2013 NSF Science and Technology Centers Directors Meeting held at OHSU

The National Science Foundation held its annual Science and Technology Centers Directors Meeting at OHSU’s Waterfront Campus on August 22-23, 2013. Featured meeting presenters included U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer; Vinton Cerf, Ph.D., vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google; Wilfred Pinfold, Ph.D., director of Research and Advanced Technology Development at Intel; and William Vesneski, J.D., Ph.D., director of Evaluation and Planning at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Meeting attendees included NSF program staff, members of the NSF National Science Board, as well as researchers from STCs across the country. OHSU faculty member and director of the NSF-funded Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction (CMOP) António M. Baptista, Ph.D., played a key role in planning the meeting.

Meeting attendees listen to Dr. Mladenovic’s opening remarks. Photo: Jeff Schilling

STCs are funded by large, multi-year grants from the NSF; they are meant to catalyze innovative, potentially transformative research and education programs. STCs conduct research in collaboration with academic institutions, national laboratories, industry, and other private entities. Through long-term funding by the NSF, STCs are able to focus on sustaining innovation.

OHSU Provost Jeanette Mladenovic, M.D., M.B.A., opened the conference, welcomed attendees to OHSU and spoke of OHSU’s unique position as the only STC located at an academic health center. She introduced Wanda Ward, Ph.D., head of the Office of International and Integrative Activities for the NSF, who spoke on the role of STCs and helped set the tone for collaboration and learning among the STC directors at the conference.

As director of CMOP, Dr. Baptista spoke on the STC mandate of science and technology serving as catalysts for broad societal impact. While STCs are different, all share some basic common characteristics, he said. All STCs share the opportunity to foster the broad societal impact of science and technology, but first and foremost, they share the opportunity to effect and prepare society for change.

Rep. Blumenauer was one of the featured speakers on Thursday. He was introduced by OHSU President Joe Robertson and devoted the bulk of his 20-minute speech to themes around the role of science and research in making strong economies, livable environments and healthy communities.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer addresses STC directors at OHSU’s Waterfront Campus. Photo: Jeff Schilling

Rep. Blumenauer encouraged scientists to communicate the impact of their research to students, the public, and policy makers. People are skeptical about science behind things like climate change because they are confused, he said.

“No one should go to D.C. without spending a couple of hours on the hill,” Rep. Blumenauer said.

At OHSU, faculty and staff are asked to work with Government Relations when contacting federal, state, or local officials.

Another presentation on Thursday centered on the role of the private sector in funding scientific research. Dr. Vesneski from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation said that researchers need to be conversant in both public and private funding. Private funding, which is often meant to complement more traditional approaches to science funding, can provide resources to pursue higher risk projects. Private funding is also playing an increasing role in the era of reduced government funding.

Dr. Pinfold, an executive at Intel, spoke on the role of the private sector in philanthropy. He indicated that private companies are willing to invest in research, but paradoxically, they are hesitant to see innovation which might shift their core business. He added that companies such as Intel must look globally when making research investments.

Co-panelist John C. Wingfield, Ph.D., assistant director for Biological Sciences at NSF, spoke about the importance of educating the next generation of scientists. At least 50 percent of Ph.D. students are looking at non-academic careers, he said. The panel expressed interest in university collaboration with the private sector to help prepare graduate students for careers in industry. There was also great concern for sustained U.S. competitiveness in the global scientific marketplace. Federal investment in science education programs, like those sponsored by the NSF, the panelists agreed, is essential to sustaining a competitive STEM workforce.

Panel members discuss science, technology, and the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration. Photo: Jeff Schilling

On Friday, August 23, members of the National Science Board, the governing board of the NSF, addressed meeting attendees. Mark Abbott Ph.D., a dean at Oregon State University and former NSB member, talked about the importance of technology and commercialization in today’s marketplace. Technology is changing the way we work by allowing us to do things like collect data remotely, he said.

Kelvin Droegemeier, Ph.D., NSB vice-chair and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, shared an anecdote from his university that epitomizes the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma were the first to successfully predict tornados using an innovative model. While this was an enormous leap forward, tornado death rates remain high, indicating there is still a knowledge gap when it comes to evacuating people safely and effectively. Solving this problem will require social scientists in addition to the computer scientists who created the storm-predicting model.

Roger Wakimoto, Ph.D., assistant director for geosciences at NSF, stressed that a team can’t just “add” a social scientist. They need to be involved in the project from the ground up, he said. This type of collaboration is challenging because each field has its own unique language, but many NSF programs are now requiring interdisciplinary collaboration.

Dr. Cerf, an NSB member and vice president at Google, joined the meeting via videoconference. He expressed excitement in using technology to gather and make data more public. Researchers can use tools like Google Earth, for example, to make compelling presentations on how people will be displaced as a result of climate change.

Themes that were consistent throughout the two-day meeting were the importance of interdisciplinary research, improved communication between scientists and policy makers, and openness to new technology. These themes hold relevance, not just for STCs, but for all NSF-funded research.

View more photos from the STC Directors Meeting.

Written by Katie Wilkes and Matthew Van Sickle