National Science Foundation: Innovation anywhere, opportunity everywhere

For more than two centuries, generation upon generation of American ingenuity has dreamed, dared, and defied to make the impossible possible. Across the great landscape of American innovation, our nation’s many and varied research avenues have led to game-changing technologies that have helped solve our greatest challenges. However, global changes demand that we now update how we innovate to ensure the U.S. leads the way in catalyzing the next generation of breakthroughs.

America’s competitive edge lies with the diverse talent and rich ideas that exist across the country. But today’s talent doesn’t always have access to opportunities. Bright ideas don’t always get a chance to translate to real-world impacts. If not immediately addressed, these gaps will have profound implications for U.S. economic prosperity and national security for decades to come.

The U.S. National Science Foundation, a beacon of U.S. innovation for more than 70 years, is critical to filling these gaps. That is why, building on our rich history of advancing the U.S. economy and security through scientific discovery and technological innovation, we are connecting and catalyzing American talent and innovation with a new directorate, Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, our first in more than 30 years. Through this initiative, we will rapidly advance critical and emerging technologies for the 21st century. We will accelerate the transfer of discoveries and innovations from the lab to the market and society, and pioneer new education pathways for a diverse and skilled future workforce.

NSF will unite academia, industry, government, nonprofits, civil society, and communities of practice to drive opportunities and innovation everywhere. Frontline wisdom, lived experience, and a diversity of perspectives will shape future research directions, co-designing, co-creating, piloting, and prototyping innovative new technologies and solutions.

From addressing droughts in the West and rising tides in the South, to growing crop yields in the heartland and revitalizing manufacturing in the industrial Midwest — regional challenges demand regional innovation. As part of our new initiative, we are launching regional innovation engines, called NSF Engines, which will harness the geography of innovation in America. We will ensure that good ideas and high-quality research are not restricted to certain geographical areas but rather leverage the unique challenges, talent, and ideas prevalent across the country. NSF Engines will create technology-driven innovation ecosystems throughout every region of the United States to revitalize communities with new opportunities, industries, entrepreneurial frameworks, and well-paying jobs.

A vibrant infrastructure keeps the country connected and bolsters the U.S. economy. The national infrastructure is not just about linking the coasts from California to New York; it is about connectivity at the regional and local levels. And just like the U.S. needs roads, bridges, and broadband to ensure connections and opportunities everywhere, we need innovation infrastructure in every state.

Consider Chattanooga, Tenn. — a decade ago, civic leaders, researchers, local businesses, and locally trained workers joined forces to deploy ultra-high-speed fiber throughout the region. The result? Today Chattanooga is the world’s first “gigabit city,” with an innovation ecosystem that has attracted new startups, ventures, and investors. In just ten years, the benefits to the community total nearly $3 billion. The innovation infrastructure has powered new well-paying jobs, lowered unemployment rates, and bridged the digital divide for reskilling and training the future workforce.

Just like every part of our country is different, innovation is not “one size fits all.” An NSF Engine can transform every community. It can make impactful differences now and have resounding benefits for generations to come. It can give each of us an opportunity — this isn’t top-down, but rather local, organic, bottom-up, and middle-out. It is the critical innovation infrastructure that the U.S. needs to bolster national security, the economy, and deliver a future that benefits everyone.

Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan is a computer scientist and engineer and the 15th director of the U.S. National Science Foundation.