The last major science holdover in the Obama Administration is stepping down this spring, leaving the president free to appoint a new director for the $7-billion National Science Foundation.
Arden Bement announced today that he will be leaving NSF on 1 June to lead a new public policy institute at Purdue University. A nuclear engineer, he's been on leave from Purdue since coming to Washington in 2001 to head the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. In 2004 President George W. Bush named him acting NSF director following the resignation of Rita Colwell and, several months later, to a full, 6-year term.
His performance since then at NSF gave the incoming Democratic Administration little reason to replace him. But his decision to step down 6 months before his term expires will ignite speculation about the next head of an agency that has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support.
The Obama Administration has pledged to continue a 2006 promise by Bush to double NSF's budget, although it extended the term from 7 to 10 years. This week Obama requested $7.4 billion for NSF, an 8% boost that stands out in a budget that seeks a freeze on overall domestic discretionary spending.
NSF doesn't conduct any research itself, but its system of supporting academic science across almost every discipline is widely admired. Many countries have created agencies meant to imitate its approach, most recently the European Science Foundation. China's booming investment in basic research over the past 2 decades has been propelled by its own version of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which this year celebrates its 60th aniversary.
At an age when most people are already retired, Bement says, "I feel like 77 going on 45." His return to West Lafayette, Indiana, will certainly be a homecoming for him. The Global Policy Research Institute that he will lead is part of a strategic plan hatched by Purdue's president, France Córdova, who is a member of the National Science Board, NSF's oversight body. And Richard Buckius, Purdue's vice president for research, served as head of NSF's engineering directorate before going to Purdue in 2008.
The new institute will draw on existing faculty and plans to offer a certificate for undergraduates and, eventually, a master's degree as well. Buckius, a member of the task force that designed the institute, says Bement is exactly what the university was looking for. "There are a lot of public policy programs, but our strength is taking an engineering, data-driven approach to a range of issues that are global in nature. And that's what Arden has been doing at NSF."
Bement's immediate successor will likely be Cora Marrett, who for the past year has served as acting deputy NSF director. So her current post may also need to be filled by the Obama Administration.