Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

port to be provided through permissive grant mechanisms rather than contracts. Advisory committees and peer review of proposals ensured strong input from the external community. NSF's first research grants, 28 awards ranging from $780 to $50,000, were made in February 1952, completing the expenditure of NSF's $3.5 million budget. Among these was an award for oceanographic research.

The administrative decisions taken in NSF's early years were also destined to endure. Education programs and science information activities were to be centralized, with a single office or division managing the assigned programs to all institutions and across all fields of science and engineering.

Research project support was to be handled differently. Responsibility was distributed between two research divisions—one for Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences (MPE) and one for Biological and Medical Sciences (BMS).2 Within each division, programs would be established to handle proposals from a given discipline or subdiscipline.

From the outset, there was a significant difference in the two sets of disciplines that shaped the program-level definitions of the two divisions. MPE served intellectually related but operationally separate communities of practitioners— physicists, chemists, Earth scientists, mathematicians, astronomers and engineers—with distinct research agendas and arrays of instruments and equipment. Moreover, these scientists generally held positions in university departments corresponding to the MPE program boundaries.

In contrast, BMS covered essentially one very large discipline. By necessity, BMS programs were defined by the thrust of the proposed research activity—whether it addressed regulatory or molecular or developmental aspects of the organism or system being studied. Researchers who shared appointments in the same department and used the same research equipment might draw support from different BMS programs.

The initial organization of NSF research support existed virtually unchanged into the 1960s. The underlying philosophy of managing research by academic discipline was even longer lived: it remains the organizing principle of NSF today. Despite the obvious strength and endurance of the disciplinary concept, it did, and still does, pose difficulties for the assessment and management of research that does not fit within the prescribed program boundaries.

Oceanography: Below the NSF Disciplinary Horizon

For oceanography, an inherently interdisciplinary field, NSF's early organizational choices created problems that would not be fully rectified for 25 years. Each proposal for ocean research would compete in the larger field in which it had its intellectual roots. This meant that oceanography proposals were sometimes handled by program managers and reviewed by intellectual peers who might have little or no exposure to the unique demands and opportunities of ocean research. The problem was particularly acute for field programs with expensive requirements for research vessel time and other specialized facilities and instruments.

One subset of the ocean sciences did find a receptive home in NSF. The MPE Division's Earth Sciences Program handled proposals in geology, geophysics, and geochemistry. These fields were at the threshold of the intellectual revolution of plate tectonics. Marine practitioners of the geological sciences were deeply involved in this revolution, and research conducted at sea was at the heart of the ferment. Thus, from the outset, oceanographers were influential players as grantees as well as advisors and reviewers.

The organizational misfit between the ocean sciences and NSF's administrative structure during the 1950s did not become a policy issue for several years. Coming out of World War II with strong ties to the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission, oceanography found its principal needs well supported by those agencies. NSF, as a newcomer with heavy obligations to other fields, was initially not a significant player in oceanography. By the end of the decade, that situation would begin to change.

The First Watershed: the International Geophysical Year (IGY 1957-1958)

The IGY is often cited as NSF's most enduring venture into ''big science," resulting in the permanent addition of international cooperative programs and the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) to the Foundation's research portfolio. But the IGY was equally important for the changes it brought about in NSF's outlook toward support of individual investigators, particularly in the environmental sciences.

In 1955, largely at the urging of the National Academy of Sciences, NSF was selected as the lead agency for planning and managing U.S. participation in the IGY. Given the multi-disciplinary nature of the project, it was clear that the IGY would not fit in either of the existing research divisions. A special coordinating Office for the IGY was set up in the Office of the NSF Director, a pattern that the agency would follow repeatedly as new programs were assigned to it over the next decade.

The IGY itself was unquestionably "big science"; it would ultimately involve 30,000 scientists and technicians from 66 countries in a comprehensive study of Planet Earth. The budget for U.S. participation in the 18 months of field operations totaled $43.5 million. Despite the size and complexity of the IGY, it fit well with NSF's interests and priorities. It was essentially science-driven, despite its political and diplomatic aspects. For all its size and coordination, it was not


 NSF's charter prescribed a separate Division of Medical Science, but this entity was folded into the Division of Biological Sciences almost immediately.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement