Sethuraman Panchanathan, born and raised in India, was recently appointed Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation. Mr. Panchanathan talks on priorities for the Foundation, “brain-drain”, foreign interference in U.S. research and more. Edited excerpts:
What are your priorities as head of the NSF?
Right now, the world faces significant scientific challenges — most obviously a pandemic. During this difficult time, we have seen that research is more important than ever.
I have identified three pillars for my vision: advancing research into the future, ensuring inclusivity, and continuing global leadership in science and engineering. In the first few months, I will be mainly focused on understanding all facets of the agency, including ensuring optimal operations.
What is the impact of COVID-19 on research and investment in scientific fields other than medicine?
To date, we’ve funded 801 grants over $111 million in response to COVID-19 and the level of research we’ve seen from recipients has been outstanding. As the nation responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, NSF-funded research is playing a crucial role. From the science and engineering behind critical diagnostic tools and medical devices, to novel solutions that help communities, businesses, and individuals navigate the challenges of this difficult time, NSF’s investments in science and technology are making a difference. For example, advances in artificial intelligence and big data offer the potential to spot hidden patterns and raise the alarm about new diseases before they spread. Advanced manufacturing and cutting-edge engineering will be able to put the right tools in the hands of first responders and medical professionals faster than ever. When this pandemic passes, basic research will still be an engine of our economy, it will still underpin our national defence, and it will still be the main driver of innovations and technology that enhances every aspect of our lives.
Recently, mask-wearing has been politicised by politicians, and some citizens believe there’s a conspiracy around masks. There are other examples that pre-date COVID – denying climate change, unfounded fears around vaccination, and so forth. Is America’s scientific spirit and temper at risk?
NSF is tasked with keeping the U.S. at the leading edge of discovery in areas ranging from astronomy to geology to zoology. We like to say that NSF is “where discoveries begin”. During NSF’s 70-year history, we have witnessed varying opinions. However, the one constant during that time has been NSF’s focus and dedication to its mission, which always has and always will continue unabated regardless of the news of the day. As NSF supports 25% of all federally funded academic fundamental research at U.S. colleges and universities, I have every confidence the U.S. will continue to lead the world in scientific investment and innovation.
Recently you held the position of chief innovation officer at Arizona State University. In what areas do you expect the next major technological breakthroughs?
Technology is ever evolving, and while some breakthroughs emerge unexpectedly, many are driven by research priorities. For the U.S., five priorities in particular stand out at the moment: AI, advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, advanced wireless, and synthetic biology. This year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a nationwide focus on driving new developments in these fields, categorising them under the single term Industries of the Future.
At NSF, these industries have been part of our portfolio for decades. We have funded fundamental research that enabled them to emerge, as well as collaborations and industrial partnerships that have helped move specific technologies out of laboratories and into the marketplace. For example, our investment in Fairness in Artificial Intelligence, a partnership with Amazon, seeks to overcome a critical hurdle preventing the broader impact of AI technology by removing bias that finds its way into AI programming. The initiative will have direct impact on new AI applications, from driverless vehicles to banking algorithms, but it also comes from a fundamental research base that has been decades in the making.
India and the U.S. already cooperate in various scientific fields. What is your assessment of the scientific partnership between the two countries?
The scientific partnership is strong, particularly in the area of fundamental research, which is NSF’s focus. India is one of the top 25 international partners for NSF with 46 collaborative projects funded in 2019 alone. NSF and the Government of India are partnering on LIGO India to station a gravitational wave detection instrument in India due to the country’s unique geographical characteristics. What makes the partnership strong is that both the U.S. and India have demonstrated a commitment to the values of freely sharing the results of fundamental research, putting new tools and ideas in the hands of scientific collaborations that connect researchers around the world.
The ISRO Chairman, K. Sivan, recently said the creation of a new space centre (IN-SPACe) and regulatory changes will help prevent “brain drain”. However, successive governments in India have not been able to significantly increase the retention of science and engineering talent within the country. Are you hopeful this can be achieved in the next, say, decade?
India is demonstrating a steady commitment to meet the challenge of cultivating a domestic scientific workforce. It requires not only schools and laboratories but networks of researchers and mentorship — but that takes time. If the progress made by India isn’t easy to see at home, I should note that we’re seeing it from abroad. Our Science and Engineering Indicators report shows that the percentage of new STEM doctorate holders from India who plan to stay in the U.S. has declined.
This could indicate that students may have decided to go back to India or may have gone somewhere else. The U.S. has historically been the top destination for international students and this nation deeply values the researchers and students who have come from India.
How serious is the threat of foreign interference, especially from China in sensitive scientific research in the U.S. and what can be done / is being done to ensure that scientists who are of Chinese descent or Chinese citizens are not being racially profiled and harassed? (Background: Nature recently reported that NSF for the first time released figures for instances where researchers did not properly declare foreign ties. Most of the cases involved China but most of the researchers were US Citizens and not of Chinese descent).
One of the most significant takeaways from the JASON report that NSF commissioned on science and security was the issue of communication — that the PI [ principal investigator] community and other stakeholders don’t know enough about how serious the threat is and how the federal government is addressing it. I think misconceptions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it are driving a lot of concern. So, we will keep talking to the research community.
We’ll tell them all we can about the scope of the threat and the importance of disclosure. And we will say as often as we need to that NSF is not targeting any group or population. We want to make sure that people are following our disclosure rules. If you’re not disclosing a source of support when you’re seeking or have obtained NSF funding, it’s a problem — it doesn’t matter who you are or if that source is foreign or domestic, public or private.
Federal funding of R&D in the U.S. as a proportion of all R&D expenditure has dropped since 2000 as the private sector funds an increasing share of R&D
I think the private sector’s investments in research funding shows that there’s a recognition of the economic value it produces. That hasn’t always been true — industries have not always seen a clear path between research and financial payoff, so governments had to step in to spur innovation. But we’ve seen that view shift, and this is one of the reasons that NSF is looking to partner with industry combining financial resources and looking for paths to application and commercialization for basic research. There will always be areas of research where the federal government must lead, but more industry involvement can also mean, acceleration of ideas and opportunities into the market place and increased training opportunities for students and early-career researchers, who will have the skills to work in both the private sector or academia.
NSF has a somewhat unique perspective on this issue because so much of what we do is focused on academic research – of our $7.8 billion in funding [or obligations] for research and education, $6.1 billion of it goes to academic institutions. For academic research, the federal government is still the majority funder — in fact, it’s still the largest funder by far.
Connection to Chennai
I was born and raised in Chennai. My parents taught me the values of hard work, giving back, and finding ways to make a tangible difference in this world. I attended the Madras Christian College High School, Vivekananda College (University of Madras), and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. At a young age, I was privileged to have the opportunity to teach Math and English to disadvantaged middle and high school students in underserved areas. I had a special affinity for those with different abilities in my community, and I wanted to find ways to empower those that society classified as disadvantaged. Throughout the course of my career, I have endeavoured to promote a quest for learning suffused with an innovative spirit and an entrepreneurial mindset. I believe that every human being has raw, untapped potential that can be realised with the right support and opportunity.
Favourite haunts in Chennai?
I have a few, Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, Adayar Ananda Bhavan, Theosophical Society Gardens and Chepauk Cricket Stadium.