Bold Ambition: International Large-Scale Science

Appendix A: U.S. Government Leadership in International Large-Scale Science

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Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships

Several U.S. government organizations act as leaders in many international large-scale science endeavors, including the NSF, whose primary responsibility is the support of science, as well as mission agencies for which science is critical to achieving their overarching goals and operations, such as the DOE, NASA, and the NIH. They may provide a workforce, expertise, infrastructure, and/or funding. Each of the examples overviewed below highlights the varied and multidisciplinary roles that these U.S. government agencies play in modern-day megascience. A key conclusion is that in most cases these federal agencies have been successful in managing large-scale science projects and partnerships on behalf of the nation and have demonstrated they can manage the inevitable challenges and crises that arise in a complex project. Having a clear understanding of the scientific priorities supported by the scientific community and a robust oversight and management review process that is cognizant of these priorities and identifies risks and mitigation strategies as early as possible is a strong foundation for success in the face of challenges.

Department of Energy Office of Science

Mission: “To deliver scientific discoveries and major scientific tools to transform our understanding of nature and advance the energy, economic, and national security of the United States.”173

The Department of Energy was officially established in 1977 to centralize several agencies focused on energy, power, and environment research and administration, with its history tracing back to the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb in World War II.174 Today, through the DOE Office of Science, it is responsible for a diverse portfolio of programs, including energy and environment related initiatives, high-energy physics, nuclear physics, basic energy science, biological and environmental research, fusion energy sciences, and advanced scientific computing research, as well as the operation of ten of the nation’s national laboratories. The Office of Science is the nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences.175

Through the national laboratories, the Office of Science currently supports large-scale science efforts at twenty-eight user facilities across the country with an array of cutting-edge scientific tools, including high-energy particle colliders, powerful X-ray light sources, a neutron scattering source, nanoscale science research centers, a genomics research center, and supercomputers.176 Research conducted at these facilities is intended to facilitate U.S. leadership in pushing the frontiers of science across all disciplines, discovering and using advanced scientific tools, and investigating and paving the way of science for energy and environmental conservation and use. Scientists from the United States and abroad are eligible to apply to use the facilities at no cost if the results will be openly published, while users doing proprietary work must pay user fees covering the full operating costs. Allocation of access is determined by review of proposal submissions with the goal of identifying exceptional scientific merit and potential.

DOE Office of Science project management practices: The DOE is highly regarded for its robust project development and management cycle, which is designed to ensure successful and sustainable management of facilities and rigorous scientific outcomes. Projects are primarily overseen by the DOE’s deputy secretary, who serves as the secretarial acquisition executive (SAE) and is responsible for key decision-making throughout project development, and by the Energy Systems Acquisition Advisory Board (ESAAB), who serve as objective advisors in evaluating project proposals and providing expert recommendations.177 At the start of a project, performance baselines (PBs) are determined, which provide high-level summaries and goals to aid projects in building detailed plans for defining technical, scheduling, cost, and performance parameters.178 To meet PBs, a project’s development stages are defined by a series of critical decisions (CDs). CDs serve as key transition points in the life of a project that require a certain number of deliverables to be met for the SAE to approve the project to progress to its next phase.179 Developing projects follow the directive DOE Order 413.3B, Program and Project Management for the Acquisition of Capital Assets, which outlines a series of steps, with relevant guidance, to ensure project success.180 Once a project reaches CD-2/3 (approve performance baseline/approve start of construction), the DOE’s Office of Project Management will conduct an independent scientific review to meet the independent review and peer review requirements outlined in DOE Order 413.3B and to promote successful project outcomes.181

DOE partnerships in international large-scale facilities: There are a variety of ways the DOE supports U.S. involvement in international large-scale scientific facilities. Take, for example, how the DOE supports CERN and ITER.

