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New chair of science board helps make NSF’s case to U.S. Congress

Maria Zuber.

Bryce Vickmark/MIT

New chair of science board helps make NSF’s case to U.S. Congress

The new chair of the board that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to continue the board’s stepped-up efforts to educate Congress on how NSF does its business.

This month Maria Zuber, a planetary geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, took over from Dan Arvizu as chair of the National Science Board. The presidentially appointed body has traditionally kept a low profile. But in 2014 Arvizu asked Zuber to design a bigger role for the board in response to criticism from Republican legislators that NSF was funding frivolous research.

The board’s response has been face-to-face meetings with individual legislators that take place after the end of the board’s regular 2-day sessions at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Over the past 18 months Arvizu and Zuber have helped connect a small contingent of board members with a score of legislators from both parties. Zuber and Arvizu say each side has learned from the other.

As MIT’s vice president for research, Zuber is an experienced advocate for science. She is also comfortable in the spotlight. She has reached any number of “first woman to …” milestones, including principal investigator on a NASA planetary mission and head of an MIT science department. And although Zuber is not the first women to chair the board, NSF’s press release touts her as part of the first all-female leadership team at the agency, joining NSF Director France Córdova and the board’s new vice-chair, Diane Souvaine, a theoretical computer scientist and vice provost for research at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

“I’ve never realized I was first until after the fact,” Zuber told ScienceInsider. “This is not something I aspire to. And I long for the day when I’m not the first anymore.”

Into battle

Zuber’s new job thrusts her squarely into the middle of the running battle between NSF and Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House of Representatives science committee. In addition to repeatedly ridiculing specific grants, Smith has championed legislation that would require NSF to certify that all of its research grants contribute to “the national interest.” Scientific leaders who oppose that provision view it as a mechanism for making ideology-driven decisions about what NSF should be funding, and Smith says it’s simply an attempt to ensure accountability.

“My definition of science in the national interest is great science,” Zuber says. “Mediocre science is not in anyone’s interest. And the board is here to help NSF support the best science as determined by merit review.”

Still, Zuber recognizes that the issue is not cut-and-dried. “There is a range of opinion about whether NSF was transparent enough,” she says. “NSF felt it was, but others thought it wasn’t doing enough. So the board decided that the best thing to do is talk about it, and not get defensive. And those conversations have led us to believe that there’s room for NSF to improve transparency.”

Zuber says no legislator has turned down a request for a visit from a board member, and she has met personally with Smith. The meetings are no panacea, she concedes, but she thinks they have helped.

“I hoped we’ve turned the corner,” Zuber says. “We’re trying to let legislators know what NSF has been doing, and hopefully they will express an appreciation for it. But even if they don’t think we’ve done enough, we want to be able to understand their concerns.”

Of course, whether NSF is spending its money wisely is part of a larger debate about how much the federal government should invest in research. There’s an old saw about scientists always wanting more. And though Zuber doesn’t think research should be exempt from the current budget constraints, she believes that steady increases are warranted.

“Everything is under scrutiny when budgets are tight,” she concedes. “But U.S. research and education are really what has kept this country at the forefront. It’s improved our quality of life and contributed markedly to our competitiveness. So I think that even in this environment, where flat is the new up, then research spending ought to still be up.”