams and radio astronomy research facilities such as the South Pole Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.
Using NSF grants, scientists and engineers advanced the concept of long baseline arrays as well as the devices and systems used to record and process the data. In the 1990s, researchers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory pioneered the opening of the 3 mm wavelength window for very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI), one of the key technologies that made the black hole image possible. Their work also led to a better understanding of overcoming signal-recording issues.
With NSF funding, other researchers improved VLBI recording, signal processing and hardware design. In addition to the advances in physics and astrophysics, this observation — and subsequent ones — enable technologies that will improve data analysis, storage and transmission, leading to improvements for broader societal uses of these technologies.