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Sethuraman Panchanathan leads an agency suddenly in the limelight.

National Science Foundation/Photo by Stephen Voss

‘Speed and scale.’ One year into the job, NSF’s director prepares for massive budget growth

Sethuraman Panchanathan has a lot to celebrate this week as he marks his first anniversary as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). President Joe Biden has asked Congress to boost its current $8.5 billion budget by 20% in 2022, and a bipartisan majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives has embraced the idea of making NSF the lead agency in a massive increase in federal research spending aimed at helping the United States outinnovate the rest of the world. Lawmakers also want to give NSF a new multibillion-dollar directorate tasked with developing new technologies.

“This bill pushes NSF to be its own best self,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), chair of the House science committee, shortly before the panel voted unanimously on 15 June to approve legislation that would turn the agency into an $18 billion juggernaut by 2026. The committee’s top Republican, Representative Frank Lucas (OK), otherwise a staunch fiscal conservative, gushed about “preserving what makes NSF great” while giving it the resources “to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

With those added resources, however, comes increased scrutiny of an agency that has traditionally flown under the political radar since it was created in 1950 to fund academic research. And although a rising budget—assuming Congress appropriates the money—might be a de facto measure of success, Panchanathan will likely spend the rest of a 6-year term that began on 23 June 2020 trying to show policymakers that he can manage new initiatives like the technology directorate as well as scale up existing programs. He must also align NSF’s mission with two hot-button political issues that legislators have made prerequisites for the agency’s growth: increased research security and greater geographic diversity in its funding patterns.

Speaking last week with ScienceInsider at the agency’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, the Indian-born computer scientist and longtime academic administrator described how he hopes to meet those challenges and have NSF—to use his favorite phrase—move ahead “at speed and scale.” A recurring theme is his desire to connect NSF’s core audience of academic researchers with a burgeoning network of partners from industry, government, and the nonprofit sector. His blueprint for the proposed technology directorate, built around a $200-million-a-year network of regional innovation accelerators (RIAs), embodies that vision.

Geographic diversity

The accelerators are designed to be a major step toward turning NSF basic discoveries into jobs and economic growth. At $10 million a year for 10 years, the 20 RIAs would have budgets twice the size of NSF’s existing panoply of centers.

Those smaller budgets have limited the impact of the existing centers, Panchanathan says. “What I found is that the ideas that have come through our engineering research centers, our AI [artificial intelligence]institutes, and so on have strengthened curiosity-driven research in very, very solid ways,” he says. “But there is a lot more that needs to be done to produce outcome-oriented, user-inspired solutions to the challenges we face as a nation. And how do you do that? You do that in partnership with industry, civic society, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other partners that are part of this innovation ecosystem. … I came to the United States because of its ability to be able to translate fast, and outinnovate any competitor, and that is what these translation accelerators will do.”

The “regional” scope of the new centers will address congressional demands to spread the wealth, Panchanathan believes, by giving states that have traditionally fared poorly in NSF grant competitions sufficient resources to train the next generation of world-class scientists and entrepreneurs. He hopes having that critical mass will allow those researchers to build careers in the regions served by the new centers rather than fleeing to high-tech hubs on the East and West coasts. “Those students will be engaged in that environment, mentored by both academics and practitioners who can launch them into successful careers,” he says. “That is way more enriched and scaled up than what we have now.”

Another way to improve geographic diversity, he says, is by tweaking NSF’s system of deciding what to fund. Each research proposal is now judged on both its “scientific merit” and the “broader impacts” of the research, with the latter covering all manner of societal challenges. Panchanathan would like to see universities choose a handful of such challenges—presumably linked to the biggest problems facing their communities—and then encourage faculty to find creative ways to address those priorities as part of their research activity. NSF would get a bigger bang for its buck, he says, and those dollars would be more likely to address community needs.

“What if each university picked five or 10 broader impacts from an institutional perspective and the president created a broader impact office to emphasize its importance,” says Panchanathan, who spent 10 years as executive vice president for innovation at Arizona State University before joining NSF. “For example, Arizona might decide it wants to do more to make its Native American community successful, or to address its water problems.”

“Just imagine if every principal investigator is now aligning their broader impact contributions to one or more of those five or 10 topics,” he continues. “The volume of activity and impact that could be created by that institution would be phenomenal.”

Research security

The Senate’s plan to grow NSF is closely tied to lawmakers’ fears that the United States is falling behind China in key technologies, such as AI and advanced materials, that seem as essential to both sustained economic growth and national security. Many Republican legislators say part of the reason is China’s relentless pursuit of U.S.-funded basic research by whatever means. In 2018, the Department of Justice launched a China Initiative aimed at countering that threat, a campaign that has led the government to accuse several scientists of failing to disclose their ties to Chinese research entities.

Last week, the first such case to go to trial—against former University of Tennessee, Knoxville, bioengineer Anming Hu—was dismissed after the jury failed to reach a verdict. For many scientists, it was evidence that the federal government has been overzealous in prosecuting what they say are often clerical errors or bungled attempts to follow confusing regulations about interactions with China—and that FBI has been unfairly targeting scientists of Chinese ancestry. NSF is part of a cross-agency effort to harmonize those rules, and Panchanathan was careful not to get ahead of his political bosses, including newly installed presidential science adviser Eric Lander, in discussing the issue.

“There are two sides to this,” he began. “One is the academic side, you know, academic freedom and the opportunity for faculty to pursue their ideas. But there is the legal side of it, too, to make sure that we are following the law and doing the right things for the nation’s security. All I can say is that it’s a work in progress, with both sides trying to understand each other. And now we have a strong leader on board.”

Asked specifically whether he thinks NSF grantees should be barred from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs by Chinese government entities, as the Senate bill would require, Panchanathan was even more circumspect. “We have a chief officer for research security strategy and policy,” he said. “And she [Rebecca Keiser] has been having conversations with other agencies, including the intelligence agencies. So we’re trying to get to the bottom of this problem. Trying to propose solutions without fully understanding the scale and scope of the problem would not be the right thing to do.”

Managing growth

Panchanathan can exercise a freer hand when it comes to running NSF itself. And the president’s 2022 budget gives him even greater flexibility. It would boost NSF’s operations budget by 36%—twice the growth of its much larger research account—to support what is expected to be a larger agency with new responsibilities, including the new directorate. Under the request, NSF would add 100 full-time positions to its current 1372-person staff. In addition, the number of slots used by academics coming for short-term stints as NSF program managers would grow by 50, to 255.

“I’m just so proud of the agency, especially all they’ve done during the pandemic,” he says. “But I also know that they are all overworked. We have to do a lot of catch-up in terms of what we have not been able to do.”

The House bill reauthorizing NSF programs also acknowledges that chronic understaffing, providing a 55% boost next year from the current $345 million for operations. “NSF spends only 4% on overhead, the lowest of any federal agency, and we support their efforts to right-size that [operations] account,” a committee staffer says.

That correction, Panchanathan says, includes exploring “how we can provide services to the nation by being accessible from anywhere and everywhere.” Part of the answer might be deploying what he calls “research development professionals” from remote locations. “After all,” he says, “we are a science and technology agency, so who better to lead the way on innovations in staffing?”