Q&A: U.S. Science Foundation Director on His Vision for the Agency

Picture of Sethuraman Panchanathan
Photo: Stephen Voss/National Science Foundation

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTE Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan left his academic career at Arizona State University in June to start a six-year appointment as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation. There the IEEE Fellow oversees the foundation’s 2,100 employees and its day-to-day operations.

Panchanathan is also responsible for directing the agency’s mission, including supporting all fields of fundamental science and engineering in such areas as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

He also has a large budget to manage: US $8.3 billion. That is about 25 percent of the total amount the U.S. government spends to support basic research. The money goes to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities, and institutions across the country.

Panchanathan is no stranger to the NSF. He was appointed in 2014 to serve on its National Science Board, a 25-member group that establishes the foundation’s overall policies. 

He spent the past 23 years at ASU in Phoenix, where he developed people-centric technologies and fostered innovative research. He helped found the university’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering and its Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing. He also led its Knowledge Enterprise, which supports entrepreneurs with research, strategic partnerships, international development, and other activities.

Panchanathan holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Vivekananda College—now the University of Madras—in India, and a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He also holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, also in Madras.

He began his teaching career at the University of Ottawa, after earning his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering there in 1989. He left in 1997 to join ASU as an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

Because of his busy schedule, The Institute conducted this interview via email. We asked him about his vision for the foundation, how he plans to increase partnerships between industry and academia, and how his membership in IEEE has advanced his career. His answers have been edited for clarity.

The Institute: What inspired you to become an engineer?

Panchanathan: At a young age, I was curious about basic science and how things work. My father was my inspiration to become an engineer. He was a scientist, and his work was on upper-atmospheric physics. His quest for scientific exploration, for discovery, for academic achievement, for solving real problems, for understanding the universe and how it works to how people work—all of that has always inspired me and motivated me to want to pursue science and engineering. 

My mom ensured that we valued education. So the combination of my mom and dad’s implicit role modeling was the ideal incubator for me to pursue science and engineering.

TI: Where would you like to see the NSF in five years? 

Panchanathan: The foundation plays a critical role in U.S. science and engineering because it supports basic research in all these fields. We enable researchers to explore fundamental scientific questions about everything from the forces that govern the universe to the biological, chemical, and social systems that make us who we are.

I have identified three pillars for my vision: advancing research into the future, ensuring inclusivity, and continuing global leadership in science and engineering.

This is a defining moment. The intensity of global competition, the urgent need for domestic talent at scale, and the broad support for science as the path for solving global grand challenges all motivate us to strengthen discovery and translation. Partnerships and innovative mindsets ensure we rapidly seize opportunities and accelerate progress at speed and scale.

TI: What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientific research, labs, conferences, and research directions? 

Panchanathan: The research community is displaying resilience under tremendous pressure. It makes me proud to be a scientist and an engineer. The role of NSF and other science agencies is to enhance our support to this community. And that’s what we’re working to do. We are all facing new and unique challenges as we deal with COVID-19, and NSF is prioritizing the health and safety of our community.

NSF recognizes the many concerns related to the effects this will have on NSF-funded research and facilities, and is committed to providing the greatest flexibility to support researchers’ health and safety. NSF is consistently updating its guidance and resources to keep the scientific community informed.

Additionally, NSF reacted right away to the pandemic through its Rapid Response Research funding mechanism for nonmedical research to understand the spread of COVID-19, provide education about the science of virus transmission, and encourage the development of actions to address this global challenge. To date, we have funded more than 1,000 coronavirus research projects totaling more than $197 million.

TI: What are your thoughts on the need for more students to study STEM subjects, and how is the NSF addressing that?

Panchanathan: Ensuring inclusivity and broadening participation is an important priority of mine. Diversity enriches innovation to solve problems. We must inspire talent in every corner of our nation and empower role models at every level of leadership. I want students to feel empowered and excited to pursue science.

Of course, NSF is not the only entity that can do that. A number of entities are coming together through partnerships, including other federal agencies, industry, nonprofits, foundations, states, and academia. I am deeply committed to partnerships in all forms.

