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Cora Marrett steps down as NSF deputy director

Cora Marrett steps down as NSF deputy director
Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

Cora Marrett has been a jack-of-all-trades administrator at the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a good part of the past 2 decades, including two stints as acting director of the $7 billion agency. Yesterday, the 72-year-old sociologist announced she will retire next month, before the end of her term as NSF’s deputy director, and return home to Wisconsin.

“I’m been commuting for 7 years, with my husband [Louis Marrett] in Madison,” she told ScienceInsider today. “As you know, the past year has been very challenging, with the shutdown and the effects of sequestration. And having seen that NSF was moving along and that the prospects looked very good, I thought this would be a good time to go home, as I had planned.”

Marrett’s decision to leave on 24 August comes 4 months after France Córdova took up the reins as NSF’s 14th director. In addition to dealing with the government-wide funding crunch, NSF has spent the past year battling Republican legislators over how it manages its grants portfolio, including its funding of the social sciences. Some U.S. science policy observers say the agency was put at a disadvantage in that fight by Marrett’s status as acting director.

Córdova chose to look at the bright side of that ongoing battle, which has encompassed specific grants and NSF’s overall peer-review process, in a statement praising her departing deputy. "Cora's unwavering support of NSF's mission and her stewardship in challenging times are widely appreciated," Córdova stated. The NSF director also credited her deputy with helping the agency navigate the 12-month gap at the top between the departure of Subra Suresh and her arrival. "On a personal note, Cora's deep knowledge and insights were pivotal to my smooth transition to NSF Director. I cannot thank her enough for her advice and friendship."

A career academic, Marrett first came to NSF in 1992 to lead its newly formed social and behavioral sciences directorate—disciplines that have long been targets for legislators from both parties. After a decade as a university administrator, she returned to NSF in 2007 to head NSF’s programs in education and broadening participation, two long-standing areas of interest. At the start of the Obama administration she was promoted to deputy director, and since then she has served either in that capacity or as acting director. Cordova’s arrival marked the first time women have held both Senate-confirmed posts at NSF.

 The deputy director serves at the pleasure of the president, and Marrett acknowledged that rule means she is leaving more than 2 years ahead of schedule. “Technically, the deputy is co-terminus with the term of the president,” she said. “So it is early, since the president’s term isn’t over yet.

Previous NSF directors were unanimous in applauding the job that Marrett has done at NSF. “She has performed magnificently, and I’m sorry that she’s leaving,” says Arden Bement, who served from 2004 to 2010 and who recommended that the incoming Obama administration tap her as his deputy. “The deputy runs the agency internally, so that the director can focus on dealing with Congress, the White House and other executive agencies, and international issues.”

Adds Neal Lane, NSF’s director during Marrett’s first stint at the agency and a longtime friend, “I cannot think of anyone who’s done a better job of protecting the integrity of the agency and retaining the trust of the scientific community. And that trust is essential for the NSF to do its job.”

Although the White House makes the final selection, the NSF director traditionally plays a major role in choosing the deputy director. Córdova may have already signaled her preference with the recent appointment of Richard Buckius as a senior science adviser within the director’s office. Buckius was head of NSF’s engineering directorate when Córdova, as president of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, recruited him in 2008 to be the school’s vice president for research.

In a May interview with ScienceInsider, Córdova explained his role thusly: “I want to be everywhere at the same time. And so Richard will help me with that, keeping his eyes and ears to the ground. He understands how both NSF and universities work. And he’ll be a welcome sounding board for questions about how the university community might respond to a particular idea and an opportunity.”