National Science Board Unveils Visions 2030 Report, Charts Impacts of COVID-19 on the National Science Foundation

The National Science Board (NSB), the oversight body for all of NSF who serve as independent science advisors to the president and Congress, met May 5 and 6. The meeting marked the full board’s first meeting held during the coronavirus pandemic. The marquee item on the agency was the release of the NSB Visions 2030 report, which charts a path for the U.S. to remain preeminent in science and engineering.

At the conclusion of the meeting, several NSB member rotated off the board, including Board Chair Diane Souvaine. The board elected Ellen Ochoa to replace Souvaine as chair and Victor McCray to serve vice chair. Previously, Ochoa served as the vice-chair of the NSB and she is the former director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. McCray is a chemist and the vice president for research and graduate programs at the University of the District of Columbia.

Here are some of the highlights from this NSB meeting relevant to the ecological community:

COVID-19 and NSF

NSF Chief Operating Officer Fleming Crim and other agency leaders shared that NSF remains fully operational and functioning online during the pandemic. Awards are progressing and staying on track with merit review continuing as well. NSF is offering increased flexibility to its employees as they work from home and with many juggling work with increased dependent care responsibilities. Employees can work anytime between 6:00am and 10:00pm and they can also receive credit for hours worked during the weekend. They can also receive up to 20 hours of leave for dependent care per pay period.

NSF Chief Officer for Research Facilities James Ulvestead shared that the managing operators of NSF facilities are making their own decisions regarding activities during COVID-19. Most NSF major facilities such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) are mostly shutdown. NEON suspended regular fieldwork and sampling. Facilities are still collecting some automated data, but repairs, maintenance, and construction are deferred for the time being. Ulvestead expressed concerns that the maintenance backlog and delayed construction will cause staff overwork and hurt morale when employees are able to return to work. Some facilities are co-managed with other countries, which adds another layer of complexity.  Overall, the impact of COVID-19 on NSF facilities construction remains unknown; however, Ulvestead noted that the delays would cause near term cost increases in 2020 and 2021 and that NSF will need to ask the NSB to increase the authorized amounts for several facility awards over the next 18 months.

The impacts to NSF polar programs are mixed with staff remaining on research stations and officials taking precautions to avoid the spread of the virus to sites. Significantly, COVID-19 could delay an entire planned season of Antarctic infrastructure improvements.

The competition for the contract to manage NEON has been delayed because NSF officials planned in-person site visits as part of the competition process. Battelle Memorial Institute is tasked with managing NEON through 2021. It is the default position of NSF that operations awards for all facilities are competed openly.

Acting NSF Director Kelvin Droegemeier also highlighted that previous NSF-funded basic biological research, such as the work to map the human genome, is contributing to COVID-19 research.

For more details on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, see our companion post about the April NSF Biological Sciences Directorate Advisory Committee meeting.

Visions 2030

The National Science Board unveiled its ‘Visions 2030’ report during the May meeting. This report identifies threats to the U.S. science and engineering (S&E) enterprise on which the health, security, and economic prosperity of Americans depend. The NSB report urges action to retain America’s lead in fundamental research and to increase science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills and opportunities for all Americans.

Visions 2030 builds on the NSB’s 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators, which found that the U.S. is playing a less dominant global role in many S&E areas than it did in preceding decades. Indicators also reported that U.S. K-12 student performance in science and mathematics is mediocre and stagnant, and despite some progress, that women and minorities remain underrepresented in many S&E degree programs and jobs.

Moving forward, the Visions 2030 report contains a roadmap with recommended actions to that the NSB, NSF and other parts of the S&E enterprise can take to retain U.S. leadership in science. Roadmap actions include evaluating and improving NSF’s broader impacts merit review criteria, increased investments in STEM education and expanding the geographic distribution of research infrastructure and STEM education. The NSB will release a more detailed roadmap implementation plan this summer. The board plans a series of outreach activities to share the Visions 2030 report with the scientific community and other stakeholders, potentially including presentations during scientific society meetings

Header image by Caleb Slemmons (CC BY-NC 2.0)