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Subra Suresh

NSF Director talks about how the agency is driving innovation while staying true to its mission of supporting basic research

by Susan R. Morrissey
January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
NSF Director Subra Suresh. Taken Jan. 4, 2012.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

When Subra Suresh was sworn in as the 13th director of the National Science Foundation on Oct. 18, 2010, he took the reins of an agency focused on supporting basic research. With a fiscal 2011 budget of $6.9 billion, NSF was at the start of a budget-doubling track set to take the agency to a nearly $14 billion annual budget by 2017.

Although the sluggish economy has now dashed hopes for such a budget ramp-up, NSF is managing to hold its own as congressional appropriators work to reduce the federal deficit. Strong support from both parties resulted in the agency receiving a 2.5% increase, for a total fiscal 2012 budget of $7.0 billion (C&EN, Dec. 12, 2011, page 22).

Someone in his position might be discouraged by this new budget reality, but that’s not the case for Suresh. He’s upbeat about the activities NSF is able to support and is optimistic about the future of science.


Subra Suresh

Suresh proudly represents an NSF portfolio that maintains strong support for basic research. And beyond that come several new initiatives that have been rolled out during the past year. These new starts include the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, the Career-Life Balance Initiative, the Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) program, and the Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures (CREATIV). All have modest budgets but use agency-wide resources to support scientists, foster interdisciplinary research, and drive innovation. This notion of putting all of NSF behind a focused activity—whether it be supporting people or leveraging funding—is an idea Suresh calls OneNSF.

These new programs are part of the reason for his optimism. The explosion of technology that enables people to view scientific phenomena at the smallest and largest of scales and the exponential increase in data generation and collection are others. NSF has an opportunity to build on such advances as it supports the entire spectrum of basic science.

Prior to joining NSF for a six-year term as director, Suresh, 55, was dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (Chennai), India, in 1977, a master’s degree from Iowa State University in 1979, and a Sc.D. from MIT in 1981, all in engineering. He held positions at the University of California, Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and Brown University before moving to MIT in 1993.

Suresh sat down recently with C&EN Assistant Managing Editor for Government & Policy Susan R. Morrissey at the agency’s Ballston, Va., headquarters to discuss NSF’s new efforts and other challenges facing the scientific enterprise.

NSF ended up with a 2012 budget of $7.0 billion, an increase of 2.5%—pretty good in light of the tight economy, but not in line with the budget-doubling path laid out by the America Competes Act. Are you pleased with the 2012 appropriations?

Expectations were set for the doubling path a few years ago, but we have to be realistic. What is pleasing about the outcome is that it was 2.5% above the House of Representatives markup and 5.0% over the Senate markup. It comes in a highly constrained fiscal environment, it’s bipartisan, and it’s out of the conference between the Senate and the House. When we put all of that together, I would say we were very pleased with the outcome.

It’s also important to note that even in this tough economic climate you can do a lot of good things. For example, we did manage to roll out a number of initiatives, which have been well received in the community.

An overarching goal of the new initiatives NSF was able to roll out last year is to drive innovation, which is also a priority for the Obama Administration. How do you view innovation?

I view innovation in the following sense: Basic research is necessary for innovation, and basic research is what NSF does. It’s our mandate, and it’s what we’ve done very well for 61 years.

The interesting question for us is, how do we most effectively feed into innovation? In other words, given the investments we make in basic research—the necessary ingredients of innovation—how do we get the biggest bang for the buck by nudging the product or output much closer to useful technologies or tools that would be viable in the marketplace?

All of what we fund leads to publications, some to patents, and some to technologies and companies. We would argue that everything creates new knowledge, but without taking money away from basic research for translational research, can we take the knowledge that we create and milk much more value out of it? That’s what we’ve tried to do with several of the initiatives that we launched.

Is NSF in the position to drive innovation?

