Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ben@NSF: A professor’s experience in the real world ..... of DC.

In early winter 2011, then Geosciences Assistant Director Tim Killeen approached me with the suggestion to spend some time at the National Science Foundation working on cross-directorate program activities.  A late March dinner with Tim and Deputy AD Marge Cavanaugh finalized the arrangements and I started my one year stint in August 2011.  I found a (pricy) 1B apartment in Arlington at stone’s throw from NSF, allowing easy transportation to work and to Reagan National Airport.  Living on the 15th floor, my vertical commute was about as much as my horizontal commute to work.  My IPA assignment was in the GEO directorate’s front office, focusing on the foundation’s evolving Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio that was initiated and led by Killeen, and related activities.  I also had a role as program officer in one of the SEES programs, SEES Fellows, which focuses on workforce development by supporting young scientists to enter the sustainability research area with a multi-year grant.  Cross-directorate activities at NSF are much like interdisciplinary teaching and research at universities.  Everybody talks about it in a positive manner, but execution is complicated by siloed organizational structures.  Nevertheless, the commitments among the directorate ADs and NSF leadership (Suresh and Marrett) ensured that significant progress could be made in the development of this investment area.  When I write this, 16 programs fall under the NSF’s SEES portfolio, five of which were finalized when I was there and have recently been posted on the NSF website ( ). 

What is sustainability science?  Discussing the term alone can fill several pages, but we define it as:
In a sustainable world, human needs would be met without chronic harm to the environment and without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Meeting the grand challenge of sustainability requires multi-faceted approaches, with research and education at the nexus of societal needs and behavior, environmental impacts and economic demands.  NSF supports this through interdisciplinary, use-inspired research and education programs that reflect the foundation’s unique role for the nation.  Three goals guide the portfolio’s development: (1) Building the knowledge base by supporting interdisciplinary research and education that facilitates the move toward global sustainability; (2) Growing the workforce of the future, by supporting the development of a workforce trained in interdisciplinary scholarship needed to understand and address the complex issues of sustainability; and (3) Forging critical partnerships, by building linkages among projects and partners, and add new participants in the sustainability research enterprise, including industry and policymakers. 

Given the above description, it is clear that the SEES portfolio takes a broad approach, which can group in the following themes :

  • Natural Environment - Understanding of the natural and living environment, particularly coupled human and biophysical effects on climate systems, hydrologic  systems, geologic systems, and ecosystems.
  • Human Environment - Focusing, across the full spectrum from individuals to societies, on social, behavioral and economic aspects of environmental sustainability.  Such research also seeks to understand how scientific discovery and its development results in societal adaptation and resilience.
  • Built Environment - Examining the interaction between technological and constructed systems, such as urban areas, electric grids, cyberinfrastructure, transportation networks, energy resources, materials, and extreme events, in the context of environmental sustainability.  
You will find more information on the programs and its goals on the SEES website and in a piece I wrote with Tim and Marge for AGU's Eos in early 2012 (

One year at an organization as diverse and complex as the NSF does not allow a full assessment of the enterprise, but I came away impressed with the pervasive commitment to the research and education communities.  Leadership, program officers and support staff all share the mission of NSF and are very concerned about the well-being of their respective constituencies.  By interacting with leadership and program officers in many directorates, I saw different perspectives and heard alternative opinions, which was most refreshing.  Besides the satisfaction of working on an important activity for human society, I also returned intellectually invigorated, and have just started a new First-Year Seminar that deals with sustainability issues (Earth159).  NSF is a welcoming place for “rotators”, encouraging new perspectives and supporting one’s personal development, while maintaining focus on the mission of the organization.  The personal separation, with my wife Lies staying in Ann Arbor for her work, and resulting commutes between DCA and DTW, were probably the least attractive part of the arrangement for me.  TSA officers at Reagan soon recognized me as I regularly went through the Delta security line (perhaps my tong twisting lastname helped their memory).  I encourage active scientists to consider a rotation at NSF, because such involvements bring community experiences and perspectives directly to the table.  From my own perspective, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the activities that were started and newly proposed for future years during my stay, within a political climate that has an uneven view of science, and sustainability science in particular. 
(from UM's Dept of E&ES Fall Newsletter 2012)

A troubling footnote (Dec 2014)
The NSF takes security and conflicts very serious and does so in a heavy-handed manner.  Interviews and conflicts are handled without much recourse.  Then, my personal information was stolen from "secure" government servers, which includes extensive health, financial, family and friend records, and physical attributes (like images and fingerprints).  A form letter and some financial tracking promises are offered in response to this breach of trust.  Given their many protocols and procedures, one should expect that a government organization likewise prioritizes personal care and respect.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

glad you had that experience. I love DC and go there at least once or twice a year. Too bad NSF's budget is so restricted.