September 24, 2021

‘A door of hell.’ War stories from past NSF leaders help agency mark 70th birthday

National Science Foundation Director France Córdova (far left) hosted a 70th anniversary symposium that featured six former directors: (left to right) Subra Suresh, Arden Bement, Rita Colwell, Neal Lane, Walter Massey, and Richard Atkinson.

National Science Foundation/Bill Petros Photography

Anybody who has spent time in the upper echelons of the U.S. science bureaucracy has some war stories to tell. And that was certainly true of the six former directors of the National Science Foundation who gathered at the agency’s new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this month to celebrate NSF’s 70th anniversary.

At a 6 February roundtable during the 2-day symposium, each of the six offered a historical tidbit that spoke to the political intrigue that can surround even a low-profile agency like NSF, as well as the sometimes strained relationship the agency can have with its overseers in the White House and Congress.

The storytelling session was moderated by NSF Director France Córdova, who is leaving NSF next month at the end of her 6-year term. It featured her predecessors, in chronological order: Richard Atkinson, Walter Massey, Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, Arden Bement, and Subra Suresh.

Atkinson, who led NSF under President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, painted a vivid picture of what is arguably the most notorious political assault on NSF’s reputation: the Golden Fleece awards by former Senator William Proxmire (D–WI), which were intended to highlight research projects that Proxmire considered a waste of money.

“When I arrived [in 1975, as deputy director], the foundation was under considerable attack, mostly for science education,” Atkinson recalls. He was referring to a controversy over an NSF-funded curriculum, titled Man: A Course of Study, that many conservatives regarded as undermining traditional U.S. values. NSF had ignored its own peer-review procedures in making awards for the program and also misled Congress, Atkinson said, and a report from a congressional watchdog agency excoriated NSF for its mistakes. “The report was devastating,” Atkinson recalls, “and that opened a door of hell for NSF.”

Atkinson, a psychology professor at Stanford University prior to coming to NSF, recalled that “politicians were also focused on frivolous grants, like the sexual behavior of the screwworm fly. … Why was NSF funding that kind of research?” Ultimately, he said, the agency “made a strong case for basic research” and Proxmire left the agency alone.

(Atkinson’s memory isn’t quite right, the historical record shows. Proxmire gave NSF at least six Golden Fleece awards during a 13-year run that began in 1975, including two during Atkinson’s tenure as director. And NSF did not even fund the screwworm studies, much less get ridiculed for doing so. The work was conducted by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in the 1930s. And the use of sterile males led to the U.S. eradication of this damaging livestock pest in 1966.)

For Suresh, whose 30-month tenure under former President Barack Obama was second only to Massey’s 2-year stint under former President George H.W. Bush as the shortest of anyone on stage, it was a standoff with a White House staffer that stood out. It involved a fight over ensuring NSF receive proper recognition for I-Corps, a program Suresh started to train academic scientists to think like entrepreneurs in trying to commercialize their discoveries.

A week before NSF was scheduled to launch I-Corps, Suresh says he got a call from the White House inviting him to come to Seattle and announce it as one of nine new administration initiatives. “That’s not going to happen because we’re having an event at NSF,” he told the junior staffer. The “temperature of the conversation kept rising,” Suresh recalls, until the staffer played what he assumed would be his trump card.

“Are you saying no to the president of the United States?” the staffer asked. “No,” Suresh replied coolly. “I’m saying no to you.”

But sometimes it makes sense to cave to a powerful politician. Lane, who was selected by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to lead NSF and who later became his science adviser, recalls such an encounter with former Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who was then chairman of the appropriations panel.

“He had been on my case about NSF’s spending in Antarctica,” Lane recalled. “He figured that he had a nice pole up north and that if you’ve seen one pole, you’ve seen them all.”

NSF wanted $130 million to rebuild the agency’s station at the South Pole. The White House had already endorsed the idea, but the money had to come from Congress. So, NSF invited Stevens and a handful of other members of the spending committee to visit Antarctica.

The delegation flew to New Zealand, the jumping-off point for trips to the pole and to NSF’s main station on McMurdo Sound. That’s when an aide to Stevens called Lane to get his approval to bring along the legislators’ spouses. The aide overrode Lane’s repeated objections that they weren’t part of the delegation, that they hadn’t been given a medical examination, and that there wasn’t room on the plane. As Lane recalls, every response began with the phrase, “The senator says … ”

Lane finally relented, although he remained worried that the trip might be too taxing on the spouses. But when he confided those concerns to his wife, Lane says, she laughed. “They were half the age of the senators,” he realized.

NSF got the money—the final cost of the renovation was $150 million—and the station was dedicated in 2008.

Getting into the weeds

Rita Colwell, whose 6-year tenure began under Clinton and extended 3 years into the administration of President George W. Bush, had to deal with a different kind of political reality in trying to sell an initiative on biocomplexity. She said the solution lay in finding the right words to use with the White House and members of Congress.

“I wanted to increase our investment in the environment,” says Colwell, the first microbiologist to lead the foundation. “But I knew if I went to [Capitol] Hill with something labeled ‘environment,’ I would get nowhere.”

“So, I was trying to figure out what to call it, and someone in the biology directorate said, ‘You know, it’s pretty complex.’ And I said, ‘That’s it.’ Because when I go to the Hill, they won’t understand it. But calling it complex makes it sound pretty important, and maybe they’ll fund it.”

Colwell also confessed to changing course while NSF director. It involved a much-lauded program, ADVANCE, that she created to improve the status of women in academic science.

Her original idea was to give ADVANCE grants directly to faculty. “But Joe [Bordogna, NSF’s longest serving deputy director] said the money should go to the deans” because they have more impact on institutional policies. “And Joe was right,” Colwell said. Her analysis found that making deans responsible for implementing the grant resulted in several thousand more women being hired than would have been the case if female faculty had been the principal investigators, she explained.

Albert Einstein envy

In her role as moderator, Córdova encouraged the participants to stay positive. She needn’t have worried. The former directors fell over themselves in praising the agency. Even Córdova, who led the University of California, Riverside, and Purdue University before coming to NSF, professed, “It’s the best job I’ve ever had—but don’t tell anyone I said that.”

What makes NSF so great, they agreed, is the quality of the staff. It’s a place where teamwork is prized and where much can be accomplished if you don’t mind sharing the credit. According to Lane, political invisibility may even be part of the job description.

“I remember one member of Congress, who, in trying to be friendly, said to me: ‘You’re the place with the Einstein statue on the corner, right?’” Lane recounted. Realizing that the elected official was referring to the National Academy of Sciences building across from the National Mall, Lane gently corrected him. “No,” he replied. “But that’s also a wonderful place.”

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