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Richard Buckius testifies before Congress in 2013.

House science committee Democrats

Departing senior NSF manager offers hopeful assessment of agency’s future

The top aide to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France Córdova has returned to his university after failing to win confirmation as deputy NSF director. But engineer Richard Buckius says his departure, less than a week after President Donald Trump took office, was long in the cards and not a political statement. In fact, Buckius predicts that NSF and academic research will do fine under the new Trump administration.

“I think NSF is in good shape,” says Buckius, who left NSF on 25 January and has reclaimed a faculty position in the mechanical engineering department at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “I don’t want to say, ‘Don’t worry.’ But I’m confident that there is considerable support for NSF’s mission of supporting fundamental research.”

NSF is unusual among federal research agencies in having retained its leader during the switch from Democratic to Republican presidents. (The only other exception is Francis Collins, who has been asked to stay temporarily as head of the National Institutes of Health.) Córdova serves a 6-year term that runs through March 2020, and there have been no rumblings that the Trump administration wants her to leave. Indeed, Trump didn’t even bother to send in a transition team to scope out the agency, and its only political vacancy is the deputy director’s spot.

That position, with no fixed term, has traditionally gone to someone seen as aligned with the new occupant of the White House. And Buckius has strong ties to Córdova, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama.

In fact, Córdova has hired Buckius twice, once from NSF and once at NSF. In 2008, as Purdue’s new president, she recruited him to be her vice president for research. His previous job? Head of NSF’s engineering directorate. And Buckius was Córdova’s first hire after being confirmed as NSF director.

Buckius was serving as NSF’s chief operating officer (COO) when Obama picked him in August 2015 to be deputy NSF director. But the nomination languished for nearly 18 months, and it officially expired when the 114th Congress adjourned in December 2016.

Even if Congress had acted, Buckius says, it would have been a short gig. “I came in June 2014, and as an IPA I was always planning to go back to Purdue,” he says, referring to the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, a law that gives academics a chance to serve a 2- to 4-year stint in government. “I also figured that whoever won would want to name a new deputy. So I decided before the election to leave.”

Buckius’s departure has caused a slight reshuffling of senior NSF management. Córdova has named Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the long-term head of NSF’s education directorate, to be acting COO, and her deputy, William “Jim” Lewis, to be acting associate director (AD), the official title for the leader of one of NSF’s seven directorates.

Those moves add to a significant game of musical chairs already underway at NSF, one caused by the agency’s extensive use of temporary managers. On Friday, Roger Wakimoto ended a 4-year IPA as head of the geosciences directorate; longtime NSF-er Scott Borg is acting AD for geosciences until William Easterling of Pennsylvania State University in State College reports for duty on 1 June. Last month Fleming Crim completed a 4-year tour as head of mathematics and physical sciences (MSP); another NSF veteran, James Ulvestad, was moved up from astronomy division director to run the MSP ship until Córdova finds a new AD. And in engineering, Barry Johnson has been acting AD since last summer, when Pramod Khargonekar left to become vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Irvine.

As COO, Buckius was Mr. Inside, handling a wide swath of administrative duties to complement Córdova’s role as the public face of the agency. He says he enjoys being back on campus, even if it means teaching a 7:30 a.m. class on basic thermodynamics. “Since I came in the middle of the academic year, I’m assisting in any way I can, handling classes, committee work, and anything else they need me to do.”

At age 66, he may even take on some graduate students in the fall. “After all,” he says, “that’s the fun part of the job.”