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Updated: March 11, 2011 01:34 IST

‘We have to balance intellectual curiosity with relevance'

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SUBRA SURESH: ‘I think one of the remarkable attributes of the U.S. is that it has been the destination for people all over the world….In science and engineering across the country, this has been a preferred destination. Photo: National Science Foundation
SUBRA SURESH: ‘I think one of the remarkable attributes of the U.S. is that it has been the destination for people all over the world….In science and engineering across the country, this has been a preferred destination. Photo: National Science Foundation

Interview with Subra Suresh, Director, National Science Foundation, U.S.

Subra Suresh, who was awarded the Padma Shri last month in recognition of his contribution to science and engineering, was appointed, in 2010, as the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) by United States President Barack Obama. The NSF, which has historically played a key role in the strategic development of scientific projects, has been thrust into even more prominence under the Obama administration as the President has increasingly sought to emphasise the role of innovation and research in ensuring that the U.S. remains a global technology leader.

A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Dr. Suresh earlier served as Dean and Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as the head of MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Winning wide recognition for ground-breaking research, Dr. Suresh was the recipient of the 2007 European Materials Medal, “the highest honour conferred by the Federation of European Materials Societies.” Technology Review magazine selected Dr. Suresh's work on nano-biotechnology as “one of the top ten emerging technologies that will have a significant impact on business, medicine or culture.”

He spoke to Narayan Lakshman at his office near Washington, about priorities for the NSF and the role of scientific education in the 21st-century technology landscape.

Some have argued that the locus of production in science and technology has shifted to other countries of late, in some sectors. On the other hand, you have, especially under the Obama administration, a sense that the U.S. is seeking to boost its technology exports. How do you see the tension between these two things impacting the U.S.' future as a global technology leader?

The NSF plays a key role as a major contribution to the innovation ecosystem of the country. Scientific discoveries begin with the kind of efforts that the NSF sponsors. But even efforts that are usually the single kernel of an idea that may start with an individual investigator can translate into an innovation that impacts multiple industries and it may impact society globally. These innovations can come from many different arenas. The NSF has for the last 60 years played a significant role in nurturing and fostering this innovation through a variety of modes. It could be a single-investigator project, where one innovator sits in isolation and comes up with a brilliant idea that changes society. It could be in a group or collaborative project that involves multiple people in the same institution or in multiple institutions. It may involve a project that requires large facilities. The NSF partnered in all of these models for the advancement of science. Even though manufacturing, at some level, may have shifted to other parts of the world, in an innovation economy one can continue to move to higher levels of understanding and analysis and innovate, and this contributes to the economy, to jobs and is vital to national security. In all those aspects the NSF continues to play a very critical role.

Regarding what you said about the NSF's approach to encouraging innovation, is there an inherent uncertainty about the fruits of such an innovative process, at least in the early phases? In that sense, how does the NSF view the financing for these projects and decide which of these are likely to yield the longest-term results that you need?

The NSF is very unique in its mission. It is the only federal agency in the U.S., and perhaps globally, that funds research in all branches of science and engineering. Secondly, it is an agency that does not fund projects solely on the basis of a mission. For example, take the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). NASA's mission is aeronautics and space research and exploration. The NSF's mission is to foster science and engineering, to create discoveries in the country and thereby benefit to society and contribute to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] education and the research workforce in the country.

Research is an inherently long-term process. We cannot be short-sighted and go after the latest fashion. Just because we have a high unemployment rate we cannot fund all of our research into a direction that will lead to employment in the next two years because that is really not long-term research, even though we want to contribute to the economy. That does not necessarily mean that the near-term or mid-term are not important — we do have three year goals and annual reports.

We cannot lose sight of the long-term benefits. We cannot fund everything that is purely hypothetical and some day may lead to some result. But on the other hand we have to balance intellectual curiosity with relevance and you have to walk a very fine line. Keeping a long-term perspective in mind is what the NSF does.

Statistics show that since 1980, science and technology jobs in the U.S. have grown “at almost five times the rate of the U.S. civilian workforce as a whole; yet the number of science and technology degrees earned by U.S. citizens is growing at a much smaller rate.” Do you think America of the 21st century will increasingly come to rely on tech specialists from beyond its borders?

In the U.S. the scientific workforce and pipeline have multiple components to it. If you look at the number of PhDs granted in the last 10 years to American citizens and permanent residents, that number has increased for science and engineering. It may not keep up with demand but there is still a sufficient supply [even if] it is less than what it was 30 years ago. In fact the increase in doctorates in the last 10 years is primarily due to a significant increase in the number of women getting PhDs in science and engineering in the U.S.

Added to that, I think one of the remarkable attributes of this country is that it has been the destination for people all over the world. I am a good example of that. I hope that this continues. There are not many countries in the world where somebody who comes to get an education as a student has an opportunity to lead an agency like the NSF. I think this has been one of the remarkable things about the U.S. and as long as that possibility exists in the country one would hope that people would come here from all over the world. In science and engineering across the country, this has been a preferred destination.

There are areas in which we need to do better. I mentioned the increase in the number of women in the U.S. who get PhDs in science and engineering. That is very good news. The bad news is that the proportion of women in the workforce is still relatively low.

Another area where we have not done very well is increasing the number of under-represented groups and under-represented minorities in the science and engineering workforce. There is a lot of room for further improvement in those arenas.

The third area is for the science and engineering enterprise of this country to be a sought-after a destination that attracts top talent from all over the world, especially in areas that lead to innovation.

All three are very important pipelines. These are very important to me.

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