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Updated: October 19, 2010 23:51 IST

IIT alumnus joins Team Obama

Narayan Lakshman
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Subra Suresh, Director, National Science Foundation, United States
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Subra Suresh, Director, National Science Foundation, United States

The Obama administration has made one of its most senior appointments yet from the Indian-American community. Subra Suresh (54), School of Dean of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, has been confirmed as the Director of the high-level National Science Foundation.

Commenting on Dr. Suresh’s appointment at a White House Science Fair this week President Barack Obama said, “I want to welcome and congratulate Subra Suresh, who was sworn in this morning as the Director of the National Science Foundation… We are very grateful to have Subra taking this new task.”

The President noted that at MIT Dr. Suresh was leading one of the top engineering programmes in the United States, and “for him now to be able to apply that to the National Science Foundation is just going to be outstanding.” Mr. Obama had initially announced his intention to appoint Dr. Suresh to the prestigious office on June 3.

The NSF, which is supported by a funding base worth around $6.9-billion, principally finances research in the non-medical sciences. In assuming his new responsibilities Dr. Suresh would, according to reports, take over “just as a $3-billion infusion of economic stimulus money given to the agency early last year begins to run out.”

In a feature on the new Director Nature magazine quoted Samuel Rankin, Chair of the Coalition for National Science Funding, an advocacy group based in Washington, as saying, “Morale is going to be low… He needs to take advantage of the fact that he’s new and push for more funding.”

While NSF funding was said to have enjoyed a massive boost last year as the stimulus money was topped up by a “whopping 6.2% rise in regular agency funding for fiscal year 2010,” Mr. Ranking had said that that rate would drop as the stimulus money petered out.

With immense pressure owing to the politics of soaring national debt levels, reports said that the U.S. Congress would probably only set the NSF’s budget after the midterm elections in November, “which means funding could be frozen at 2010 levels well into next year.”

However expressing a strong vote of confidence in Dr. Suresh’s ability to tackle all such challenges in Washington despite being a newcomer to the scene, Robert Ritchie, his advisor at MIT, said, “The thing about Subra is that, while he’ll take on tasks that are quite complex, you know from the start that he’ll succeed.”

Dr. Suresh, who was the Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering at MIT, first joined MIT in 1993, as the R.P. Simmons Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Holding numerous joint faculty positions in the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Biological Engineering, as well as the Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Dr. Suresh served as the head of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering from 2000 to 2006. Apart from MIT Dr. Suresh was also a faculty member at Brown University between 1983 and 1993, in the Division of Engineering.

Winning wide recognition for his expertise, Dr. Suresh was the recipient of the 2007 European Materials Medal, “the highest honour conferred by the Federation of European Materials Societies,” and the 2006 Acta Materialia Gold Medal. After gaining his bachelor’s degree from IIT-Madras he obtained an M.S. from Iowa State University, and a Sc.D. from MIT.

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