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.