NSF, National Science Foundation

NSF — National Science Foundation

There had been numerous, if modest, government-science interactions throughout the history of the Republic, but the Second World War vastly intensified that environment… As early in the war as 1942, these accelerating government-science community relationships interested some politicians about whether research support would be continued after the war.

The NSF: A Brief History, July 15, 1994.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) managed the Internet from 1990 to 1995 when it was known as the NSFNET, including management of the network backbone and oversite of Network Solutions, and is described here for its historical role.

History. The US Government invested large amounts of money in scientific research during the second world war to build powerful new systems and weapons, and leading to huge advances in engines, planes, radio communications, nuclear power, and many other technologies. For example, the Air Force funded the development of the new field of Operations Research, which produced the algorithms used by industry around the world today for large scale inventory management and transportation.

The first politician to realize the benefit of an ongoing relationship was a senator from West Virginia named Harley Kilgore, who introduced legislation to create a national research funding organization in 1942, 1943, and 1945, and conducted open hearings on the subject which attracted the interest of the science community. He advocated a balanced, geographically distributed approach to government research funding.

While in agreement on the goal, Vannevar Bush disagreed with Kilgore’s approach, and asked President Roosevelt to ask him to prepare a report, which he delivered on August 6, 1945, titled Science -The Endless Frontier. Bush’s report gave the then novel argument that the Government had a responsibility to fund basic scientific research some respectability, and proposed an organization called the National Research Foundation (NRF) to be run by an independent board of scientists which would support the best scientific research in the country.

Partly in opposition to Bush’s approach, President Truman requested the Scientific Research Board, chaired by President’s Assistant John R. Steelman, to prepare a report which came to be called Science and Public Policy: A Program for the Nation. The Steelman report was more pragmatic than Bush’s approach, and focused on coordination of research carried out by a range of government agencies, academic organizations, and industry, and with politically appointed oversite.

After several years of discussion and compromise between the US congress and the administration, the National Science Foundation was finally established in 1950. The organization had political oversite, and provided funding mainly in support of basic defence research, but also had a mandate to promote science and advance the national welfare in general. The research supported by the NSF went on produce a rapid acceleration of scientific knowledge and technological advances to benefit all mankind.

Internet role. In 1986, the National Science Foundation established the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) to link five U.S. university supercomputer centers. Soon other institutions such as CSNET and EUnet began to connect to the network, and the NSFNET became a major catalyst for networked communications among the research and academic community around the world.

By 1987 the total traffic on NSFNET began to double every seven months. By 1990 the ARPANET was officially dissolved and responsibility for what became known as the Internet was passed to the NSF, which managed the network through the first explosive growth period of the 1990’s until passing responsibility on to the ICANN in 1998.

Resources. The following sites provide more information on the NSF: