A Conversation With The New NSF Director

Subra Suresh, former dean of engineering at MIT, was sworn in last month as director of the National Science Foundation, which doles out billions of dollars for basic research each year. Suresh talks about his priorities and how the NSF's budget is likely to fare with the new Congress.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Unlike NASA or NOAA or the NIH, the mission of the National Science Foundation is to push no particular mission. It's an agency that doles out billions every year for basic research in all fields of science: technology, engineering, math.

Two hundred thousand engineers, scientists, communicators - including this program - receive NSF's support. But in the face of mounting national debt and bipartisan proposals to cut government spending, can the agency convince Congress to keep its budget off the chopping block?

That's one of the challenges my next guest inherits as the new director of the NSF. He was the dean of engineering in MIT. Now, why would anyone want to trade in the challenge of that job for a desk in suburban Virginia? Well, we're going to ask him because he's joining us.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to chat, 1-800-989-TALK. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let me introduce him. Subra Suresh is the recently confirmed director of the National Science Foundation. He joins us by phone from his home in Massachusetts.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Suresh.

Dr. SUBRA SURESH (Director, National Science Foundation): Thank you very much, Ira. It's my pleasure to join you.

FLATOW: Do you have any idea why you were chosen for this job?

Dr. SURESH: Well, I guess you should ask the president that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SURESH: But I'm really honored and delighted to have the opportunity to lead this agency at a very critical time for science and engineering.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What do you think that your job as the head of a laboratory at MIT, and as dean of engineering, can bring to a desk job in suburban Virginia?

Dr. SURESH: Well, as dean of engineering in a place like MIT, I had the good fortune to have a flavor for the cutting edge of science and engineering that 375 of my colleagues in the School of Engineering were pioneering. And now with a much bigger platform to take that experience and background to Washington, I'm trying to see how that experience can be brought to further the science and engineering mission for the country, especially with the discoveries that lie ahead of us.

FLATOW: And so what will you see? What do you see as your basic mission in Washington?

Dr. SURESH: Well, the basic mission is multifold. As you alluded to at the beginning of this program, it's a very critical time for us. We have a huge national debt. We have a major deficit, budget deficit. In the middle of all this, people naturally wonder why should discretionary funding like basic research should be supported at the level that it has now. So there are several reasons for it.

Research in science and engineering is inherently a very long term proposition. Many people think that it's a curiosity to learn process, to understand nature. That's very true. But it's much, much more than that. For example, the economic leadership of the U.S., the technological leadership of the U.S., our military power...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SURESH: ...and most importantly our national security depends on how well we do in basic science and engineering.

If we go back to the last 60 years during which the National Science Foundation has been in existence, the fundamental research that - in science and engineering that the National Science and Engineering - National Science Foundation supported has played a very key role in our economic power as well as our military power as well as our national security.

I think this is something that I feel it's my job to continue to emphasize to both sides of the Congress. There's been a lot of excitement set up over the last few years about the need for increased funding. Both sides of Congress, both parties, President George W. Bush during the last couple of years of his presidency, and more recently President Obama, have very strongly emphasized the need for it. And despite this climate, there is recognition by many members of Congress that science is something that we cannot cut.

Part of the challenge will be to see how, given the reality of the budget process and the financial climate that we are in, how to sustain it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But the NSF has actually faired very well in tough times in the economy, and especially when conservative Republicans have been in Congress. For example, in 1994, the last time we had a surge in conservative Republicans, Newt Gingrich has been quoted as saying that he would triple the NSF budget.

Dr. SURESH: I hope that that sentiment continues.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SURESH: I think one of the things that has happened is that in the 1990s, NSF budget did not quite keep up with the demand and the need for supporting young scholars and scientists across the country. And I think the people have felt, especially in the non-medical sciences, there is a growing need to support not only individual investigators, but also collaborative research, and the much-needed improvements in the infrastructure for sciences in the country.

FLATOW: Do you think that science might be going on trial a bit with some of the conservative members of this Congress?

Dr. SURESH: Well, in - during - always during economic climate, there is a greater need for us to repeatedly keep emphasizing the importance of funding for science and engineering for the reasons that I mentioned earlier. And I think that challenge is no less today, given the climate we face ourselves in.

