Engineer from ASU Likely New Head of NSF in 2020

Arizona State University electrical engineer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan is the likely nominee to replace France Córdova as director of the National Science Foundation once Córdova’s six-year appointment ends next year. President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Panchanathan on Wednesday.

Assuming Panchanathan is nominated and confirmed, he would become the 15th director of the National Science Foundation, or NSF. The NSF is the largest federal funder of basic social and behavioral research in the U.S., although the directorate within the foundation directly tasked with ‘social, behavioral and economic’ research is among the smaller components there.

This position requires the ability to connect with all stakeholders in the U.S. science and engineering community, walking the fine line between serving and leading,” Córdova was quoted in a release. “Panch has the character and knowledge that make him an ideal fit for the job.”

Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan
Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan

In his day job, Panchanathan leads the knowledge enterprise development at Arizona State. He was appointed to the National Science Board by President Obama in 2014; the 24-member board both advises the federal government on scientific matters and sets the policies that guide the NSF.

Panchanathan studied engineering in India and received a master’s at the Indian Institute of Technology before earning a PhD at the University of Ottawa in 1989. At ASU, he was the founding director of the School of Computing and Informatics, founded its Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing and was instrumental in founding the Biomedical Informatics Department.

“His leadership at Arizona State University,” remarked the head of the National Science Board, Diane L. Souvaine,has been key to their growth and emergence as an innovator in higher education, especially in terms of partnerships and entrepreneurship. He is the best kind of disruptor, one who understands that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Members of the social science community generally welcomed the news, both because of Panchanathan’s virtues and that a successful confirmation means the NSF will not have an acting director in the interim, which tends to reduce its scope of action.

“This is very good news for the science community,” said Juliane Baron, executive director of the Federation fo Associations of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “Dr. Sethuraman ‘Panch’ Panchanathan has been a real asset to the National Science Board and was well received when he testified in the Senate recently. This is great news for NSF and, assuming Senate confirmation, will make for a smooth leadership transition.”

Panchanathan is also a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Society of Optical Engineering. He is currently chair-elect in the Council on Research within the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

While neither he nor Córdova, an astrophysicist, are social or behavioral scientists, both have worked to include robust social science in their remit. Panchanathan’s own research for example, includes human-centered multimedia computing, haptic user interfaces, person-centered tools and ubiquitous computing technologies for individuals with disabilities. (Sociologist Cora Merritt, who preceded Córdova in office, was the last social or behavioral scientist to head NSF.)

He’s also cited an early disappointment with showing him the value of a broad scientific perspective. “I was disappointed when I was unable to get into a premier engineering school of my choice right after I graduated from high school,” he told an NSF interviewer. “However, I decided to make the best of it and pursue a major in physics. Eventually, I found my way back to engineering. The initial disappointment turned into a new opportunity. It not only boosted my self-confidence in being able to tackle problems but also opened my eyes to the possibilities of interdisciplinary learning and research.”

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