Innovation is a contact sport. NSF last year funded 230,000 individuals in the country. So we can on a large national scale facilitate this contact sport, probably as well as anybody. By using NSF’s leverage and reach and stature, we can help the vast majority of institutions in the country—it could be community colleges, it could be universities—create an infrastructure for the innovation ecosystem.

The idea of leveraging resources is a core part of several activities at NSF. Why is this important?

I think one of the interesting things—not by choice but because of the circumstances—about tight environments is that it forces you to ask the questions that you won’t ask when there is seemingly unlimited money. These kinds of leveraging questions are ones we should have asked a long time ago anyway. But people don’t respond very well when you ask these questions in rosier economic times.

Credit: Courtesy of Subra Suresh
Suresh takes time for a photo op during a June 2011 trip, when he visited NSF facilities in Greenland, Summit Station, and the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project.
The photo was taken during a trip by NSF director Dr. Subra Suresh to Greenland in June 2011. He visited NSF facilities in Greenland, Summit Station, and the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project.
Credit: Courtesy of Subra Suresh
Suresh takes time for a photo op during a June 2011 trip, when he visited NSF facilities in Greenland, Summit Station, and the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project.

OneNSF is a concept you’ve introduced that creates leverage. Can you explain what you mean by the term “OneNSF”?

The notion is that you bring all of NSF together for the same purpose. It does not mean that all NSF does the same thing, nor does it mean that we get rid of every office and directorate and put everything into one pot.

There is only one mission for NSF, but different parts of NSF look at it with very different lenses and approach it in different ways. For instance, the chemical engineering community is different from the chemistry community, even though there’s a lot of overlap. We want to keep those differences because that’s what creates a discipline, and disciplines are very important. But at the same time, there is so much opportunity at the intersections of disciplines. We can tap and leverage these opportunities much more as a whole. That’s the spirit of OneNSF.

How is NSF effectively leveraging resources?

Take as an example CREATIV, which we rolled out last fall. The leverage here involves new money and process to make the scientific enterprise better.

The goal is to generate unrestrained multidisciplinary research proposals, where we don’t prepackage projects. For example, we don’t want to say, “Do multidisciplinary research in robotics.” Rather, we want unsolicited ideas to come from scientists, who decide what box they want to work in. The idea just needs to be creative, and it has to be risky—we can tolerate risk. After all, if we as an agency cannot take any risks, how can we claim to identify risky research projects?

The leverage in the CREATIV program is that half of the money will come from central funds. The other half can come from a combination of program offices across the foundation. Take a hypothetical example: Three program officers get together and receive a white paper from a principal investigator. They decide to cofund a proposal that involves three unconnected areas—say biology, chemistry, and economics. If they do that, the leverage for the community is that you are putting people together in new and unique ways. The leverage for NSF is that each program office has to fund only one-sixth of the project, and they can own all of it.

At steady state, the program’s budget will be $120 million per year. We are being very cautious. We’re starting slow and seeing how it evolves. We’ll adjust the course as necessary.

Another new program is I-Corps. How does this program fit into NSF’s portfolio?

I-Corps is an example of an activity that universities want to do, the Administration wants to do, and I felt it is something we could easily do in a new space for NSF. We have a wide spectrum of activities here at NSF. At one extreme, we have basic research. At the other extreme, we have the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, beyond which you have the “valley of death” for tech transfer.

The nice thing about I-Corps is that it’s right in the middle of NSF’s spectrum of activities. It’s not the valley of death; it’s what we call the “ditch of death.” It’s at the point where you’re not really ready to start a company, but you want a small amount of money in a short period of time to see whether your basic scientific discovery has the potential to develop into something that someday will lead to a company. It’s in the pre-SBIR phase.

Our goal is to make a modest annual program budget of $5 million to develop a virtual network of mentors in the country and to enable not only faculty but postdocs, graduates, and even undergraduates to think about what I call the “so what?” question. When I’ve filed for patents, it’s usually after a publication. The questions I got from peer reviewers were far different from those I got for the same science from patent lawyers or venture capitalists. The latter group always asks: “This is great work, but so what?”

