Advancing the Frontiers of Research: Building a More Inclusive Science & Engineering Enterprise

Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Author: Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan

U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)

On April 15, 2021, the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University hosted Sethuraman Panchanathan, the Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), as part of the 2021 Bromley Memorial Event. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks.

When NSF was founded in 1950, it represented a transformational shift in the relationship between the federal government and the research community. Fundamental research became a government priority on the same level as national defense, economic stability, healthcare, and social well-being. The effect was profound because research investments drive the success of national priorities like defense, health, and economic growth. 

Today, more so than ever, the scientific enterprise is critical to our national health and prosperity. Prosperity does not only mean economic prosperity but also societal prosperity that comes from having access to technology and applications that science and engineering enable. And at the heart of the research enterprise are people. NSF has continuously invested in people and their ideas for the past 70 years. We are at the threshold of revolutionary advances because of decades of growth in our scientific knowledge and engineering capabilities that has been enabled by NSF. 

We are at a pivotal moment with tremendous opportunities ahead of us. To fully realize all of the potential progress that is possible, I have a vision for how to strengthen NSF at speed and scale. The three pillars of my vision are: 

1. Advancing the frontiers of research into the future 

2. Ensuring accessibility and inclusivity 

3. Securing global leadership 

Essential to my vision for NSF is addressing the Missing Millions—talent that has been left behind for far too long. Talent in the broadest sense, that spans the richness of socioeconomic demographics, as well as geographical diversity of our nation. When we bring these millions of capable people into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) communities, they will bring transformative insights, creative new ways of thinking, and brilliant ideas with them. We must do more to be inclusive and broaden participation for every demographic. The future depends on bringing domestic talent out in full force, in creating an agile and adaptable workforce that can upskill, reskill, and succeed through creative and innovative mindsets. We must inspire students through formal and informal settings and invest in training teachers. In 2016, the agency unveiled a set of Big Ideas which made inclusivity one of its top priorities and resulted in the launch of the INCLUDES initiative, a "network of networks” focused on building collaborative infrastructure to accelerate innovative solutions for inclusivity. 

NSF’s approach to broadening participation is a wholistic one with an agency-wide focus. We are continually looking to expand our community so that anyone—from any background and from any part of the country—who has the talent or desire to go into a STEM career is given the opportunity to do so. We need to strengthen pathways into STEM fields and expand our reach into communities where talent exists. We also need to develop new approaches and tailor educational experiences to be more effective at bringing talent into the STEM community. We are working to improve inclusivity and reduce bias by requiring our review panelists to take training on implicit bias and how it can affect the overall review process. And last, but certainly not least, we are looking at how to address systemic racism and identify remaining barriers through a newly established NSF Racial Equity Task Force. We are going to do all of this by utilizing the same approach that NSF brings to fundamental research: tackle the problem, evaluate the results, and strive to improve. 

The three pillars of my vision for NSF are built upon the foundation of partnerships. We need partnerships for accessing broader networks of researchers, generating new perspectives on solving real-world problems, and leveraging unique resources. By working together we can make rapid progress, to strengthen at speed and scale. 

International collaborations, for example, can be powerful platforms for discovery. Canada is an important partner with the United States and NSF in expanding the horizons of discovery and innovation. The Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery—a joint venture between the United States, Mexico, and Canada—hosts over 2,000 scientists every year to support collaboration and discovery in the mathematical sciences. 

NSF’s AccelNet is another example of international collaboration; this program builds strategic linkages between US research networks and complementary networks abroad to leverage resources in ways that accelerate the progress of science and engineering. Several AccelNet awards have been with Canadian connections; one project, for example, is using international collaborative networks to explore the interface between neuroscience and artificial intelligence—to translate findings from engineering of computational algorithms into hypotheses for brain function. 

Science and engineering are critical tools for understanding some of society’s greatest challenges and for generating innovative and creative solutions. Curiosity-driven, discovery-based exploratory research is the bedrock of what NSF is—and now we must take the parts of NSF’s mission and strengthen them at speed and scale. The core driver of all our progress in discovery and innovation are the people that make up the science and engineering enterprise and the STEM community. We are going to accomplish unbelievable things in the coming years, and every big breakthrough and leap forward is going to be made possible because we are investing in people and strengthening our community by making it more inclusive.

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