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Sethuraman Panchanathan

Arizona State University/Arizona Board of Regents

An optimist takes the helm at the National Science Foundation

The new director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, is familiar with the dark clouds over the agency.

His boss, President Donald Trump, keeps proposing big cuts to NSF’s budget. Two recent executive orders on immigration make it harder for foreign scientists—who make up a sizeable share of the U.S. research enterprise—to enter the country. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike have lambasted NSF and other research agencies for not doing more to stop the Chinese government from stealing federally funded technology. New cases of sexual harassment within the academic research community that NSF funds seem to pop up weekly, and the growing national debate over racial inequities has highlighted the chronic underrepresentation of minorities and women in science.

But those problems are no match for his relentless optimism, expressed in his first public interview since taking office on 23 June. Speaking remotely with Science last week in advance of his move to the Washington, D.C., area, the Indian-born computer scientist was unabashedly upbeat about the future of U.S. academic research—where he has spent most of his career—and about NSF’s role in supporting that community.

“If I were advising a family member about whether or not to come here, I would tell them that the United States is still the land of opportunity and the best place to pursue science,” says Panchanathan, 59, who comes to NSF from Arizona State University (ASU), where he was executive vice president and head of research and innovation. “And I’m a living example of that.”

His view of the fate of NSF’s budget is similarly optimistic. Asked why NSF’s budget should be reduced, as the president has sought to do since taking office in 2017, he instead notes that year after year both the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-controlled House have rejected the president’s requests for large cuts and instead given NSF small annual increases. “The process involves both the administration and Congress, as I understand it,” Panchanathan says.

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, he adds, “I am very confident that we’ll have a positive reception if we continue to communicate the value of federal investments in fundamental research.”

Getting to yes

Panchanathan, who likes to be called Dr. Panch to avoid the otherwise almost inevitable mangling of his name by legislators, has followed a path taken by countless Asian scientists over the past 40 years. He earned degrees from the top-ranked Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru and the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras before emigrating to Canada, where he received his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Ottawa. He immediately joined the faculty, spending 8 years there before ASU recruited him in 1997. In 2001 he founded the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), which develops technology for persons with disabilities.

“The thing about Panch is that he never makes enemies,” says Morris Goldberg, his doctoral advisor at the University of Ottawa and a long-time collaborator at the center. “His goal is always to bring everything to a win-win situation. If things aren’t working out with somebody, maybe it’s because there's something wrong with the environment, and that in a different environment they can thrive,” says Goldberg, who is now retired and living in France.

Panchanathan’s tenure at ASU parallels that school’s steady rise as a research powerhouse under President Michael Crow, who has won national recognition for the university’s innovative approaches to interdisciplinary research, its extensive partnerships with industry, and its aggressive use of online courses to promote lifelong learning. And Panch has been his right-hand man.

“When Panch arrived, ASU was a large university, but it didn’t have a distinguished record for research,” says William Harris, CEO of the Science Foundation Arizona and former head of NSF’s directorate for the mathematical and physical sciences. “Michael had a vision to make it more competitive and connect it to society, and Panch has played a key role in implementing that vision.”

Research advocates are hoping he can do the same thing on a national scale.

 “His sharp eye for the future of fundamental research [and] his background in technology and innovation” will help him connect with policymakers, says a statement from the Science Coalition, a group of 50 leading U.S. research universities. Adds one Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, “I’ve heard nothing but good things about him.”

Balancing openness and security

Panchanathan takes over an agency that traditionally has stayed out of the political limelight. But the debate now raging in Congress over foreign influences on federally funded research has brought some unwelcome attention. Senator Rob Portman (R–OH), who has proposed more stringent oversight over that research, has accused NSF and other agencies of “being asleep at the switch.”

Although he declined to comment on Portman’s bill, which has drawn bipartisan support, Panchanathan described a middle path that might satisfy both those calling for a crackdown and those worried that tighter controls could strangle U.S. innovation. “I hold dearly to the traditional scientific values of transparency and openness,” he says. “But if there are folks who are not reciprocating in that way, we have to take appropriate measures to protect what we think is most important.”

As for what those measures should be, his views appear to dovetail with those of his predecessor, France Córdova. Panchanathan says he supports the conclusions of a report that Córdova commissioned last year from Jason, an independent group of scientists that advises the government on national security issues. It rejected the need for additional controls on fundamental research deemed sensitive and endorsed a 1985 presidential directive that relies on classifying any sensitive research.

“The Jason report makes a lot of sense to me,” he says. “NSF is all about open, transparent, and publishable research. At the same time, we have to make sure that the appropriate protections are in place.”

In contrast to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which said last month it has looked into possible violations of its rules by some 400 NIH-funded scientists since 2016, NSF has said little about its investigations of foreign ties among its grantees. Asked whether the problems are as common among NSF grantees as among NIH’s, Panchanathan said, “Without data, I have no evidence to think one way or the other.” He said he plans to meet regularly with Rebecca Keiser, who holds the title of research security chief, a position Córdova created shortly before completing her term on 30 March. “Together we’ll get to the bottom of the data.”

“Use-inspired research”

Panchanathan is equally sanguine about an idea that some scientists see as a threat to NSF’s traditional mission to support academic science: a proposal by the Senate’s top Democrat to supersize NSF’s current $8 billion budget so it can spend billions of dollars annually on the basic research needed to seed a handful of so-called “industries of the future.”

He dodged a question about whether the massive technology directorate that the bill, crafted by Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), proposes would be the best mechanism for maintaining U.S. leadership in innovation. “I'm not sure that the nomenclature matters as much as the concept,” he says.

But he doesn’t hide his support for “use-inspired research.” “This approach is going to make the research enterprise very robust and very vibrant,” he says. ASU has demonstrated its value, and he thinks NSF could move in that direction even without additional resources.

“It’s not just about scaling up these programs, which are very important to U.S. economic prosperity and global competitiveness,” he continues. “It’s also important to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset, so that it permeates everything that we do.”

“When you engage in user-inspired research, the fundamental research questions that you ask yourself become different,” he notes. “I would have never even seen some of the problems that I solved in computer science but for the fact that some of my work was use-inspired.”

Coming to America

A challenge that strikes particularly close to home for Panchanathan is the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict immigration, which some fear could shut off the continuing influx of foreign talent that has helped U.S. research thrive.

Although as NSF director he has no input into such policies, their impact on the community NSF serves means Panchanathan cannot ignore the issue. But in his interview with Science, he directed his comments not to policymakers in Washington, D.C., but to potential immigrants.

“When you do a Ph.D., it’s understood that you're a smart person,” he begins. “You understand the context and why things have been done in a particular way. So you need to navigate [that system] to find the best way of getting to where you need to get to.”

Don’t let proposed changes to current policies deter you, he adds. “If you want to pursue science at the highest level of integrity and excellence, United States is the place to do it, bar none,” he asserts. “So, to me, therefore, coming to United States would be the top priority.”