When that question comes, you start to look at your results differently. It’s not that basic science isn’t important; it’s even more important. You dig deeper into the research. This is why I-Corps is designed to go into the scientific realm and not go to the business side.

This program was rolled out last summer, and the first set of awards has already been made. This is no longer business as usual, is it?

In order to really help researchers, we have to do things differently. We can’t take eight months to a year to evaluate a proposal whose lifetime is six months. It requires adjusting some of the internal parameters. We promised and we delivered the first 21 projects soon after introducing the program.

Those first 21 projects are off to a great start. It’s our expectation that by the end of the first year we’ll have more than 100 ongoing projects, which will lead to new technologies and new activities that we can link in interesting ways.

By funding innovation programs like I-Corps and CREATIV, is NSF moving away from its mission to support basic research?

That’s a very valid question. Our mission is basic research. We will not stray from that mission. We have a $7 billion budget and, of that, between $6 billion and $6.5 billion goes to fund basic research. We’re not going to take $500 million and put it into translational or applied research.

Having said that, with just a few million dollars, we can take the output of the basic research we already fund and get us significantly more mileage. Isn’t that worth it?

Universities and private foundations are already spending money to translate research. If we can, in a very clever way, as for example, through public-private partnerships, leverage these outside sources and other existing NSF activities together, then we aren’t taking money away from basic research for translational research, but we are being much more successful in the translational arena.

Supporting these new innovation programs is more like the icing on a cake. So we’re not touching the cake, which is basic research; it remains as it is. These efforts are a very thin layer of icing on that cake. We could eat the cake without the icing, but it tastes better with the icing.


Another new NSF activity to support innovation by helping to retain women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce is the Career-Life Balance Initiative. Why is this important?

This initiative targets trained women who don’t stay in the workforce because of work-life balance factors. It is intended to enhance existing NSF policies and practices by providing flexibility for graduate students, postdocs, and researchers whom we support.

But NSF cannot do it alone for the country because we are just one agency. What we can do with this 10-year initiative is at least raise the level of awareness and conversation. We are working with universities, other science funding agencies, and the Administration to create workplaces that allow women and men in the STEM workforce to meet both career and family demands.

SAVI is another new program at NSF that aims to foster innovation through international scientific collaborations. What do you hope this program achieves?

The idea is to leverage NSF support to give new opportunities to our grantees to establish collaborations with scientists in other countries. This is needed because research is international and increasingly so, as funding for basic research comes from everywhere.

SAVI allows for an exchange of students, postdocs, and faculty between the U.S. and other countries. We just add a little money here for moving people in both directions. This way, our money doesn’t go to a foreign country, but we can host foreign scientists and we can send our people over there. This creates new leverage.

Take for example the pilot SAVI project in mathematics: Two of our existing NSF-funded mathematics centers joined together to identify overseas partners. Here is where the leverage again comes in. Because SAVI is an NSF-wide program and not just a division program, we can negotiate at a higher level with foreign governments. So in this particular case, the $6 million investment by NSF is matched by $20 million per year for the same project by India.

As you noted, science is increasingly international. Do you worry that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge?

It’s true that we’ve never seen this level of competition in STEM fields from around the world. Many countries are investing large amounts of money in these areas to create infrastructure and institutions for science. But I take the personal view that the more countries that make such investments, the better it is for the creation of knowledge and for science. For me, good science anywhere is good for science everywhere provided that a free and open flow of information through a transparent process with measures to promote scientific ethics and integrity flourishes everywhere.

We’ve been very fortunate as a country for the past 50 years that this is the place where people came from all over the world to do science. We need to keep it that way if we want to remain leaders in the global scientific enterprise. One of the things that agencies like NSF can do to maintain our edge is to support greater international collaborations so that our people can engage with others and attract talent from all over the world to come here. If we keep making science exciting here, then people will continue to come and do science here.


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