What is the National Science Foundation (NSF)?

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The National Science Foundation (NSF) uses most of its budget to fund scientific research, equipment, and education. Its resources are allocated in a variety of ways, but mostly through the grant application process. However, NSF is looking to expand its funding for traditional federal government contracts in the future. Through two competing bills in the Senate – the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 – and the House – National Science Foundation for the Future Act – NSF is beginning to restructure itself so it can increase access to federal vendors and funding, resulting in new opportunities for federal contractors and an improved contract acquisition process.

Mission and Organization

The National Science and Foundation Act of 1950 established NSF as an independent federal agency. Since its inception, NSF has been the only agency to support all fields of fundamental science and engineering discovery and research, excluding the medical sciences. NSF’s overall purpose is “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”

NSF funds research in all U.S. states and territories and works on all seven continents. This work includes 4 oceanographic research vessels, 2 aircrafts, and 13 ground-based observational facilities. NSF is also responsible for 12 major facilities and 5 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs).

Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF has a workforce of 2,100: 1,400 career employees, 200 scientists from research institutions working at NSF temporarily, 450 contract workers, NSB office staff, and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) staff.

Today, NSF is organized into the following positions, directorates, and offices. The  Director  and National Science Board (NSB) are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate to oversee NSF. The NSB is made up of 24 people who meet six times a year to review and update NSF policies. The NSB is a critical part of NSF as the NSB serves as the governing board of NSF and provides advice to the President and the Congress on matters of national science and engineering policy.

Nobel Prize Winners

NSF boasts that it has funded 67% of the Nobel Economic Prize winners with over 248 winners to date. The following three prizes were awarded in 2020.

How NSF Buys

94% of the NSF budget funds research, education, and related activities. According to the FY22 NSF Budget Request to Congress, federal contracts only made up 5% of the FY20 NSF Obligations for Research and Education Programs Budget. The most common type of award is a grant, and most grants are awarded to higher education institutions.


NSF’s Merit Review Process determines which grant proposals are selected. The Merit Review Process (outlined below) takes about six months from start to finish, and every proposal receives feedback. Once a grant proposal is submitted to NSF, it is assigned to the relevant program Assistant Director and their team to evaluate the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed research. The best proposals go to the Division of Grants and Agreements for final approval. The reviewers also look to see what proposals may fit well together to address a larger topic. Most of the awards are limited-term grants with an average duration of three years, and 25% go to first-time awardees.

Beginning October 4, 2021, an updated version of the Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) takes effect with several major changes including:

  • Ability to request reasonable and accessibility accommodations and clarification on where to list pre- and post-award disclosure information. 
  • The biographical sketch page limit has been increased to three pages. 

Two new proposal types: planning proposals and Career-Life Balance supplemental funding requests. The same changes are reflected in the NSF Grants.gov Application Guide.

Spending Trends: Grants

Each year, NSF receives around 50,000 research proposals for grants, and about 12,000 (24%) are approved and receive funding and other means of support (ex. personnel, access to facilities or equipment). This includes funding 25% of federally supported research by U.S. colleges, the U.S. Antarctic Program, 7 supercomputers, the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet lab, and so much more. From FY16 to today, NSF has spent $34B in support of grants with the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Education and Human Resources, and Geosciences Directorates awarding the most money over the past 5 fiscal years.

The largest grant recipients are academic institutions. Top grant recipients from FY16 to today include: 

  • University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
  • Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc.
  • Oregon State University
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Illinois
  • Cornell University
  • Associated Universities, Inc.
  • Regents of the University of Michigan
  • University of Washington
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

The most common places of performance for these grants are: California, Colorado, Texas, New York and Massachusetts. 

Traditional and Complex Federal Contracts

The Division of Acquisition and Cooperative Support (DACS) is responsible for the solicitation, negotiation, award, and administration of federal contracts and other complex cooperative agreements.

Spending Trends: Contracts

From FY16 to today, NSF has spent $3B in support of contracts, averaging $478M spent a fiscal year. The most common NSF contracts are for: 

  • Audit services
  • Facilities maintenance
  • Technical support
  • Logistics and support for operations in the Polar Regions and ocean drilling
  • Scientific studies
  • Educational research

Top Federal Contractors (FY16-FY21):

  • Leidos, Inc.
  • Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc.
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • CH2M Facility Support Services, LLC
  • Phacil, LLC
  • NTT Data Services Federal Government, LLC
  • Synectics for Management Decisions, Inc.
  • Talu, LLC
  • Battelle Memorial Institute
  • Accenture Federal Services, LLC

Top PSC Obligations (FY16-FY21):

  • M1HA (Operation of Government-Owned Contractor-Operated (GOCO) Research and Development (R&D) Facilities)
  • R499 (Support – Professional)
  • M181 (Operation of Government-Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) R&D Facilities)
  • D318 (Information Technology (IT) and Telecom – Integrated Hardware/Software/Services Solutions, Predominantly Services)
  • R706 (Support- Management: Logistics Support)

Top NAICS Obligations (FY16-FY21):

  • 561210 (Facilities Support Services)
  • 541512 (Computer Systems Design Services)
  • 541990 (All Other Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services)
  • 541611 (Administrative Management and General Management Consulting Services)
  • 541519 (Other Computer Related Services)

The most common places of performance for these contracts are: Virginia and Colorado

Recent Initiatives

The following are a few recent partnerships with NSF. These are more traditional partnerships involving contracts instead of grants for scientific research.

