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NSF Director Lays Out Vision for Future of U.S. Science

Sethuraman Panchanathan has led the U.S. National Science Foundation since June 2020. | AAAS

Addressing the “missing millions” — people who are capable of succeeding as scientists and engineers but do not have access to pathways that lead into those careers — is a key step toward enabling the American STEM enterprise to thrive in the coming decades, U.S. National Science Foundation director Sethuraman Panchanathan said last week.

An independent federal agency with an annual budget of more than $8 billion, NSF works to advance scientific discovery, technological innovation and STEM education. During a plenary address at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Panchanathan laid out his vision for the future of the agency. In addition to diversifying the research community, his priorities include securing global leadership and capitalizing on bipartisan support for science at time of otherwise intense partisanship in U.S. politics.

“It is a bright future that is full of opportunities across the entire science and engineering enterprise, and AAAS is going to play an important part in making it happen,” Panchanathan said. “2020 was a year of enormous disruptions, but conferences like this are critical. They are how we make new professional connections and share ideas, and we come away with new energy and enthusiasm for our work.”

Panchanathan began his talk by pointing out the longstanding relationship between AAAS and NSF. At the 1948 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., President Harry Truman gave a speech in honor of the 100th anniversary of the scientific society’s founding.

“We stand at the threshold of revolutionary developments,” Truman said in his address. “Scientific research daily becomes more important to our agriculture, our industry and our health.”

Truman’s remarks strengthened support for the creation of NSF, which Congress established with the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. The themes he cited — promoting innovation, advancing public health and securing national defense — became the central elements of NSF’s mission.

“What am I sharing with you today is resonant with President Truman’s statement in 1948,” Panchanathan said. “We are on the threshold of revolutionary developments in science and engineering. And the scientific enterprise is critical to our national prosperity.”

Finding the “missing millions,” or “the gap between the demographics of the research community and the demographics of the whole nation,” is paramount, Panchanathan said. The scientific community must rapidly double the number of women, more than double the number of African Americans, triple the number of Latino Americans and quadruple the number of Native Americans in STEM careers, he said. In all, this effort would amount to adding 4 million new voices to the U.S. research enterprise.

Ensuring that anyone who wants to go into a STEM field can do so will require building new pathways and strengthening those that already exist, Panchanathan said. NSF’s Inclusive Graduate Education Network, Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation and other inclusion-focused initiatives serve as a foundation to build on. Panchanathan also cited the AAAS SEA Change program, which supports colleges and universities as they work to increase diversity, equity and inclusion on their campuses.

“There are transformative insights, creative new ways of thinking and brilliant ideas that are being lost when people with the drive and capability to contribute to the STEM fields don’t find their way to those opportunities,” Panchanathan said. “We cannot make progress if we do not bring domestic talent out to its full force.”

Panchanathan also highlighted that the current period of intense international competition — scientific and otherwise — offers the U.S. an opportunity to lead with its values of openness, transparency and integrity. Meanwhile, politicians across the political spectrum continue to value the scientific spirit and recognize the research community as a vital element of the nation’s future.

To conclude his address, Panchanathan discussed the need for NSF to continue to benefit society by supporting both basic, foundational research and research aimed at specific outcomes. Modern smartphones, for instance, include NSF-funded innovations in fields including lithium-ion batteries, touchscreen interfaces and geographic information systems.

“It is the double helix of exploratory research in synergy with translational research: This is the DNA of NSF,” Panchanathan said. “It is how we are going to make transformational leaps forward in discovery and innovation.”

“I have talked about the long history of fundamental research that has brought us to this point today, where so much is possible,” he added. “AAAS has been there at every step since 1848 to contribute to the foundations of our knowledge and foster the community of discoverers and innovators. And as we look ahead to building on that foundation and achieving even more, I am thrilled that AAAS will be part of that work.”