Research News

Insights on NSF funding from agency’s deputy director

Cora Martt
Cora Marrett, nominated to serve as deputy director of NSF, speaking at the NSF regional grants conference at Loews Vanderbilt March 21. (Susan Urmy / Vanderbilt)

The Loews Vanderbilt Hotel was bustling with scientists, engineers and research administrators March 21 and 22 when Vanderbilt University hosted its first National Science Foundation regional grants conference.

More than 200 people from 55 research universities and institutes attended two days of informational sessions led by officials of the federal agency, which funds much of the nation’s non-medical fundamental research.

This is a critical time for the NSF, which currently is operating, like the rest of the federal government, on a continuing resolution while Congress debates the budget for the current 2010-2011 fiscal year.

One proposal would cut the NSF budget by $360 million below the amount — $6.87 billion — it received in 2009-2010. While that level of cut probably wouldn’t impact ongoing activities, it could reduce by several hundred the number of new grants the agency can fund, said NSF CFO Martha Rubenstein.

In a luncheon address on Monday, March 21, Cora Marrett, who has been nominated to serve as the agency’s deputy director, echoed President Obama’s theme that the future of the United States lies in “out-educating, out-innovating and out-competing” the rest of the world.

Watch video of Marrett’s keynote lecture.

To meet this challenge, the agency must remain faithful to the basic principles on which it was founded 60 years ago, including its commitment to relying on the judgment of experts in the scientific community to identify projects worth funding. Another key to future success is fostering talent “from all parts of the nation, from all groups and from all parts of the world,” she said.

Marrett also had one specific request of the scientists in attendance: She urged them not to put “silly” titles on their proposals. All too often clever or witty titles have led to unwarranted criticism and ridicule of reputable projects, she pointed out.

Earlier, Dennis Hall, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School, opened the conference with a pep talk of sorts.

“I’m sure everyone in this room understands how important the National Science Foundation is to this nation,” said Hall, noting that he had received several NSF grants throughout his career as a professor and researcher in the fields of physics and optical science.

Vanderbilt researchers, including those in the medical center, received a total of $26.5 million in NSF awards in the last fiscal year, 2009-2010.

“An enormous number of the nation’s graduate degrees — scientists, engineers and mathematicians — have been supported in whole or in part by NSF funds,” Hall continued. “And NSF support has given birth to a substantial amount of innovative science and engineering that has both advanced human understanding and helped create the lifestyle that we enjoy today …

“Together, graduate education and research in our institutions of higher learning create an enduring culture of advanced study that is empowering in so many ways,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge that (they) do their empowering at the individual level — person to person.

“It is to this culture of advanced studies and personal empowerment that the National Science Foundation contributes so mightily,” Hall concluded. “Without NSF’s help, an awful lot of dreams simply would not come true.”

*David Salisbury contributed to this report.