“Thoughtful, inspiring, in some ways scary” was how Eric Lander, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) described a one hour presentation by National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh at a meeting of the council last month. It was the first time that Suresh appeared before PCAST, coming less than three months after he became the foundation’s new director.
Suresh’s presentation was wide-ranging, discussing topics ranging from the funding of interdisciplinary research to worrisome indications about foreign-born, U.S.-educated students who no longer necessarily regarded the United States as the optimal location in which to work. PCAST members responded enthusiastically to Suresh’s formal remarks, which lasted for about thirty minutes, and to the additional thirty minutes of dialogue between the director and PCAST members.
In his opening comments to the January 7 PCAST meeting, co-chair John Holdren, who is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, reiterated the Administration’s major economic priorities of recovery, job creation, and economic growth. He spoke of the important relationships between science and technology, and economic growth, national security, energy, climate change, and health. Holdren’s comments and those of the other speakers can be viewed on an archived webcast.
Suresh highlighted four broad and interconnected topics that the foundation has discussed both internally and externally. They are the role of basic research; the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pipeline; STEM leadership; and interdisciplinary research.
The NSF can “proactively nudge innovations” through collaborations of agencies, institutions, and industry, Suresh said, creating an “innovation ecosystem.” He spoke of the importance of increasing funding for basic research, telling PCAST members that U.S. spending on nondefense R&D as a percentage of GDP has been surpassed by Germany, South Korea, and Japan. He asked PCAST members to think about ways to keep the U.S. in play internationally as competition stiffens.
Suresh reported mixed results regarding the STEM pipeline. The percentage of college degrees awarded to women continues to increase, but the number of women staying in STEM fields lags. Supply and retention numbers for minorities “are not very good” Suresh said. He again asked PCAST members for their recommendations on how NSF can improve these numbers.
“The bottom line,” Suresh told PCAST members, is that there are many opportunities outside of the U.S. for students graduating from American universities. Loss of these students could have a serious impact on the U.S. science and technology enterprise. Compounding this problem are declines in the percentage of physical science and other STEM degrees awarded to American students in U.S universities as compared to thirty years ago.
Suresh and PCAST members were very interested in expanding research opportunities at the intersection of traditional disciplines. NSF is actively addressing steps it can take to foster interdisciplinary work.
Topics raised during the question and answer period covered a wide range of issues. They included publicizing the importance of NSF-supported research, efforts by NSF to increase support for young investigators, the size of foundation grants, award rates, determining the right level of support for single investigators and for large scientific endeavors, and collaborative efforts with international organizations and the Department of Energy. The interest in NSF among PCAST members was great. At one point an informal show of hands was asked for those who had received NSF support at a key point in their academic or career lives. Almost every member raised his or her hand.