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France Córdova: Understanding the nature of things

Director of the National Science Foundation talks about the importance of funding basic science and evaluates the contribution to society made by the social sciences

It was American astronaut Neil Armstrong, on his historic trip to the moon in July 1969, who inspired the young France Córdova, at 21 years of age, to radically change the path of her professional career. The feat rekindled her former interest for astronomy just when she was graduating in English literature from Stanford University in the United States—the male-dominated academic world had discouraged her from studying physics. After working as a writer and reviser, including an article for the Los Angeles Times, Córdova finished her doctorate in astrophysics in 1979 at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena.

Over four decades, she assumed various leadership roles, such as chief scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—being the first woman and the youngest to hold this position, between 1993 and 1996—chancellor of the University of California in Riverside in 2002, and president of Purdue University in 2007. In 2014, President Barack Obama assigned her to run the National Science Foundation (NSF), the primary support agency for basic research in the United States, with a budget over US$8 billion, which is equivalent to approximately R$32 billion. Under her leadership, one of the projects the agency funded was the project Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), which detected gravitational waves in 2015, earning a Nobel Prize two years later for the three American physicists who led the study.

Born in Paris in 1947, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Mexican father, France Córdova was in São Paulo from May 1st through 3rd to participate in the 8th Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC), which brought together the leaders of research support agencies from 45 countries. During an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, she spoke about gender equality in science and the impact of basic research on society, and commented on the goals of Plan S, an initiative launched by the European Commission for open-access scientific publishing.

You were the chief scientist at NASA and you currently lead a funding agency with one of the largest budgets in the world. In what way does the NSF support programs to foster the participation of women in science?
Gender equality is a significant concern and we have various initiatives in progress. In many areas, including mine, physics, female representation is still very low, as well as in engineering and mathematics. The problem is not as significant for biological and social sciences. We could say that, in the United States, the context is steadily changing, but slowly. The NSF has a program called Advance, which invests in systemic approaches to increase the participation and promotion of women in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM]. The goal is to encourage women to seek out leadership positions at universities. I was a lead researcher in this program when I was the head of Purdue University. When I moved to the NSF, the program Includes [the name represents “inclusion of communities of explorer apprentices underrepresented in engineering and science throughout the USA”], which involves more than 70 pilot projects throughout the country with different strategies to increase the representation of women and other minorities.

What is the goal of Includes?
It comprises everything from computer programs for children to strategies for increasing the number of faculties and disciplines in strategic areas. Some of these initiatives are led by community groups, others by universities, foundations, and scientific associations. We created a network for these projects to communicate with each other. Recently, we provided funding so that the participants could meet, share experiences, and learn best practices from each other. We hope that this will facilitate economies of scale for these initiatives so that they do not cease to exist when the project comes to an end. We would like to discover how to create projects that, in fact, become examples of best practice such that they are replicated in many other places.

A good part of our portfolio is comprised of research projects motivated by curiosity and we have no idea what discoveries will arise from them

What obstacles have you had to face in order to reach positions of leadership?
I believe that all of us have challenges and it does not matter who you are or what work you do. A truck driver, for example, can face many setbacks when traveling from one part of the country to another. There are always obstacles. But, apparently, women in the area of science and technology face a unique set of challenges. When she is a truck driver, she learns from her colleagues what places she should not stop, what roads to take, what the best technology is to escape traffic. She learns through experimenting with the roads and meeting people who are willing and able to provide good advice. It is possible to try new things: go around the obstacle or try to go through it. I have had many challenges along the way. Sometimes I have found people who cling to their positions of power. But there is always someone who can help you and it is critical to accept this help.

The GRC meeting this year discussed ways of assessing the economic and social impact of science. How can this be done with respect to basic research?
We do not have to guess the impact that basic research will have in 10 or 100 years because, in the case of research motivated by curiosity, it is difficult to know what the outcome will be. But we need to show why a research project is important for people. Close to 50% of the proposals we receive talk about impact, such as increasing the representation of women or people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Or they present a strategy for training the next generation. However, we are interested in knowing the impact that the research could have in a much shorter period of time. All of the proposals sent to the NSF must include a plan that indicates how the data will be preserved and generated, and at the same time, regarding impact, it must include schools and seek to reach the public. Astronomers, for example, created the well-known star parties that invite the population to watch the night sky.

