New NSF Director Addresses Budget, Interdisciplinary Research, and Science Education

Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio’s Science Friday, recently interviewed the new NSF Director, Subra Suresh, about NSF’s research mission and the impact of current budget challenges.

Suresh stated, “…it’s a very critical time for us. We have a huge national debt. We have a major deficit…. In the middle of all of this, people naturally wonder why should discretionary funding like basic research should be supported at the level that it has now.”

“Research in science and engineering is inherently a very long term proposition. Many people think that it’s a curiosity to learn process, to understand nature. That’s very true. But it’s much, much more than that. For example, the economic leadership of the U.S., the technological leadership of the U.S., our military power…  and most importantly our national security depends on how well we do in basic science and engineering,” he added.

Flatow asked Suresh about his own background holding joint appointments in mechanical engineering, health sciences and technology and what appealed to him about interdisciplinary work.

“I think most of the problems that we face today both in science and society are highly complex and highly interdisciplinary,” commented Suresh. “So I don’t think human diseases, for example, is no longer simply a biology problem. It has to make use of all the latest tools and technologies from engineers and physical scientists. Clean water, clean energy, transportation, these not only require interdisciplinary approaches from different branches of science and engineering, they also have to bring in social sciences, political sciences, and so forth.

“I think the problems are so complex, and in my own research work, I find that multi-disciplinary work, multi-disciplinary approaches are more beneficial than a single approach from a single discipline.” According to an MIT newspaper, The Tech, Suresh’s daughter graduated in 2010 from MIT with a degree in Course IX (Brain and Cognitive Sciences), and Suresh himself, spoke highly of the importance of this research at a recent NSF Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Advisory Committee meeting.

Regarding the U.S. educational system, Suresh said the U.S. has been able to attract the “best and brightest” from around the world to our colleges and universities. “One of the nice things about the American higher education system is that it’s the envy of the world over the last – more than 100 years.” Acknowledging that developing countries are investing huge sums of money into science and engineering and that, at the K-12 level, U.S. students are losing ground in science education relative to other countries, he stated “…if K-12 education is not strong enough, our undergraduate education is going to suffer, our research enterprise is going to suffer.”

Listen to the full audio recording or view the entire interview transcript »