The United States is an “observer with special rights” to CERN.182 The United States achieved this status in 1997 following an agreement with CERN to contribute $531 million for the Large Hadron Collider project.183 The DOE provided physical equipment and materials valued at $200 million for the construction of the LHC, and an additional $250 million, along with $81 million from the NSF, for the construction of the detectors ATLAS and CMS.184 Since the agreement, the DOE has supported the design and construction of physical elements for ATLAS and CMS to install at CERN, whose construction was coordinated primarily through the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.185 In 2015, the DOE and the NSF signed an agreement with CERN that will align U.S. and European strategies for particle physics research and will automatically renew every five years.186 In 2018 and 2019, the DOE provided $100 million and $75 million, respectively, in grants for research proposals to study high-energy physics.187 Upgrades to the accelerator and to the ATLAS and CMS detectors are estimated to cost approximately $550 million.188

In the case of the ITER project (see ITER and the Challenging Road to Fusion Power), the United States is a joint member along with the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and India.189 In 2006, the members signed an international agreement in the facility’s home country, France, that officially established the ITER International Fusion Energy Organization for implementation of the ITER project.190 The United States participates in ITER through the DOE Office of Science, which manages its contributions mostly through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, with additional partners at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Savannah River National Laboratory. The U.S. commitment to ITER is to provide roughly 9 percent of the overall project costs, regardless of what that may be.191 The 9 percent commitment was originally estimated to be $1.1 billion, but delays and changes in the project more than quadrupled the estimate of the required U.S. contribution to between $4 billion and $6.5 billion as of 2016.192 This caused concern in the U.S. Congress and uncertainty regarding congressional approval of DOE budget requests needed to maintain the U.S. commitment to ITER.193 In response to an internal audit that found significant structural issues with ITER project management, ITER appointed in 2015 a new director-general to implement necessary management changes.194 Subsequently, calls from the DOE secretary in 2016 and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2018 encouraged the United States to maintain its commitment to ITER because of the immense scientific potential the facility offers.195


National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Mission: To “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.”196

NASA was established in 1958, in response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, to vigorously promote U.S. leadership in space exploration and aeronautics.197 Since its start, NASA has contributed significantly to inventions used by people around the world every day, including the development of robotics with applications for surgical operations, space suit technology for deep-sea diving suit materials, new materials like the memory foam commonly used in mattresses, and new camera technology developed to improve panoramic photography on Mars.198

NASA’s contributions to scientific research are primarily through its development and operation of scientific missions. The agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), with its four science divisions (heliophysics, Earth science, planetary science, and astrophysics), is responsible for scientific observations and exploration enabled by access to space.199 This is accomplished through observatories in Earth’s orbit and deep space, spacecraft visiting planetary bodies, and robotic landers, rovers, and sample return missions. These missions address a broad range of compelling scientific questions as practical as hurricane formation and as profound as the origin of the Universe. NASA’s science missions are often managed and implemented through one of its centers, in partnership with aerospace industry contractors and the science community. NASA R&D funds are not only allocated to space exploration and the development of appropriate technologies, but also to Earth and planetary sciences, physical and astronomical sciences, and aeronautics, as well as to STEM engagement and education.200 NASA provides funding to support the development of science instruments and spacecraft, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as to large international facilities like the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is one of the major international collaborations in which NASA takes part, involving the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada as the principal space agencies, among many other contributors.201

To inform its research priorities, NASA, like other federal agencies including the NSF and DOE, partners with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which conducts decadal surveys to inform the agency’s scientific direction.202 NASEM convenes panels of experts from various fields, including astronomy and astrophysics, solar and space physics/heliophysics, planetary science, and Earth science and applications from space, to set priorities for the decade to come. Its reports in turn transform the scientific community’s goals into action through the proposal of facilities and technologies, infrastructure, education, and more. Midterm assessments within the decade allow for evaluation of progress on priorities, and midterm review committees are then able to make recommendations for how to proceed for the remaining years before the next decadal survey.203

NASA and international partnerships on space science missions: NASA often partners with international space agencies on both missions it leads and missions led by an international partner agency. The European Space Agency (ESA) has been a major partner with NASA on many missions since the ESA’s formation in 1975. These include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and Ulysses. NASA contributed to instrumentation for the ESA-led Planck and XMM-Newton missions. The ESA is a major partner on the development of the NASA-led James Webb Space Telescope. NASA has also partnered with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on several JAXA-led science missions.204 The NASA Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR) provides coordination for all NASA international and interagency activities and partnerships, and for policy interactions between NASA and other U.S. executive branch offices and agencies.205