So the question then becomes: How do you partner effectively across all entities to build better futures for our nation? It is going to take commitment and participation with all players in the STEM community, including K–12 education and informal learning environments. For example, the NSF Includes program was created to identify best practices and provide resources to people across the country working to broaden participation in STEM.

One acknowledgement built into Includes is that broadening participation is too complex a problem for one-size-fits-all solutions. Something that works in one region or for one population might not work elsewhere. That is why Includes is helping create education experiences that are tailored to the communities they serve.

This is going to require an intense collaboration and intentional, strategic actions. It will not happen unless it is a priority. That is the kind of coalition I envision NSF helping to build. Success takes a village, right?

TI: One way to increase the number of STEM students and STEM workers is to recruit them from other countries. Many U.S. universities and companies have criticized the increased U.S. restrictions on immigration and visas—which have made recruiting difficult. What, if anything, will you do as NSF head to address the situation?

Panchanathan: International collaboration enhances U.S. global leadership and ensures that the U.S. research community participates in the best science and has access to the best resources around the world. NSF is committed to sustaining the country’s position as a global innovation leader as well as contributing to its economic strength and national security through basic research.

Openness, transparency, and collaboration are essential for basic research. NSF and our fellow federal agencies are continuing to embrace and promote international collaboration. For NSF, this collaboration entails establishing joint projects between researchers at U.S. institutions and those at organizations in other countries. These collaborations will continue because they enable the best science. I would encourage anyone thinking about working or pursuing a career in the United States to do so, as we provide great opportunities for students to express their talents in unimaginable positive ways.

TI: How will you foster more partnerships between universities and industry? 

Panchanathan: Partnerships between academia and industry are critical to the rapid advancement of science and engineering, ensuring national prosperity. I am deeply committed to not only strengthening existing frameworks of academia-industry partnerships but also, more importantly, evolving new frameworks for robust collaboration. 

The frameworks get researchers from both university and industry to share different perspectives that not only enrich research outcomes but also inspire unparalleled talent, leading to an innovative workforce of the future. They also help evolve new models of partnerships and frameworks. For example, we need to design and build Bell Labs–like entities across the nation through public-private partnerships where curiosity-driven research and translational research are working synergistically to enrich each other, unleashing transformative outcomes for the future. 

TI: In your recent interview with Science, you talked about your support for “use-inspired research.” How will the NSF balance funding for use-inspired research and basic research?

Panchanathan: What we are talking about at NSF is use-inspired basic research, which in some cases may lead to applied research outcomes and commercialization.

Our focus should also be to identify the gaps in our knowledge that are holding us back from advancing in some of the most competitive fields of science and engineering. When you look at it from that perspective, you will find that NSF and other supporters of basic research have already been funding use-inspired research for several decades. 

NSF has the unique ability to be strategic in how we inspire researchers to cultivate both curiosity-driven and use-inspired mindsets. One example of how NSF will undertake this is our support for convergent research. Scientific knowledge leads to actionable progress, which in turn enriches the scientific process. In other words, science and technology are intertwined. NSF advances technological progress because it is already intrinsic to everything we do.

NSF is making this translation happen through several programs. For example, NSF began funding the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory project decades ago. Some doubted it would ever be possible for LIGO to detect the minute distortions of gravitational waves. LIGO was not a theoretical problem, they feared, but a technological limitation. Science drove the development of technological capabilities necessary to detect gravitational waves. Now that technology will open up new ways to do science, and we continue to see new discoveries from that technology.

TI: How has IEEE helped your career? 

Panchanathan: Being a member and Fellow of IEEE has been an important part of my career as an educator, researcher, and leader. In my early career, I had the opportunity to publish several scientific papers in IEEE conference proceedings and journals.

Attending the various conferences helped me to gain valuable insights and feedback from leaders in the research community that shaped my research trajectory. I also had the opportunity of serving as a conference organizer, panelist, and editorial board member, and as editor-in-chief of the IEEE MultiMedia magazine.

These experiences provided me with opportunities to further enrich my knowledge and to contribute to the engineering and scientific community.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 04 November 2020.