The National Science Foundation and the mathematical sciences

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a discussion on the future of the National Science Foundation and how the mathematical sciences fit in. We heard from Karen Marrongelle, head of NSF’s Directorate for Education & Human Resources (EHR), and Tie Luo, acting deputy head of NSF’s Directorate for Mathematical & Physical Sciences (MPS). Karen Saxe, AMS Director of Government Relations, moderated the conversation.

Screenshot of Karen Saxe, Tie Luo, and Karen Marrongelle discussing the future of the NSF.

“Envisioning the Future of NSF: A Guided Discussion with MPS and EHR Heads” touched on artificial intelligence, diversity and inclusion, COVID-19, and more.

To start, Luo and Marrongelle discussed the big picture of the NSF’s current work. Both of them spoke highly of the new NSF director, Sethuraman Panchanathan, who took the helm in June 2020 after unanimous Senate confirmation. “He’s strongly committed to inclusivity and innovative research,” Marrongelle said. “He’s an amazing thinker, a visionary.” Luo emphasized Panchanathan’s “energy and belief that there’s a talent in everyone.”

One exciting prospect for the NSF comes from this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which became law after Congress overrode President Trump’s veto. The act authorizes (but does not appropriate) $4.8 billion over five years for NSF programs to support basic and applied research in artificial intelligence. The NSF hopes to fund AI institutes across the country (an early example is the AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming at the University of Colorado Boulder). Luo said that MPS is engaged in “AI for science”—developing AI tools that can solve scientific problems—as well as “science for AI”—digging into the math behind deep learning and related technologies.

From there, the conversation moved on to education, especially the NSF’s role in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the mathematical community. Among the programs that Marrongelle and Luo mentioned was the Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which actively seeks to award funding to individuals that reflect the country’s diversity in gender, ethnicity, and type of educational institution. They both acknowledged that DEI efforts still have a long way to go in the mathematical sciences. Of the 935 US citizens who earned math or statistics PhDs in 2017-18, six were American Indian or Alaska Native, 81 were Asian, 27 were Black or African American, 34 were Hispanic or Latino, and two were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

Saxe also asked about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the NSF’s work. The CARES Act gave the NSF $75 million to distribute through its RAPID grant mechanism. These grants have funded research on COVID-19 treatment and vaccines, the pandemic’s effects on STEM faculty and students, risk communication on social media, and more. Still, making advances in other areas is an uphill struggle as the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the career trajectories of mathematicians at all levels. 

The discussion concluded with a look forward to the new Congress. Marrongelle emphasized that the NSF has enjoyed bipartisan support through many presidential administrations. Frequent meetings between congressional staff and NSF representatives, she said, help Congress understand the priorities of the NSF. Ultimately, the heart of the NSF is basic research and innovation, which seems poised to flourish in the coming years.

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