A conversation with NSF Director and SPIE Fellow Sethuraman Panchanathan

The ebullient computer scientist discusses the agency’s new technology directorate, US science leadership, and the return to in-person SPIE conferences
01 May 2022
By William G. Schulz
Sethuraman Panchanathan at the 2022 South by Southwest Conference and Festival. Credit: Noah Egge, National Science Foundation

The buzzy South by Southwest Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas that each year celebrates the convergence of music, film, and tech might seem an unlikely place to announce a new addition to the US government bureaucracy. But on 16 March 2022, that is where SPIE Fellow and National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Sethuraman Panchanathan announced his agency’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP).

And the new directorate, the first such addition to the agency in more than three decades, is buzzworthy. First, it is seen by many in the US R&D enterprise as a bold departure from NSF’s historic focus on funding for basic science. For many others, like Panchanathan’s predecessor, astrophysicist France A. Córdova, it is overdue recognition of the speed with which today’s research moves from bench to application—and NSF’s ability to grease the wheels even more. Now, in US President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget request to Congress, $880 million has been allotted for TIP as part of a total $10.5 billion budget for the agency.

Photonics Focus caught up with “Panch,” as he is informally known, just after SXSW. He told us that SPIE was the first of the professional societies he participates in to have named him a Fellow, and he keeps the certificate displayed prominently on his office wall at NSF.

The following is an edited version of our conversation with the charismatic computer scientist.

How was the South by Southwest festival? And why did you pick that venue to announce TIP?

South by Southwest exemplifies the spirit of innovation and creativity. And so, when we were talking about announcing [TIP]—it leverages all the things happening in the various directorates of NSF, whether it is physical sciences or computer information sciences and engineering, biosciences, geosciences, education, social/behavioral economics and so on. We will be able to leverage those innovations, but also at the same time energize more innovations. We thought SXSW might be a good venue for us to be able to talk about that. And the timing worked out.

What do you say to people who feel that TIP might pull NSF away from its historic mission of funding only basic research?

As a fundamental researcher myself, as well as a translational researcher who leverages fundamental research, I look at NSF as a place where both curiosity driven discovery, as well as use-inspired solutions- focused translational research also is made possible. The DNA of NSF is curiosity and discovery-based research synergizing and symbiotic with solutions- focused translations and innovations. We would not be looking at the outer universe today with the Vera Rubin telescope or the Mauna Kea telescope without the translational work that made this possible. This symbiosis is very powerful and exceedingly important. Where possible, we want to make sure that we inspire more expert research through advancements in translational research and innovations.

For example, when you look at an area like nanophotonics, this is a rapidly growing field for advanced data storage and wide bandwidth transmission. The ability to concentrate light and to strengthen light-matter interactions, this enables ultrasensitive label-free chemical and biological sensing.  So, without expert research we will not be able to reach translational research outcomes, and we are not able to get more expert research done. I feel that when you have great ideas, and you also make possible great outcomes, whether it is a Nobel Prize, or a fundamental discovery of black holes, or whether it is in founding companies like Google. All these outcomes make possible more investments.

What are some of your other goals as NSF Director?

To keep it simple, my answer would be that there are three pillars. First pillar: Advancing the frontiers of discoveries in science and technology…how can we strengthen this at speed, at scale? This moment is calling upon us. 

The middle pillar, literally the central pillar of my vision, is that in doing these things you want to ensure accessibility and inclusivity.  For far too long, we have not been able to get the full strength of talent and ideas that exists across the nation. So how do we do that? We ensure that in all the things that we do, we are mindful of engaging every part of this nation, every community—domestic talent being unleashed full force, at full scale. Also, what we need now is global talent that is augmentative and additive, not substituted. We need domestic talent unleashed at full force and full scale, and we need to welcome global talent. Both are necessary for the US to be in the vanguard of global competitiveness.

The third pillar is what I call global science leadership. Not that one nation is a leader and the rest followers. I mean, shared leadership through shared values—openness, transparency, reciprocity, integrity, respect for intellectual property. When we all subscribe to common values, we can share in the leadership imperative and work together to do some amazing things.

What about diversity and gender parity in the sciences? How does the US finally break through the barriers?

For one, I have stopped using the word pipeline because it implies there’s only one way to go with education and training in the sciences. Pathways is a better way to think of this, and then working within career systems. How are we training teachers today as well as teachers already in the workforce? What can we do to augment them in terms of training as well as resources? Not everything has to happen through one channel. We have research universities, community colleges, and then vocational training. What about upskilling for people already in the workforce?

It's also about role models. If you look at my leadership team, you will see rich diversity because I believe that it inspires more of the same across the agency, and then this influences what agency does to inspire [diversity] across the nation.

Through the National Science Board Report: Vision 2030 and NSB’s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators, we are constantly tracking and seeing where we are not doing enough, where we are doing okay, but we need to do better.

[according to NSB: “While the number of people from under-represented groups in the S&E workforce has grown over the past decade, much faster increases will be needed for the S&E workforce to be representative of the US population in 2030. To achieve that goal, the NSB estimates that the number of women must nearly double, Black or African Americans must more than double, and Hispanic or Latinos must triple the number that are in the 2020 US S&E workforce.”]

So, you will see a lot of programs we are putting together at NSF to address this specific question of how do we increase gender parity? How do we emphasize historically black colleges and universities as well as tribal colleges and universities? How do we make sure that they are successful? The way you do that is to listen first.  I had a one-and-a-half-hour conversation with tribal leaders across the nation recently, asking them how can we do better? What is working, what is not working? Likewise, with HBCU presidents and chancellors. We must be constantly listening, learning, adapting.

Have you been to any SPIE meetings this year? How is NSF addressing this fundamental aspect of the US science and technology enterprise—in-person meetings and how we get back to that, post-pandemic.

I have chaired SPIE conferences like the electronic imaging symposium and, given the opportunity and my scheduling demands, would do so again. But what the COVID moment has taught us is that talent, ideas, learning—these can be accessed wherever you are. There are ways we can do these conferences so that the 1,000 people who attend, we can scale it to 10s of thousands. Personal participation is important, particularly for young scientists, to interact with senior scientists, to interact with peers and colleagues. I’ve benefited so much in my career because conferences provided me the ability to be able to test my ideas, engage  with people, get criticism and, you know, develop a network. So, there is value in the personal interaction, but there’s also value that if you’re not able to do that, you’re not shut out.

William G. Schulz is Managing Editor of Photonics Focus.

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