Campus News

New NSF program aims to speed discovery, research results

NSF Director France A. Córdova speaking at a podium during the "Critical Conversations" event.

NSF Director France A. Córdova speaks to a full house in the Buffalo Room as part of UB's "Critical Conversations" series. Photo: Douglas Levere

By SUE WUETCHER

Published April 4, 2019

“The goal is to grow a culture of collaboration early in the design of a new idea or a new attack on an old challenge.”
France Córdova, director
National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation has launched a new program designed to accelerate discovery and innovation, and achieve faster research results, NSF Director France A. Córdova told a UB audience on Wednesday.

Córdova, the keynote speaker for this year’s “Critical Conversations,” briefed the audience on the Convergence Accelerator — a program so new, she said, that the NSF issued Requests for Proposals only 10 days ago.

Córdova said the NSF is drawing on the key concepts of “convergence” and “catalyst” to create opportunities to make the U.S. research enterprise stronger and stimulate rapid growth in areas of potential benefit to many individuals.

“NSF and its partners in the scientific community are using convergence to define their vision for a future where researchers from across disciplines collaborate to solve grand challenges in basic research,” she said.

While that may sound like a definition of interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research, Córdova explained that, while related, the concept of convergence is more specific because it requires starting efforts to solve specific problems with the “intentional integration across disciplines at the outset.”

NSF Director France A. Córdova (left) seated with Liesl Folks, Dean, School of engineering during the "Critical Conversations" event.

NSF Director France A. Córdova (left) takes part in a Q&A moderated by Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Intentional” is the key word here, she said, stressing that this isn’t a case of a biologist producing research and then collaborating with an engineer or physicist to expand on it. “I’m talking about purposely bringing together intellectually diverse researchers, and even stakeholders from outside the traditional research community, to frame questions and figure out how to answer them.”

Córdova said that when talking to a lay audience, the idea of bringing scientists together sounds “deceptively simple. But as is so common in research, actually getting the answer is a lot more complicated.”

The “scientific ecosystem” involves a combination of different traditions, different ways of doing things and different systems, she notes. So “effective convergence requires the development of effective ways of communicating across disciplines; you need common frameworks and a common language, and you need to develop new ways to frame research questions,” she said.

“The goal is to grow a culture of collaboration early in the design of a new idea or a new attack on an old challenge.”

Córdova pointed out that a culture of collaboration “is growing right here in Buffalo,” citing as examples research centers at UB that are studying such topics as the microbiome, genomics and addiction. “They’re asking questions that can’t be answered without the kind of deep integration that I’m talking about,” she said.

France Córdova (far right) with Chunming Qiao at the the driving simulator lab.

France Córdova (right) and Chunming Qiao, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, take a look at the driving simulator in the Motion Simulator Laboratory in Furnas Hall. Photo: Douglas Levere

This concept involves approaching research “based on the questions we’re asking, not on the discipline where it fits most comfortably,” she said. And this poses a big shift in the culture — for the NSF as well as researchers — she said, calling the NSF “very siloed.”

“Keeping science siloed limits our potential for discovery; to expand to new frontiers, we need to integrate knowledge and thinking from multiple disciplines.”

Córdova noted that while NSF is usually considered a funding agency, “part of our mission is to help shape the future of the U.S. basic research enterprise based on input from communities of scientists and engineers about what would be the most productive approaches. And convergence is one such approach.”

The NSF is looking to provide expanding opportunities for scientists interested in pursuing convergence research, she added.

Enter the Convergence Accelerator, which Córdova described as “an organizational structure to accelerate the transition of convergence research into practice in areas of national importance.”

The accelerator will focus on bringing together teams of multidisciplinary researchers, she said. “We’re putting the concept out first, and then gathering the cohort around it. There are particular focuses that are really important for this nation to achieve, and we want all of those who want to aggregate around that challenge to come together in a convergent way, and we will fund you; we will fund teams that overall comprise a cohort that is all driven to the same solution, but could have many different approaches.

“We hope this approach will help to stimulate innovation by encouraging as many ideas as possible in pursuit of the common goal.”

From left, XX, Adel Sadek, Chunming Qiao, XX, France Córdova and Leisl Folks pose together in front of Olli the self-driving shuttle.

France Córdova (second from right) poses with UB researchers in front of Olli, the self-driving electric shuttle, in the Center for Tomorrow parking lot. Photo: Douglas Levere

Córdova noted that with the Convergence Accelerator, the NSF is experimenting with a new way to fund proposals. When submitting their ideas to the accelerator, researchers will first gather their teams, make plans and develop a proof of concept, she said, adding that NSF helps with educational curriculum.

Researchers then will make pitches for support to a panel of experts — what Córdova called “a Shark Tank-like experience,” which is a new approach for NSF.

This new approach to garnering funding will help applicants “focus on the value proposition and intended outcomes of their proposals,” she said. “In today’s competitive environment, those skills are crucial. And the NSF is always looking for ways to innovate. It’s not just research itself that can be innovative; it’s also the approach to research that can be innovative.”

Córdova said the accelerator is initially seeking proposals aligned with three tracks, or focus areas, in which there is a lot of industry and government interest. The tracks are also aligned with two of the NSF’s “10 Big Ideas” — “Harnessing the Data Revolution” (HDR) and the “Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier” (FW-HTF) — which Córdova defined as being strategic areas that the NSF has identified as being important to the country and in which targeted investment has the potential to result in big gains. The tracks are:

  • Open Knowledge Network, which aims to enable the creation of a nonproprietary shared knowledge infrastructure. (HDR)
  • AI and the Future of Jobs, which will support creating technological tools to connect individual workers with jobs. (FW-HTF)
  • National Talent Ecosystem, which will develop innovative approaches for employers to support workers seeking the skills required for 21st-century careers. (FW-HTF)

The Convergence Accelerator, the “Big Ideas” and convergence research are all attempts by the NSF “to produce research that changes the face of the country and the world,” Córdova said, adding that the challenge the NSF faces in scaling up its efforts “is what the Convergence Accelerator is about.”

Photos: Douglas Levere

Córdova visited campus as the latest speaker in UB’s Critical Conversation series, which showcases distinguished individuals at the forefront of their fields who are helping to shape understanding of vital issues facing the world today.

She started the day with a breakfast meeting with UB’s deans, and then received an overview of UB’s Smart Transportation Infrastructure and Systems research, including a demonstration of UB’s autonomous vehicles.

After her Critical Conversation talk, she had lunch with UB’s recent NSF CAREER award recipients, and then toured the Nanosatellite Laboratory.