With an annual budget of US$ 7 billion, NSF only funds research in the U.S., but could support international partners who collaborate with American projects

Last Monday, September 10, the Director of the Engineering Program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Eduardo A. Misawa, visited the headquarters of the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI), in São Paulo, and spoke about the funding initiatives of research promoted by the NSF, highlighting the engineering area. Misawa, a graduate of the Polytechnic School, was received by the Centre’s Scientific Director, Júlio Meneghini, and spoke to a group of some 15 people, including Professors Cláudio Oller, Suani Teixeira Coelho, and Emílio Silva, as well as the Director of Human Resources and Leadership, Karen Mascarenhas, Engineer Oscar Serrate, and other people interested in the subject.

“The NSF was created in 1950 and its mission is to fund basic research in all of the areas of the sciences, engineering, and education, with the exception of research in the clinical area, specifically related to disease. The objective of our work is to improve the well-being of people and the Nation’s economy. It is an independent agency: we are not connected with any specific mission, but rather, to the objective of advancing science and training the next generation of researchers, engineers, and educators,” he explained.

The institution has an annual budget between US$ 6 and US$ 7 billion and only funds research in the United States. But it is possible for an institution or researcher from another country to be benefited by NSF funding via a collaborative project with American institutions. “In the case of funding for projects that include international collaboration, we give preference to those in which the institution or researcher from another country being an integral part of the project, right from the beginning, that is: ideally, the project approved in the U.S. already includes partners from outside the country, when it is approved by the NSF,” Misawa said.

There are several research modalities sponsored by the NSF: it supports undergraduate students and professors (similar to the beginning of scientific studies); training in innovative and interdisciplinary models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); there is a fellowship program for graduate students (the only modality in which the students receive individual support, through a direct scholarship); and also programs supporting research infrastructure (for example, it supports part of the structure of the European Organization for Nuclear Research – CERN), and airplanes used in climate studies and ships used in oceanographic investigations. The NSF also maintains a “nanohub” – a type of bureau that provides free modeling and simulation resources that are accessed by 1.4 million users in 185 institutions worldwide. More information can be found at the NSF site.

During his presentation of a little over an hour and a half, Misawa gave heavy emphasis to the Engineering Research Centers (ERC). The purpose of these centers is to perform cutting-edge research in a multidisciplinary environment, with the expectation of concrete results in ten years: demos, prototypes, something tangible that demonstrates the commercial or innovative potential of the technologies being studied. “If the results take too long to appear, the formation of an ERC should not be proposed. There needs to be a good reason for setting up as an ERC: that is, it must be very clear why it should be organized at a research center, instead of several funding requests for small projects.”

Misawa says that ERCs carry out research based on application, which differentiates them from other research center models of the NSF, like the Science and Technology Centers, most of which focus on basic research. “Every ERC has four goals: research; culture of inclusion and diversity; development of a research work force; and establishment of an innovative ecosystem.”

There is also a modality that is totally focused on partnerships: the Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program, which supports international activities in all of the areas funded by the NSF. The main objective of the PIRE is to support high-quality projects in which the advances in research and education cannot occur without international collaboration. “It seeks to catalyze a higher level of international engagement in the science and engineering community of the U.S.,” Misawa explains. “In virtually all that we fund, there is a vision for producing skilled labor in the field of research, science and technology.

What is most important in our research initiatives, whether in engineering or in other areas, are the students we prepare.”

The RCGI’s Scientific Director saw similarities between the ERCs and FAPESP’s Research, Innovation, and Diffusion Centers (CEPID). “When the RCGI was founded, we first met with a small team formed by people with whom I had already worked and with others with whom I was making my first contact, but that we knew were the right people for starting the initiative. We are also a multidisciplinary team, giving much importance to that feature, and we are learning how to work together,” he remembered, also stressing the weight of internationalization.

“We are getting more and more applications from foreign researchers with a variety of origins: India, Pakistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Iran. We made an international map of the institutions with which we shared affinity: we have been to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale…in the U.S. We are making every effort to stimulate internationalization and a multidisciplinary context.”

After the presentation, Eduardo Misawa visited the Dynamics and Fluids Core Group (NDF), the Numerical Test Tank (TPN), and the Advanced Combustion Diagnostics Laboratory, all of which are in USP’s Polytechnic School.