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New Captain For NSF

Astrophysicist France Córdova encourages advocacy for science

by Andrea Widener
October 13, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 41

France A. Córdova, National Science Foundation director.
Credit: Peter Cutts

France A. Córdova doesn’t get worked up about every little crisis. That’s one of the most important lessons she has learned in her years as a college president, government scientist, professor, and member of numerous corporate and nonprofit boards.

That attitude is one she’s bringing to her new job as director of the National Science Foundation, she said when she sat down with C&EN for an interview last month.

“The expression ‘Steady as she goes’ is very important,” explains Córdova, 67. “You have to just calmly sail the big waves and smile through it so that people know that you’re on it but you’re confident.”

France A. Córdova

Director, National Science Foundation
Appointed: March 31, 2014
2007–12, President, Purdue University
2002–07, Chancellor, University of California, Riverside
1996–2002, Vice chancellor for research, University of California, Santa Barbara
1993–96, Chief scientist, National Aeronautics & Space Administration
1989–96, Professor, astronomy and astrophysics, Pennsylvania State University
1970–89, Scientist and group leader, space and astronomy group, Los Alamos National Laboratory
1979, Ph.D., Physics, California Institute of Technology
1969, B.A., English, Stanford University

As NSF director—her six-year term in that job began on March 31—the astrophysicist oversees the government’s only agency giving grants in all basic science disciplines. In 2014, NSF’s budget was $7.2 billion. The majority of that money supports individual investigators in fields that include chemistry, computer science, and science education.

“NSF is a great agency with a very important mission: to further the progress of science,” she says. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m just thrilled it was offered to me.”

The agency is facing challenges, however. Lean budgets across the government mean NSF can fund fewer grants. And in the past year, some members of Congress have attacked the agency’s priorities and grant selection process.

“It’s always a tumultuous time, right?” Córdova says. “There are all kinds of challenges. But nothing is a tsunami.”

Córdova says she hasn’t encountered many surprises in her new job so far, in part because of her previous experiences. “There are always challenges that are unique on the surface but then you go down a layer and they are really very similar challenges” to ones that have cropped up before, she says.

And she certainly faced challenges in roles that include chief scientist at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration and leader of two universities, the University of California, Riverside, and, more recently, Purdue University.

What makes NSF different from the other places she’s worked is its mission, she says. Paying close attention to what the science community thinks will be game changers for the future is essential “so that you’re out in front on the first wave rather than the last wave,” she says.

Córdova spent the past six years on the National Science Board, which sets policy for NSF and advises the larger government on broad science policy issues. Most recently, she was chair of the board’s committee on strategy and budget, which helped her understand how NSF works and its challenges and opportunities.

One major test facing NSF is that Congress is attempting to cut specific programs by slashing their budgets. Climate change programs are among those that have been in the crosshairs. For example, this year the House of Representatives proposed cuts to NSF’s geosciences program, which funds climate change research. Those cuts haven’t garnered Senate approval, however. Such political decisions are unfortunate, Córdova says. Collecting climate change data “should be a science question.”

The social and behavioral sciences are another target of lawmakers’ budget knives. Córdova says research in these fields is vital to understanding the larger questions facing science. “It’s hard to imagine a human endeavor, it’s hard to imagine a business or industry, it’s hard to imagine an invention that doesn’t have some social or behavioral science attached to it,” she says.

NSF is also facing attacks on its heralded peer review system from House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). In the past year, Smith has called out specific grants for intense scrutiny and is asking the agency to affirm that each grant is in the “national interest.”

Any executive branch agency is, by definition, in the public eye and subject to the oversight of Congress, Córdova says. “It’s election season,” she says with an eye to the November midterm races. “There may be more questions than some other times.”

But similar attacks on the agency have happened before. “So it’s episodic,” she says. “I’m just the lucky one.”

Despite the problems, Córdova has found that NSF and science in general have broad support in Congress. “I think we have done well given the circumstances and the overall budget constraints,” she says.

Scientists and research organizations are doing their part to support research funding. But Córdova says that others who benefit from the outcomes of research need to step up too. “You can’t just say this is somebody else’s responsibility to advocate, to inform. It is everybody’s responsibility,” she says. “When only one group or one agency is going to Capitol Hill, that is really not giving our elected officials the impression that it matters to everybody.”

Students should advocate because they are powerful messengers, she says, a lesson she learned as a college president. And businesses should make support for science a priority because they benefit from innovation, Córdova explains.

“It is just not at the top of people’s lists. I don’t think they realize what is happening, for the most part, in this country,” she says. She cites the decline in U.S. science spending as a percentage of gross domestic product and other countries’ increased investment in their domestic universities and research infrastructure.

Drawing people into that larger conversation is where Córdova says she can make the biggest difference as NSF director. “Where I think I can make a broader impact is spreading science and its importance more nation- and global-wide,” she says, pointing to science and technology’s role in economic health, prosperity, and national security.

Asking for more money from Congress isn’t enough. “I don’t think there is more money, period,” she says. “But I do think there is more leverage potential.

“NSF has always thought of itself as an enabler,” she says. “We catalyze good things, but we can’t fund them forever.”

Foundations, individuals, businesses, and even local and state governments are among those Córdova will encourage to take up the cause. The NSF director is still working out what she is going to do. But she says it will become clear over the next year as the agency proposes more partnerships, holds more workshops and idea labs, and issues more “Dear Colleague” letters asking for the science community’s advice.

Córdova knows from experience that people can be drawn into science unexpectedly. She majored in English as an undergraduate at Stanford University. “I had a love of science, and in high school I took basic science and math, but I just didn’t have any encouragement to be a scientist,” she remembers.

It wasn’t until she had graduated from college that she got excited about astronomy and physics through the first moon landing and a PBS television program she saw on neutron stars. “I found the ignition switch was my television dial because where were you going to meet a scientist except on TV in the culture that I grew up in?” she says. She recalls telling herself that 25 “may seem old but it’s not. In five years I can go to graduate school and become a physicist. I can do this. That was a real revelation to me.”

Soon after, Córdova walked onto the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and knocked on a few doors. “People at the university were excited about my passion, and they decided to give me a chance,” she remembers. They put her in the lab, asked her to write computer code, and told her to make some observations. She later went to California Institute of Technology, which allowed her to audit courses for a year before she became a full-time doctoral student. “In those days it was easier to look at people’s talents and give them a test. It’s a little harder nowadays. It’s pretty bureaucratic to get into school.”

Córdova has been taking chances ever since. It’s a lesson she offers to anyone—but especially women—who ask her how she got ahead. “People are afraid to be what they want to be. That is the thing I see most when I talk to people or offer them an opportunity myself,” she says.

Many have had opportunities but declined them because of their family, location, or some other factor. “People just throw up these chimerical roadblocks. You just have to be a little fearless and go after it.”

However, she acknowledges that science isn’t always the most welcoming place for women and minorities—or anyone else interested in doing research. In the U.S., “science and engineering careers are not as attractive as some other fields right now,” she says. “We’ve just become very dependent on international talent, and that has served us very well. But I think it would be complacent to think that we will always be in that position.”

That’s why, as NSF director, Córdova wants to make sure the public is exposed to science in as many ways as possible.

“It’s not a prescription we can write,” she says. “We have to have science on TV. We have to have science in movies. We have to have science in books. We have to have science in the backyard, in the schoolyard, in every nook and cranny because you don’t know at what age a person is going to be inspired to start thinking about scientific questions.”  


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