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, both an international and multi–U.S. agency space mission, enables the study of cosmic sources of high-energy radiation, including their formation and evolution starting from times near the Big Bang.206 The mission is an international astrophysics and physics partnership that NASA codeveloped with the DOE and academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.207 The international partnerships were part of the instrument proposals that NASA selected through a competitive review process. Projected costs of the project were initially $690 million, with the United States contributing $600 million and the international community contributing, in-kind, $90 million.208 However, project delays and some challenges with partner commitments ultimately led to a $45 million increase to the cost.209 Originally called the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), the concept for the primary instrument was developed in the 1990s by a group from Stanford University and the DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.210 In 2000, the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ranked GLAST as the top-priority midsized project.211 NASA subsequently issued a call for instrument and science investigation proposals for the GLAST mission and ultimately selected the DOE-sponsored Stanford/SLAC proposal for the Large Area Telescope, GLAST’s primary instrument.212 Eight years later, on June 11, 2008, GLAST successfully launched into space, at which time it was renamed Fermi in honor of Enrico Fermi, a renowned pioneer in the field of high-energy physics.213 Since launch, data from observations by Fermi’s instruments have been made openly available to the entire global scientific community and have been used by scientists and students from more than twenty countries. The Fermi LAT Science Collaboration includes participation from members from more than forty universities and labs in twelve countries.214 Fermi’s two instruments, the Large Area Telescope and the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), are aiding scientists in discovering new information about the most extreme environments in the universe.215 A key contributor to the success of Fermi was the partnership established between NASA and the DOE, which was most critical at the working level of the two agencies’ national labs, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Each agency had clear management responsibilities, including well-defined agreements with all international partners.


Using data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope, scientists have discovered a gigantic, mysterious structure in our galaxy. This never-before-seen feature looks like a pair of bubbles extending above and below our galaxy’s center, as shown in false color in this figure. Image courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.


National Science Foundation

Mission: To “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”216

The National Science Foundation was established under the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 and continues to support basic research and the furthering of knowledge, contributing approximately 25 percent of all federal funding for basic research. It is the only federal agency that currently funds basic nonbiomedical research and education across all science and engineering fields, and at all levels of education.

The NSF, as opposed to other U.S. agencies, is overseen by both an agency director and by the National Science Board (NSB), which acts similarly to a corporate board and has similar power of final and resolute decision-making regarding the NSF’s scientific priorities and funding allocations. The NSB consists of twenty-five scientists appointed by the president of the United States and has two overarching responsibilities: 1) establishing the policies of the NSF to operate within the priorities established by the president and Congress; and 2) serving as an independent body of advisors on science policy matters. Within this, the NSB has full power to approve NSF funding contributions for large-scale scientific facilities located in the United States and abroad.

The NSB’s report to Congress and the president, Science and Engineering Indicators, provides quantitative data on the science and engineering enterprise in the United States and, importantly, on science R&D and scientific output internationally. These data, released every other year, allow the United States to have a better understanding of the science research ecosystem, nationally and globally, to inform strategic priorities and directions and to identify new potential avenues for collaboration with global partners.217

It is the role of the NSF to invest in high-risk, high-reward scientific endeavors to identify new frontiers, and push past existing frontiers, for the advancement of U.S. scientific excellence (see the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array).218 To accomplish this, the NSF advances science at many scales through a variety of funding schemes. It specifically contributes to large-scale science efforts through its support of facilities and equipment, like LIGO, through cooperative research agreements with institutions and agencies in the United States and abroad. The NSF Office of International Science and Engineering is a focal point for international activities both inside and outside the NSF.219