Public funding of research in the area of social sciences, such as sociology and philosophy, continues to be questioned in many countries, including the United States and Brazil. How do we show impact in these areas?
The NSF does not fund projects in philosophy, but we support studies of economics and social behavior. In the area of economics, we have already funded research projects that have won a Nobel Prize. One project, which we entrusted to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States, identified a series of cases that proved how research in social behavior has worked in collaboration with disciplines, such as computer science, helping them to interpret, for example, why there are internet users who engage in abuse or fraud. Thus we can understand that people do not always use technology in the most appropriate manner. This raises a social question, not a technological one. Many projects about cyber safety funded by the NSF involve experts in social behavior. There are studies that claim that more than half of deaths caused by natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, occur because victims did not know how to make the best decisions at the moment in order to escape danger. We fund researchers to develop methods to support people to correctly respond to disaster alerts and this requires understanding of human behavior.

There is also a degree of interdisciplinary collaboration among the studies of artificial intelligence, correct?
Yes, and the field of social behavior has proven to be essential in the development of new algorithms. Large companies, such as Amazon, are concerned about identifying and correcting discriminatory biases that are embedded in artificial intelligence algorithms. We are responding to requests by partnering with the company to fund projects that bring together computer science experts and specialists in social behavior to find solutions.

In your opinion, is this a good time to be doing science, considering there are people in positions of power who downplay climate change and the antiscientific movements, such as flat earth theory, are gaining followers?
Yes. The more antiscientific elements appear, the more we need to ramp up science. We are not a regulatory agency. We do not establish rules about what to do with science and we do not develop public policy. The NSF is a funding agency for research and it is the best way to debunk myths and understand the true nature of things by funding research focused on how the planet works.

People do not always use technology in the most appropriate ways and this is a social issue, not a technological one

One of the topics discussed at the GRC meeting was the question of open access to scientific publishing. What is the NSF’s position on Plan S, which proposes that articles funded by public resources be communicated immediately via the web?
At this time, we are following an open-access policy established in 2016 under the former administration. This does not mean that we cannot make changes in the future. Today, the NSF establishes that articles resulting from projects funded by the agency be made available through open access one year following their publication. This is the official position of the NSF right now. Open access is an important issue and we are discussing it, but we do not yet have an official position related to Plan S.

The United States government is proposing a 12% cut in the NSF budget, but the House of Representatives has made a counter proposal, suggesting a 7% increase in grants to the agency in relation to last year. What is your expectation around this?
Congress has guaranteed the NSF budget in recent years. But, for now, we are waiting on a final decision. It is not yet clear if Congress and the White House will be able to reach an agreement about expenditures in 2020 before the start of the next fiscal year, October 1, 2019. We are grateful for the money we have received and we always inform Congress about what we have done with the funds we have received.

What could happen if the cutback is approved?
If it is approved, clearly there will have to be cutbacks in NSF activities. We always aim to be more efficient and effective. We are establishing partnerships with companies, such as Amazon and Boeing, for example, as a means to expand our resource base. Often the private sector is capable of doing things that public funding cannot. Private companies and foundations can offer awards to researchers or promote competitions. Government and industry must work together and public-private partnerships should be further explored. Profit should not be the only goal, but also to advance certain areas of research that are important to the country. But this does not substitute public funding—it is only part of our portfolio. Companies seek short-term returns and must ensure profits and satisfy the needs of shareholders. In our case, many of our shareholders have not even been born yet. They are our grandchildren and great grandchildren who will benefit from the research we are funding and leading today. A good part of our portfolio is comprised of research projects motivated by curiosity and we have no idea what discoveries will arise from them or how much time it will take to benefit from the results.

What is your assessment of the GRC meeting that took place in São Paulo?
I have learned a lot with the GRC. This is the sixth meeting I have participated in and I always make new friends. At each meeting, we choose different topics to discuss. What the GRC does best is bring together research funders to talk about the challenges we share in common and what solutions work well. It is very interesting to take this knowledge back home and talk about how to apply it.

How could the discussions that took place at the event help the agencies better do their work?
I asked the members of the governing board how their agencies had benefited and they said that the discussions of the GRC enabled them to leverage the initiatives they develop in their respective countries. When the participants get together and reach agreements about certain principles, as they did again this year in relation to the assessment of research impact, this truly makes a difference. The GRC has working groups focused on specific issues, such as gender equality in science and open access. There is no other organization capable of bringing together the key funding agencies in the world around such issues. The advancement of science depends on funding and the agencies need to be able to demonstrate the benefits of research to the people who offer the resources.