National Science Board Meets, Expresses Support for SBE, Discusses Plans to Address Foreign Influence

July 25, 2019

The National Science Board (NSB), a presidentially appointed body tasked with establishing policies for the National Science Foundation, met on July 17 and 18 to discuss numerous issues of importance to the broader scientific community, including an update on the Social Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Directorate, concerns about foreign influence in science, and the NSF’s Vision 2030 plan.

(See webcast of meeting: Day 1, Day 2)

On day one, Dr. Arthur Lupia provided an update on the work of the SBE Directorate at NSF. (Starts at 5 hours and 20 minutes). In his presentation, Lupia shared specific examples of how SBE investments have led to major advancements, such as disrupting terror networks, preparing for natural disasters, matching kidney donors and recipients, and developing models to reduce crime. Another measure of SBE success is the numerous Nobel Laureates, Medal of Science Recipients, and MacArthur award winners who had received NSF support, often early in their careers. NSB members expressed appreciation and strong support for SBE, recognizing the value of the directorate, despite extremely limited funding. 

On the second day, the NSB turned to a roundtable discussion on security concerns in international research collaboration, a topic covered in a previous FABBS article. Dr. Rebecca Keiser, head of the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering, spoke about the current state of affairs including conflicts of interest, foreign talent programs, and the disclosure of sensitive research material to foreign entities. Dr. Keiser outlined steps that NSF is taking to mitigate these risks through the establishment of an online disclosure system for grantees to outline their current and pending support, and a recent commission of a report exploring potential practices in the name of “openness and security.” Keiser also noted that NSF leadership recently sent out a reminder to their staff regarding federal codes of ethics and recently implemented policy that bars NSF personnel from participating in foreign talent programs. In addition, on July 11, NSF released a Dear Colleague Letter on Research Protections outlining these steps the agency is taking to best balance openness and research integrity.

Toby Smith of the American Association for Universities (AAU), outlined similar initiatives and concerns from a university perspective, and pointed to a recent partnership between AAU and The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), which conducted a survey across American universities in order to discover the most beneficial practices pertinent to research security and protection. Both parties echoed the value of international collaboration in the research ecosystem, with Dr. Maria Zuber asserting, “Research should be open unless it can’t be.”

Also in attendance was OSTP director Kelvin Droegemeier, who spoke mainly about his work with the Joint Committee on the Research Environment, recently established by the White House in an effort to ensure the “safety, integrity and productivity” of research communities. Droegemeier also touched on his priorities of making the STEM fields more inclusive towards women.

Lastly, NSB discussed NSF’s Vision 2030 Plan, which, when completed, will function as a roadmap for the future of NSF’s research and discovery goals. In an effort to gain insight from the broader scientific community, the board has been hosting listening sessions with NSF stakeholders  — including FABBS  — around the country, as well as sessions with STEM graduate students and early career researchers in New England, department heads at historically black colleges in the south and southwest, and representatives from scientific societies here in DC. The board then gave an overview of some of the common concerns, praises, and general remarks the NSF stakeholders mentioned during these sessions. These included concerns over a general focus in the scientific community on applied research rather than basic, rising publishing fees for research journals, an underutilization of the domestic STEM workforce, a lack of broadband data literacy across the scientific spectrum, and hesitation, coupled with fascination, over further use of AI and machine learning techniques in science. Still, the board noted, the stakeholders were optimistic about the future of science, and valued the innovation and expertise of the field. The board plans to hold future listening sessions before a draft of the Vision Plan is set to be completed in January 2020.