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'COVID-19 is not just a science challenge': New NSF chief lauds scientists' resilience

Indian-American scientist Sethuraman Panchanathan, was appointed the 15th director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in June 2020. He talks to Nature India about sustainable solutions to deal with pandemics, the need for collaborations and his days as a young science student in India.

Vanita Srivastava

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.113 Published online 23 July 2020

(Born in the southern Indian metropolis of Chennai, Panchanathan is an electrical and computer engineer and an alumnus of IIT Madras. He is the second Indian-American to helm the science funding body, with an annual budget of $ 7.4 billion, after Subra Suresh who headed NSF from October 2010 to March 2013.)

Sethuraman Panchanathan

© Arizona State University

Nature India: The world of science is facing significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What should be the strategy to find sustainable solutions to deal with pandemics like this?

Sethuraman Panchanathan: It’s difficult to think of another situation that had such a profound effect on all areas of research and at all levels of study. This crisis has delayed projects, stalled education and training and disrupted the recruiting system that brings young scientists and engineers into our scientific workforce.

Looking at the broad effect, and the creative and inspiring ways people are responding, it's not just a science challenge. It's not just an engineering, social, cultural or policy challenge; it is all of the above and more. So how do we address such big, pervasive challenges? Partnerships are one essential way. Creative approaches and global cooperation are needed to face these challenges through partnerships at every level.

What I’m proud to see, though, is how the research community has responded. I’m seeing people react with determination, understanding and compassion – they are doing the most they possibly can to keep the scientific ecosystem operating and to keep it flexible for people’s participation. Those engaged in research to address and understand the COVID-19 pandemic deserve specific praise. To date, we’ve funded 801 grants over $111 million in response to COVID-19, and the level of research from recipients has been outstanding.

The research community is displaying resilience under tremendous pressure. It makes me proud to be a scientist. The job of NSF and other science agencies right now is to support this community.

NI: What’s your roadmap for better global collaborations in science and technology?

SP: International collaboration has been a priority for our mission from the beginning. It supports US global leadership and ensures that the U.S. research community is able to participate in the best science and has access to the best resources around the world.

There has been much discussion over the past few years about research security. NSF's priority is to maintain a scientific ecosystem that is both secure and open. We are reaching out to the country’s scientific community and our partners abroad to emphasise that we value the contributions of foreign-born scientists and international partners as well as the importance of discussing funding sources.

Aside from security, flexibility is also key to collaborations. NSF wants to recognize and partner with innovators around the globe. That's why we changed over from a system of fixed overseas offices in three countries to teams that chart missions around the world looking for collaborators. NSF is very much interested in making sure that the basic research we support finds use in other countries. From materials development to neuroscience, we have awards that make sure our colleagues in other countries get to see the basic research and are able to build on it.

NI: What has been your key learning as a young student in India?

SP: What you get in India is very high-quality education delivered by selfless and dedicated faculty members. Added to that is an ecosystem of bright and highly aspiring fellow students. I credit my fellow students and outstanding teachers in India for creating an environment of high achievement and for providing me with a strong foundation.

I started with an undergraduate degree in physics and went on to pursue electrical engineering, computer engineering and computer science. This journey of learning has been extremely valuable to me. When I earned a PhD in computer engineering from the University of Ottawa, my doctoral mentor Dr. Morris Goldberg ignited a special STEM spark in me. He taught me to define problems and pursue solutions. It was up to me figure it out. It was my problem and I needed to own it. He would only act as a guide. That helped me develop the quality of independence.

What I miss the most about India are my friends and family, especially having a face-to-face interaction with them.

NI: What drove you to career in science? How can we orient young minds towards science?

SP: At a young age, I was curious about basic science and wanted to equip myself with the knowledge, mind-set, thought process, and the tools to be able to work in a scientific domain. It really inspires you to rise to the next level. When you let your child express creativity and passion in whatever discipline they want to pursue, believe me, no matter what it is, they will be successful.

I would encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers to keep an open mind and to engage their curiosity to know more about science. I want students to feel empowered and excited to pursue science, or have an appreciation for the scientific spirit. To get to this point, they will also have to experiment and experience it on their own.

NI: What are you are passionate about?

SP: I am passionate about innovation. During the process of innovation, you learn important skills such as the ability to take risks, the art of collaboration, and the commitment to producing a desired outcome. Those who think like entrepreneurs, have a vision and take risks, are well-poised to develop solutions to real-world problems and create innovative products and services the world needs to affect lasting, meaningful change.

I am passionate about fostering the entrepreneur mindset. We should encourage, exemplify, teach, promote, and embrace entrepreneurial thinkers at every level. Every student and every profession will benefit from an innovative mindset.

I am passionate about partnerships. I strongly believe that partnerships are an opportunity to accelerate our progress and amplify the benefits of basic research. When we seek alliances with other forward-thinking individuals, industry, other organizations and/or government agencies, mutually beneficial growth occurs.

I am passionate about fundamental research and how this can inspire curiosity in the next generation of scientists and solve some of society’s biggest problems.

I am passionate about creating for people from all backgrounds the opportunity to realize their natural talents and show that they have the skills to succeed as scientists and engineers.

NI: What is your vision for NSF? What major challenges do you envisage taking on?

SP: The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) mission of funding basic research has yielded groundbreaking discoveries over the years. I personally believe in seeding bold, large-scale foundational research with meaningful societal impact. For me science is extremely important if you want to address societal problems in a constructive and an outcome-oriented way. I have identified three pillars for my vision: advancing research into the future, ensuring inclusivity and continuing global leadership in science and engineering.

In May, the National Science Board released a report, Vision 2030, detailing where the U.S. science and engineering enterprise should be in 2030. The report is an excellent framework for advancing science and technology and will help guide NSF over the next decade to continue to push the frontiers of science, speed the path from discovery to innovation, and build the workforce of the future.