NSF director: Agency must act locally, think globally

Subra Suresh tells Rice audience agency must reach across borders regardless of funding issues

The world needs ideas bigger than the United States alone can provide. So what does the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) do to encourage global impact with a national mandate?

The answer: Reach out in every way possible.

NSF Director Subra Suresh spoke to a Rice University audience Nov. 13 about his agency’s ongoing initiatives to think locally and act globally, even, and perhaps especially, in times of financial crisis. That often means transcending borders to find compatriots who believe cooperation in the development of scientists and engineers – and their big ideas – are key to achieving a stable world economy.

Suresh gave an overview of his agency’s efforts and did not skirt the fact that funding for science – as hot a topic as ever in the research community – hangs in the balance as Washington negotiates a new federal budget before dropping over the “fiscal cliff.”

He appeared as part of Rice’s ongoing Civic Scientist Lecture Series, in conjunction with Trans-Atlantic Science Week 2012, at the Baker Institute for Public Policy’s Doré Commons to discuss his vision for NSF after two years at its helm. The former dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Suresh was appointed NSF director by President Barack Obama in 2010. In his early years at MIT, he had served as a materials scientist supported in part by an NSF grant for young scientists (now known as CAREER grants).

NSF Director Subra Suresh spoke to a Rice University audience Nov. 13 about his agency's ongoing initiatives to think locally and act globally, even, and perhaps especially, in times of financial crisis. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“The president has proposed for 2013 an increase of 4.8 percent for NSF,” Suresh said, addressing the situation head-on. “The Republican House Appropriations Committee has marked up an increase of 4.2 percent for NSF. The Democratic Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for NSF has marked up an increase of 3.5 percent. So in the most optimistic scenario … we will end up somewhere between 3.5 and 4.2 percent – which, in this climate, is not bad.”

What he called the pessimistic scenario would take place if budget sequestration goes forward Jan. 1, with expected cuts across the board. “If that would happen with its fullest feared impact,” he said, “then all federal funding agencies, including NSF and NIH (National Institutes of Health) and DOE (Department of Energy) will see a reduction of 8.2 percent, which would mean 1,000 fewer (NSF) awards.”

No matter the scenario, Suresh said, the challenge of supporting high-risk, long-term research remains the same. “Our mandate is to fund all fields of science and engineering and related education, with the singular exception of clinical research,” he said. “Last year this translated into 300,000 individuals in the U.S. who were supported. Unfortunately, the demand for resources far surpasses our ability to support it. Nevertheless, the level of support has seen a significant increase over time, especially in the last 62 years (since NSF was founded).

“One of the major objectives is to walk a very fine line between supporting individuals and thereby contributing to the human capital development of the country in science and engineering, and at the same time supporting what I would call ‘big science’ through large facilities where you can keep different disciplines in the U.S. at the forefront of the scientific enterprise,” he said.

Suresh said the community faces great challenges presented by the creation and ability to archive “big data,” the necessity to advance the careers of women and other underrepresented groups in science, the protection of intellectual property rights in an open-access world and the management of public-private partnerships to facilitate global health.

He also anticipated a coming shift in the graduation rate for natural science and engineering Ph.D.s. While the United States may lead all nations now, “if you extrapolate 10 years down the road, half of all the scientists and engineers … are going to probably come from two countries, China and India,” Suresh said.

In remarks before a question-and-answer session, Neal Lane, former science adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior fellow in science and technology policy at the Baker Institute, praised Suresh’s accomplishments to date “under less than totally desirable political circumstances.”

Lane said, “What you’re seeing is what a science policy leader can do at an agency like NSF.”

Suresh said NSF’s peer-reviewed grant system is the “gold standard” replicated by other government agencies around the world. That level of common understanding will contribute to solutions to problems that know no boundaries.

“There are enormous challenges we face, individually as a science funding agency, collectively as a nation or even, on a larger scale, from a global science and engineering perspective,” he said. “First, we face a lot of global challenges, from pandemics to water shortages to mass migration of people, urban infrastructure constraints, the environment, energy sustainability, etc. In trying to understand this, all the funding agencies are, by regulation, constrained to operate within their national policies, laws and guidance … and we cannot send taxpayer money from one country to another country that freely.

“But all of the challenges have no barriers. … All it takes for an infectious disease to go from one part of the world to a diametrically opposite part of the world is an airline flight. SARS was a very good example a few years ago,” Suresh said. “Given that, how do funding agencies collaborate on an international scale?”

Operating on the assumption that “good science anywhere is good for science everywhere,” he said a collective of the world’s science funding agencies came together earlier this year as the Global Research Council. “We formed a virtual, loose organization – virtual because there’s no budget, there’s no secretariat, there’s nothing.”

He said the organization, in meetings next May, will address research integrity and the “thorny issue” of open access to publications and data. “Who’ll create the policies? Who’ll create the archiving mechanism? And more importantly, who will pay for it?” he said. “The people participating in this meeting, by my approximate count, represent more than 90 percent of science and engineering funding on the planet.

“If that group is not capable of developing the policies to address this issue, I will be very depressed,” he said. “So I’m hopeful that a few years down the road we will have an opportunity to make significant progress.”

The Civic Scientist Lecture Series is part of the Shell Distinguished Lecture Series. It was co-hosted by the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program, the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in Houston and Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and Wiess School of Natural Sciences. Additional support was provided by JWC/JKH Family Foundation and its president, Janice Hartrick.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.