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National Science Foundation director visits San Diego to talk NSF mission, investments

Director of the National Science Foundation Sethuraman Panchanathan relaxes in a San Diego home after talking about NSF investments in the region's scientific research. June 29, 2022.<br/>
Thomas Fudge
The director of the National Science Foundation, Sethuraman Panchanathan, relaxes in a San Diego home after talking about the NSF's investments in the region's scientific research on June 29, 2022.

The director of the National Science Foundation, Sethuraman Panchanathan, paid a visit to San Diego this week to dedicate an upgraded earthquake shake table at UC San Diego. The NSF invested more than $16 million in the project. Panchanathan was here to see how the foundation’s annual investment in the region is being spent. The NSF invested $150 million in San Diego research in 2021 alone. Panchanathan spoke with KPBS science and technology reporter Thomas Fudge.

You say that science is a bipartisan issue and it certainly should be. But do you feel that scientists get the respect that they deserve when it comes to issues that are politically controversial?

Panchanathan: I think they do — as long as they have data and information that backs up what they say. And I’ve never seen anything less than respect for scientists. And this is one of the things that NSF does and promotes, is not just investing in amazing ideas. But, also, how is science is represented? How is science perceived? (We must explain) how science becomes a solution pathway for many different grand challenges, most importantly, economic innovation and prosperity across the nation. I think this is something NSF does really well and should do better into the future.


What are you doing in San Diego?

Panchanathan: I'm very delighted to be here because we are always looking for exemplars of what NSF stands for. I talk about the DNA of NSF. The first one is curiosity-driven, discovery-based explorations. And the other strength is use-inspired, solutions-focused translations of innovations. These are highly intertwined. And so this symbiosis of what the DNA represents, I find that San Diego is an excellent exemplar of that.

Like Qualcomm?

Panchanathan: I’m very excited about Qualcomm as a company because Qualcomm was a small-business-innovation research-investment program of the NSF in the early '80s. And here it is today, a multibillion-dollar company, is something we’re very proud of. That’s the kind of inventiveness and what invention means for promoting a tremendous amount of prosperity. Jobs. We want thousands and thousands of Qualcomms all over the nation, not just limited to great places like San Diego, but even in places that don’t have such economic vibrancy. We want it everywhere. Because that’s how we ensure prosperity for everyone.

In some of your statements you’ve talked about challenges we’re facing. What do you feel are the biggest challenges in our society and how does science need to respond?


Panchanathan: The greatest challenge I would say is that we have not made possibilities for every citizen of this country to be able to have the opportunities that they truly deserve. So the NSF wants to see how talent everywhere can be energized. And so this we can do if science becomes a motivator and an inspirer. How do you light a STEM spark in every kid? Now, some of them will pursue science and engineering as a career pathway. Some may not. But it’s important for them to have that exposure to science. And if that is there as the underlying fabric of what we do for all the children across the nation, I think we will serve ourselves very well for the future.

Another big challenge, I think you would agree, is global warming. Is that a problem that can be solved by science or is that only a problem we can solve by changing the way we live? Changing our lifestyle?

Panchanathan: I think global warming, climate adaptations and mitigations — I think it’s a comprehensive problem. We cannot attempt to solve it by saying: "If only I do more science, I will solve it. If I only do more technology, I will solve it. If only we do behavioral changes, we can solve it." It’s all of the above and more. It’s folks coming together and addressing this comprehensive problem and finding solutions that are real and have an impact. Only trying to take one slice of it is doing a disservice to the problem, and you cannot find sustainable solutions for the future.

What would you say are your priorities at the NSF?

Panchanathan: How do you make sure that the discovery sciences are even more strengthened? At the same time, we cannot do this without the diverse perspectives that are rich and needed for making progress, which means that inclusion and diversity is an important part of how we advance.

Is there a way you can be specific in terms of areas of study. I mean, given the challenges we have and given where science is moving, do you see the NSF starting to fund a lot of one kind of thing?

Panchanathan: No. Not at all! We are the National Science Foundation, which means all aspects of science should be funded. You never know what is going to solve the next big problem and where the innovation is going to come from. It may come from the fusion of all of these scientific disciplines working together. The NSF is interested in furthering not only scientific disciplines, but also motivating fusion and new areas of discovery.