LIGO, the largest project ever funded by the NSF: Just over forty years ago, the NSF began funding the science and technological developments that ultimately led to the detection of gravitational radiation with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. LIGO’s early development was led by scientists at MIT, the University of Glasgow, and Caltech in the 1960s and 1970s to detect the waves predicted by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity near the start of the twentieth century.220 The NSF began funding scientists at MIT and Caltech in the mid-1970s and later encouraged them to officially form a collaboration to simplify funding for one project.221 After further planning and scoping, the National Science Board approved LIGO’s construction in 1990, and Congress appropriated funding for joint construction in 1991. In 1994, the LIGO project underwent organizational and management changes to address significant issues that had slowed the project and were of concern to the NSF. In 1997, the LIGO organization created a separate entity from the LIGO laboratories based in the United States: the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), which is responsible for coordinating research and data analysis and for expanding LIGO to include scientists beyond the two main home U.S. institutions. In tandem with initial data collection and searches by the first generation LIGO detectors, which ultimately did not detect any gravitational waves during its nine years of operation, the LSC worked with the European Virgo project, which included scientists from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary, to form an international collaborative effort to develop data collection and analysis capabilities and ultimately improve the measurements of gravity wave source locations. In 2008, the NSF approved funding for significant upgrades to LIGO, resulting in a next generation of advanced interferometers (“Advanced LIGO”), which benefited from important contributions from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia.222 This improved interferometer led to the 2015 breakthrough discovery of gravitational waves from the coalescence of two neutron stars.


National Institutes of Health of the Department of Health and Human Services

Mission: To “seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”223

The NIH traces its roots back to 1887 with the Marine Hospital Service, which was charged by Congress to assess incoming passengers for signs of infectious disease.224 Today, the NIH invests more than $30 billion per year in biomedical research around the world, seeking to improve health, drive economic growth and productivity, and broaden understanding of biomedical fields through cutting-edge research and increased capacity of the biomedical workforce.225

The NIH contributes to large-scale scientific efforts through its support of individual experimental stations at facilities funded by other agencies such as the DOE as well as its funding and support of global, clinical studies. The NIH often partners and collaborates with other internationally based funding organizations, like the Wellcome Trust based in the United Kingdom; foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and multinational pharmaceutical or medical device companies, like Merck.

The NIH, unlike some other agencies, is able to provide grant funding directly to non-U.S. citizens and internationally based institutions.226 Many of its global health research grants are administered through the NIH’s Fogarty International Center (FIC), which seeks to support and facilitate global health research and build further capacity in global health research around the world.227 The FIC focuses on inherently global issues that require the engagement and capacity of international talent, such as infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika and noninfectious diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Included in its work is the effort to build a global health research workforce of the future through building research capacities of individuals, institutions, and networks, including by supporting training of early-career scientists in low- and middle-income countries. As of 2014, the FIC has directly supported training for over 4,500 of these scientists in over one hundred countries, many of whom have remained in their home countries and have become national leaders in health fields.228

H3Africa, a partnership between the NIH and the Wellcome Trust, is managed through the African Academy of Sciences, which seeks to build a research agenda for studying genetic diversity in health and disease in Africa.229 NIH leadership in the collaboration proceeds through the NIH Common Fund, the National Human Genome Research Institute, and the FIC, and many NIH institutes and centers partner to support H3Africa research goals. H3Africa has been funded for ten years spanning 2011–2021 with a current commitment of approximately $180 million, which is awarded through the NIH, the Wellcome Trust, and the African Academy of Sciences through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.230

Fauci vaccine development

NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci (right) discusses vaccine development and ongoing infectious disease research with African delegates at the U.S.-African Leaders Summit. Photo by the Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health.


Establishing International Standards

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce, is a physical science laboratory that develops measurement tools and provides standards for an array of research needs.231 NIST works internationally to agree to standards, such as weights and measures, for how international systems of units are defined. Such agreements are essential for scientific advancements, trade, and global commerce, and will continue to have significant impact on society as standards are developed for artificial intelligence, 5G, wireless communications, and quantum communication systems.


Philanthropic Sources of Funding

Along with the U.S. government, American philanthropic institutions sometimes play a major role in international large-scale science. Foundations contribute substantial support, often hundreds of millions of dollars, for large-scale scientific initiatives, including telescopes, marine biology network studies, climate change consortia, neuroscience, and global public health research programs.232


  • 232Major philanthropic institutions that support large-scale science include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, W. M. Keck Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, William and Flora Hew­lett Foundation, Simons Foundation, Kavli Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Allen Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Schmidt Futures, among others. The Hewlett, Moore, and Sloan Foundations are supporters of the Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships initiative.