What Awaits the New NSF Director

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Science  06 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6163, pp. 1145
DOI: 10.1126/science.1248875

In the coming days, the United States Senate will consider the confirmation of Dr. France Córdova as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). If confirmed, Dr. Córdova will be the latest in a line of distinguished scientists to lead the nearly $7 billion agency, the most important source of funding for basic research outside of the biomedical sciences. Rather than turning over with the election of a new president, the NSF director is appointed to a 6-year term. During the roughly 2000 days that Córdova will have at the helm, she will need to deal with many forces that threaten the nation's ability to innovate. One major impediment is the continuing threat of mandatory budget cuts from sequestration, whose impact this year included fewer grants awarded and delays to many research projects.

NSF also faces a renewed push from Congress to micromanage its activities: Proposed legislation would alter the agency's time-honored peer-review process by requiring that funded proposals meet one or more congressionally defined national goals. Congress has already required the agency to use “extra criteria” in evaluating proposals for support from its social science programs. I urge the new director to speak up strongly against these new threats and return the agency to its independence.

The bleak fiscal environment presents particular challenges for fields that rely on large and costly facilities. In the recent past, a scientific community could expect to build a major new facility (e.g., a research ship, aircraft, or observatory) with funds from the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account, and by the time it was built, growth in the program budget would be sufficient to support its operations. In the future, that won't be the case. Programs that are fortunate enough to receive an MREFC award will have to plan their operational phase quite differently. One possibility is for the community to identify facilities that they are willing to sunset just as a new facility comes online, and shift the funds accordingly. Another approach is to identify a partner to assume long-term operations of the assets. For example, Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), one of the implementing organizations for the EarthScope project, encouraged the adoption of USArray seismic stations by other federal and state agencies and educational institutions at the end of the stations' deployment. The transitions have allowed important research and monitoring to continue rather than waste the nation's investment.


Another management imperative is to provide appropriate incentives to work across program lines because the majority of NSF funding flows through its disciplinary directorates. In the past, budget growth has provided NSF directors and associate directors with matching funds to spur exciting opportunities in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research. An important aspect of promoting innovation has also been enabling U.S. participation in international collaborations as part of sustaining the nation's position as a global leader in science. For NSF to tackle the most important problems, no matter where they might be found, it is important that flexible funds be found each year to enable new discoveries that can only emerge in the absence of a “silo” system. I urge the new director to argue strongly for sufficient increases in the NSF budget to jump-start innovation and allow the United States to be a full partner at the forefront of international research partnerships.

The United States is no longer in a period when major new capacity can be added without shutting down something else. The new NSF director will likely face difficult choices with unpopular solutions. The scientific community is very fortunate that someone of the caliber, experience, and credentials of Dr. Córdova has agreed to be nominated for this important position. Congress should confirm her quickly and give her the resources needed to be successful so that she can begin shepherding an agency whose actions are defining for the country's future well-being.

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