  • NSF and Intel Corporation fund five joint program solicitations for research, cybersecurity and privacy development, computing, programming, and wireless edge networks and microarchitecture. They support the awardees through separate funding instruments, but the review process is completed together. 
  • In September 2020, NSF contracted Sabal Engineering, LLC to fix an auxiliary cable failure at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The repairs, valued at $18,000, included forensic engineering, structural evaluation, litigation expert, and consulting support. 
  • The Office of Budget, Finance, and Award Management (BFA) contracted BTC Partners, LLC to organize a Racial Equality Initiative. BTC Partners was selected by NSF to mediate conversations about race, equity, diversity, and inclusion and provide solutions to conflicts and problems within BFA’s operations, employees, and hiring process.

Opportunities to Work with NSF

NSF releases its recently announced grant funding opportunities here. These are requests for grant proposals for research, not federal contracts. Although unsolicited proposals are accepted, these are some specific areas NSF is looking to fund:

  • Cyber Technologies. The Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) and the Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure (OAC) within the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) have partnered to create EarthCube, a community-focused on the intersection of cyberinfrastructure and geoscience. Proposers will research and recommend new technologies that will benefit geoscientists to NSF. 
  • Sensing Technologies. The Biosensing program, part of the Engineering Biology and Health cluster within the Directorate of Engineering, is always accepting proposals that aim to advance engineering and life sciences. The solicitation lists critical areas such as easily modified technologies for new agents, sensors with raid deployment, and adaptive sensing technology. This research hopes to address rising sensor needs in public health, homeland security, forensics, and other sectors.  
  • International Advancement. The Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE) is looking for proposals that will strengthen international partnerships for scientific advancement. Grants will be awarded to activities and resources that will connect the global science community, such as facility access and funds for students to research internationally. 

NSF’s Acquisition Forecast lists potential contracts worth more than $250,000. The following are several of these contracts – but a reminder that these change from time to time as NSF competes and adds new requirements to their forecast:

  • Oversight and Administration of Large Facility Projects: Conduct independent programmatic, project management, and technical reviews and assessments of NSF’s portfolio of scientific research facilities. 
  • Cloud-Based VPN: A Cloud-Based Virtual Private Network (VPN) is to be purchased on a per-user basis to allow access to NSF’s internal resources via the internet. 
  • IT Customer Support: Provide support staff to manage the Central NSF IT Help Desk. 

NSF in 2022 and Beyond

NSF has requested $10.17B for FY22. The Research and Related Activities category is expected to fund 13.8K awards, ~1.8K above the yearly average.

The FY22 NSF Budget Request includes:

  • Advanced Manufacturing 
  • Advanced Wireless 
  • Artificial Intelligence 
  • Biotechnology 
  • US Global Change Research and Development
  • Clean Energy Technology
  • Quantum Information Science (QIS)
  • NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) 
  • Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) 

NSF has also asked for $249M to continue the planning and construction of 6 additional laboratories.

NSF must balance its priorities and future goals with those of the Biden Administration and Congress. NSF is increasingly forward-thinking in regards to its goals and the future of the agency. There is a new focus on science and security to meet the Administration’s goal of staying scientifically competitive with other countries, such as China. The NSB Vision 2030 Task Force was established to increase support for science and engineering (S&E) research and STEM education. NSF is volunteering all of this information about its goals to create transparent relationships with new and existing partners. 

One large project NSF is beginning to undertake is establishing a Technology, Innovation, and Partnership (TIP) Directorate. Its current budget is $864.87M. The TIP Directorate will be organized similar to other NSF directorates, but oversee them. Its purpose is to leverage and grow research support, speed up the process from lab to market, and create education pathways. NSF is also hoping to build out a Research and Security Policy Office as it appointed its first Research Security Chief position in 2020.

As we mentioned previously, there are currently 2 main bills that will shape NSF’s future: the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 in the Senate, and the National Science Foundation for the Future Act in the House. These proposed bills will have to be reconciled before becoming law, but they both reflect the same goals. 

The big takeaway for federal government contractors is this: in FY22 and beyond – NSF may receive an additional $78B to $81B over the next five years and grow to be a $100B agency by 2030. 

The increased administrative budget will update the acquisition forecast to facilitate better communication between NSF and vendors, including more outreach and industry days to introduce different business lines. NSF is becoming more familiar with different award types and exploring non-FAR options that better suit its R&D initiatives. In order to support this growth, NSF knows that its contract acquisition process needs to improve as it will require more flexibility in its agreements as it diversifies vendors and partners to increase awareness of NSF in the private sector.

Researched and authored by Haley Boulanger, Pulse Analyst.

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