Kellina Craig-Henderson, Head of the NSF’s Social Science Directorate, Dies

Social psychologist Kellina “Kelli” M. Craig-Henderson, who headed the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation, has died at age 56. In her 17 years at the NSF, Craig-Henderson was noted for her passion in bringing underrepresented groups into the scientific enterprise and making sure that enterprise served society.

“A common thread of my work and that of the nearly $10 million research investment within NSF’s Science of Broadening Participation program, is a focus on understanding the conditions necessary for inclusion and strategies for expanding opportunity,” she wrote in 2020 when she was the deputy head of the SBE directorate. She added later in the blog post that “it is not only individuals from minority groups that are underrepresented in many of our nation’s labs and classrooms. There are also many minority-serving institutions of higher education that have never been recipients of NSF funding. And yet, those institutions continue to disproportionately educate, train and graduate ethnic minority students; the very students who can help us to strengthen America’s future in STEM.”

While Craig-Henderson recognized the challenges of social change, she remained optimistic.

“It’s easy to feel weary and lose sight of our goals,” she wrote in June when she was named the permanent head of the SBE directorate, “when we see conflict and violence in the headlines and in our social media feeds. What sustains me is the certainty that when we collectively use our training and expertise, we can produce transformative outcomes that serve others. The capacity of science and innovation to benefit society and mitigate crises cannot be overstated.”

The Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) supports fundamental research in behavioral, cognitive, social and economic science. By budget, it is the smallest of the seven research directorates at the foundation, but the quarter billion dollars it allocates in grants annually is the primary source of funding for academic social science basic research in the United States. Sylvia Butterfield, a science educator and long-time executive at NSF, is serving as acting head of the directorate.

“Kelli was an outstanding colleague and an inspirational leader both in her field and at NSF,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the foundation. “Her numerous contributions to our nation have had a profound impact and will continue to live on.”

Craig-Henderson first came to NSF as a program director and human subjects research protections officer in 2005. “Kelli was a wonderful supervisor during my time as Program Officer in [Decision, Risk and Management Sciences Program] @NSF. I learned a tremendous amount from her, including so much about protection of human subjects and the history behind the measures in place,” tweeted economist Mary Rigdon at the University of Arizona. “So very sad.”

In 2012, Craig-Henderson was promoted to deputy director of what was then the SBE division at NSF, and the next year was tasked with heading the NSF’s Tokyo regional office before returning to Washington in 2015 to take the No. 2 position at the now-directorate of SBE.

Just before joining NSF spent six years as a professor of psychology at Howard University, a position she took up having completed a three-month Fulbright-Hays Scholarship on the “Faces of Islam” that took her to Morocco and Senegal.

Before that, she had served in the Psychology Department at the California State University in Long Beach and in the Department of Psychology and Afro-American Studies and Research program at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Her research focused on studies of groups, cross-cultural, gender and race issues, as well as aggression and expatriation processes. Her published work includes two books, Black Men in Interracial Relationships: What’s Love Got to Do with It? and Black Women in Interracial Relationships: In Search of Love and Solace. Her most recent book was a collection of short stories, Plane Tales, described as “a quirky book of stories involving different people, airplanes, and faraway places in foreign countries.”

Craig-Henderson’s education started with studies of chemistry at the Brooklyn Technical High School. Her higher education saw her earn a bachelor’s in psychology/sociology at Wesleyan University, a master’s in social science at the University of Chicago, and a master’s and doctorate in psychology at Tulane University.

In lieu of flowers, her family requests that remembrances be sent to the Amyloidosis Foundation.

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