An English major, inspired by watching astronauts land on the moon, changes her career path. Who is the mystery woman, who recently admitted, “I was the most unlikely person to become a scientist?” None other than Dr. France Córdova who now serves as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
During a hearing of the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee focused on the NSF, she explained how being inspired, like she was, is a common way for students to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. The hearing focused on challenges facing NSF, including the budget and management of the program. Through questioning of witnesses Dr. Córdova and Ms. Allison Lerner (Inspector General, NSF), committee Chairman Lamar Smith (TX-21) brought up “frivolous” grants, while committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30) defended basic research as important to major scientific breakthroughs.
Research misconduct was brought up repeatedly during questioning. Representative Don Beyer (VA-8) noted that 175 research misconduct cases over four years out of 12,000 grants awarded by NSF per year is roughly three out of 1,000 grants and joked this statistic was probably “better than the ethical record in the U.S. House.” He then returned to seriousness and asked why there has been this increasing trend. Dr. Córdova postulated that it is due, not to actual increase
in misconduct, but to better tools to identify offenders. When questioned by Chairman Smith, Ms. Lerner stressed that “the punishment has to fit the crime” and discussed progress NSF has made in addressing these concerns, including a new system that tracks how the program is responding to Office of Inspector General recommendations.
Representative Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1) primarily questioned Dr. Córdova on ocean science research. She highlighted the importance of NSF’s Geosciences Directorate funding in supporting research on the ocean’s primary production, El Niño, coastal flooding, and ongoing beach erosion as essential to global ocean health and food supplies. Dr. Córdova agreed and added the importance of the ocean to national security, transportation, health, and jobs, “as well as the security of our own coastal communities.” She also stressed the importance of good ocean monitoring. Representative Bonamici enquired about the future of an NSF proposal to build new regional class research vessels that has been put on hold due to the Fiscal Year 2017 continuing resolution. Dr. Córdova responded with the importance of replacing their aging fleet and listed a goal of having fewer but more efficient ships by 2020, reducing the total number of U.S. ships in the academic fleet to 15 (there are currently 18 ships in operation) but added that the new vessels will have more technology to increase shipboard scientific capabilities.
Women and underrepresented groups were discussed, as were the two new bills that were signed into law last week supporting programs for women and girls in science at NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (H.R. 255 and H.R.321). Dr. Córdova added that a new program, Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES) is conducting 40 pilot studies across the nation to identify methods and techniques to increase participation in STEM fields. She encouraged the submission of development curriculum for the kindergarten through high school level classes.