Former NSF Director Frances Córdova Offers Retrospective

By John Russell

May 20, 2020

Directing the National Science Foundation is a formidable challenge in which no decisions are likely to please everyone. Then again, it’s also an opportunity to try to steer science policy and impactful funding in directions that one considers productive. Frances Córdova, whose six-year term ended in March, offers a retrospective look at her goals, accomplishments, and learning on the job in an interview posted yesterday by the American Institute of Physics.

Presented below are the opening paragraphs of the AIP interview and a link to the full interview:

France Córdova Reflects on Her Tenure as NSF Director, written by Mitch Ambrose:

Looking back on her six year term as director of the National Science Foundation, which concluded in March, France Córdova told FYI in a recent interview that she has no regrets.

“I feel extremely lucky on the management side and even more than luck, sort of like divine luck, on the science side,” Córdova remarked. She explained that as an astrophysicist she felt especially fortunate to be leading the agency during a time when long-running NSF investments in her field culminated in breakthrough achievements, such as the detection of gravitational waves and the imaging of a black hole.

Beyond her role championing the science NSF supports, Córdova was also confronted with an array of thorny policy issues during her tenure. In the interview, she described how she approached lawmakers who singled out specific grants for criticism, and how she responded to heightened attention to sexual harassment in science and federal probes of scientists’ ties to China.

Córdova recalled that, early in her term as director, she decided the agency should not be passive in the face of criticisms from Congress. At that time, the agency was under fire from House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), who advocated adding a “national interest” criterion to the agency’s grant review process. Other lawmakers had also compiled “wastebooks” that called out specific NSF grants as irresponsible uses of taxpayer funds.

One approach the agency took was to begin issuing rebuttals to each wastebook. “We decided not to just turn the other cheek and let it roll off us,” Córdova said. “If you get poked on one thing, then you’re just kind of open to being poked on a lot of things — you get into one of these holes where people start suspecting you as an agency.”

Link to full AIP interview: https://www.aip.org/fyi/2020/france-córdova-reflects-her-tenure-nsf-director?utm_medium=email&utm_source=FYI&dm_i=1ZJN,6VIHS,1D91T1,RLHDK,1

Photo credit: National Science Board

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