FLATOW: But you also have people who are skeptical about science.

Dr. SURESH: Well, for those who are skeptical about science, I would only say that if in science the United States has not had - not achieved as much as it had done in the last 50 years, where would we be as a nation, as a leader, as a leading country? And where would we be in terms of economics, in terms of industry, in terms of business, in terms of security?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think that some of the flavor, the international flavor that you bring to this job - having been born in Mumbai - will also advance the cause of science in this country?

Dr. SURESH: Well, I hope so. I've been fortunate to have had the experiences that I've had, having been born abroad. And here is the basic truth related to that: Science has no borders, no boundaries, and science is nonpartisan. If you look at the United States, more than half of all the American Nobel laureates in the last 60 years were born abroad.

In my previous home, in the School of Engineering at MIT, 43 percent of the faculty members are foreign-born. One of the most wonderful things about the United States is that over the last century, in science and engineering, it has been able to attract the best and the brightest from around the world.

With developing countries now investing huge sums of money into science and engineering, we want to make sure that over the next 10, 20, 30 years, we not only attract the best and the brightest to come here to do to our universities and colleges to do research, which is the engine of the scientific enterprise in this country. We are also - we also benefit from those who come here, who stay here and who do research work.

And some people feel that with the shift in the global geopolitics and the economic balance, we may be losing that edge. I think this is part of the -this is a very important aspect that we need to pay attention to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I would've imagined you also feel that way about - in undergraduate schools and graduate - and universities.

Dr. SURESH: That's correct. I think, you know, we - one of the nice things about the American higher education system is that it's the envy of the world over the last - more than 100 years. We have developed an excellent education system that students from all over the world come to benefit from.

FLATOW: Yet we find the K-12 students not doing that well. They're always ranked much lower than other countries.

Dr. SURESH: Well, that has been a trend in the last few decades. We used to do very well in the 1970s, and part of NSF's mission is also to do research into the best educational possibilities and opportunities, especially for stem education and working with other agencies that you mentioned earlier, but also the Department of Education. We want to make sure that the stem education doesn't fall behind, because it's the engine of our research enterprises. The stem - if K through 12 education is not strong enough, our undergraduate education is going to suffer, our research enterprise is going to suffer.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. You had appointments in the departments of mechanical engineering, health sciences and technology. You head a material science department. What appeals to you about interdisciplinary work?

Dr. SURESH: I think most of the problems that we face today both in science and in society are highly complex and highly interdisciplinary. So I don't think human diseases, for example, is no longer simply a biology problem. It has to make use of all the latest tools and technologies from engineers and physical scientists. Clean water, clean energy, transportation, these not only require interdisciplinary approaches from different branches of science and engineering, they also have to bring in social sciences, political science and so forth.

I think the problems are so complex, and in my own research work, I find that multi-disciplinary work, multi-disciplinary approaches are more beneficial than a single approach from a single discipline.

FLATOW: If the problems are as complex as you say, and I think we would all agree with you, do you think scientists need to be better advocates for science, then?

Dr. SURESH: Absolutely. I think we need to we need to make sure that the public understands the importance of science. We live in an increasingly technological society, even in day-to-day life. I think we need much greater scientific and technological sophistication than we needed two or three decades ago. So I think preparing the people, preparing the public to be good at science is a very critical part of the language that the scientists have to convey to the society.

FLATOW: Will you be a very public figure as an NSF director?

Dr. SURESH: I would think so, and I would hope so. And I think it's very important for agencies like NSF to articulate the need for science in society in a major way. And I'll be one of the spokespersons for that message.

FLATOW: Now, we wish good luck to you.

Dr. SURESH: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Thank you, and thanks for taking time to be with us.

Dr. SURESH: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday season.

Dr. SURESH: Same to you.

FLATOW: Subra Suresh - Suresh is the recently confirmed director of the National Science Foundation. He joined us by phone from his home is Massachusetts. And we'll see how well science fairs on Capital Hill.

And that's what we're going to be talking about for the rest of the hour. Don't go away. When we come back, we're going to talk about, later in the program, you know, science and society.

And stay with us. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Should scientists be advocates? What do you think? Your scientists would like to hear from you. Should you speak out for science? Or should you just do your quietly and let science speak for itself and have others do it? Let us know. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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