University of Nebraska chemistry professor David Berkowitz has been named the new director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry.
Berkowitz, who started his new position on May 24, says he’s excited to be returning to the NSF. He spent 3 years there as a program director from 2010–13, followed by a brief stint as interim division director in 2015.
During that previous service, he was impressed by the permanent staff and their commitment to high-risk science and basic research, while at the same time considering the health and diversity of chemistry as a field.
“I came to know the people, and they were so serious about the mission, I thought I’d like to work with this team” again if the opportunity came along, Berkowitz says.
Chemistry plays an important role in some of the NSF’s major initiatives, including quantum computing and artificial intelligence, he says. Work at the biology-chemistry interface will be especially vital going forward. “There are many big, big problems where chemists and biologists and computational scientists will do well to collaborate,” Berkowitz says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the research needs in these areas. The public can see “how important science is to our national security and to, really, the survival and the healthy progression of humankind,” he says. “And basic research is going to be an incredibly important part of that picture going forward.”
Berkowitz is excited to see how chemistry fits into the vision of Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, who was nominated in December by President Donald J. Trump to head the agency and awaits Senate confirmation.
That will likely include more interaction with industry, Berkowitz says. “The interface of chemistry with engineering and the private sector will be important going forward as we think about industries of the future.”
Chemists also need to brainstorm major instrumentation projects that can push the big ideas forward, he says: “How can we better create facilities that allow chemists to do bigger science at a central location?”
For now, because of the pandemic, Berkowitz will work from his home in Nebraska until he can move to the Washington, DC, area, where the NSF is located. As a rotating staff member, he will be at the NSF for at least 2 years with the option to extend beyond that.
The chemistry division has been without a head for almost 2 years. The previous director, Angela Wilson, finished her term and returned to Michigan State University in July 2018.
“NSF is committed to thorough searches for hiring leadership within the agency. It’s great when it comes together quickly, but in this case, it took 2 years,” says Sean Jones, the assistant director for NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. He says the search committee explored several ways to find top-quality candidates, which “took longer than anticipated. And we think it paid off with the hiring of Berkowitz, who is a clear leader in organic chemistry.”