NSF Director Briefs President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

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Publication date: 
7 February 2011

“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.

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