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Kelvin Droegemeier

Stephen Voss

White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier will also lead NSF—for now

Kelvin Droegemeier, science adviser to President Donald Trump, today was handed another job that he’s always wanted—but it’s only temporary.

Droegemeier, a meteorologist, has been named acting director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) following the departure of France Córdova, whose 6-year term ended on 30 March. In December 2019, Trump picked Sethuraman Panchanathan to succeed Córdova. Although Panchanathan’s nomination is not controversial, there’s no telling when the U.S. Senate will confirm the 58-year-old computer scientist, now executive vice president at Arizona State University.

So today, Trump filled the void at the top of the $8 billion agency by double-hatting Droegemeier. “My role at NSF is a temporary one as we all excitedly await the swift Senate confirmation of Dr. Panchanathan,” said Droegemeier, who since January 2019 has served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

In a press release, Droegemeier said he regards his new duties as “a homecoming of sorts,” referring to his 12 years as a member of the National Science Board (NSB), NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body. NSF has also funded much of the research he has carried out during more than 3 decades at the University of Oklahoma, including a large center on modeling violent storms that he founded.

Science advocates see Droegemeier, who will remain OSTP director, as an ideal choice. “He loves our agency and I can’t think of a better caretaker,” added Diane Souvaine, a computer scientist at Tufts University and chair of NSB, in the same press release. “I look forward to working closely with him again.”

Córdova, who is heading back to her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, also praised the White House’s choice of her temporary successor. “He has a distinguished career of advancing the progress of science,” she said in the statement.

The break in continuity at NSF is not unexpected. No NSF director has served more than a single 6-year term since the 1950s. And NSF has been without a deputy director since Cora Marrett stepped down in August 2014, 5 months into Córdova’s first year as NSF’s 14th director.

Cordova has filled the void with veteran administrators who did not require Senate confirmation, most recently F. Fleming Crim, an emeritus chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, who has been NSF’s chief operating officer since July 2018. The rest of NSF’s senior management is comprised of civil servants and those on leave from their academic posts. Historically, those posts do not change hands when a new director arrives.