Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.


First Person: “Life as a NSF Program Director”

August 24th, 2011 / in resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

Doug Fisher, Vanderbilt UniversityThe following is a special contribution to this blog by Doug Fisher, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Computer Engineering at Vanderbilt University. From July 2007 to August 2010, Doug served as a Program Director in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS) within NSF’s CISE Directorate. He has agreed to describe something of his life as a NSF PD so that others can judge whether it might be something they would like to try. To contact him, e-mail douglas.h.fisher@vanderbilt.edu.

In November 2006, I received a call from a colleague suggesting I apply for a PD opening at NSF. Prior to his call, I had determined to reorient my research in machine learning towards environmental applications. It didn’t take long to decide that NSF would be much more a retooling for, rather than a distraction from, this new direction.

The following March I gave my first job talk in 20 years. The talk included a retrospective of my research, teaching and professional service, but I was instructed that my work be a minority focus; I was to reflect on the works of others, attempting to express themes in, and visions for, my research and education community. I learned early that synthesis was highly valued at NSF. My themes included evolutionary specialization and competition as metaphors for incremental and transformative research agenda; my visions included the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change, as well as the integration of ethics and contemporary issues into technical courses.

It didn’t take long to decide that NSF would be much more a retooling for, rather than a distraction from, this new direction.

I received an offer. I took leave from Vanderbilt University and worked at NSF under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (“as an IPA”) — i.e., NSF made an award to Vanderbilt for 100% of my time. This elegant mechanism allowed me to retain my salary and benefits through my university. In addition, I was given a living allowance by NSF, which just covered an unfurnished, one-bedroom apartment one block from NSF. I would joke that my vertical (elevator) commute was greater than my horizontal commute. I was on a one-year contract, renewable yearly as Vanderbilt and NSF allowed, for no more than 4 years.

‘Eyes on the prize’

A NSF PD, a ‘rotator’ like me or a permanent Federal employee, is working for the advancement of science and for the United States — this ‘eyes on the prize’ is sustaining through very long hours. Part of the ‘prize’ can also start as an individual vision. My Division Director (DD) told me that, as a rotating PD, I could change the ways that things are done, though the changes might not be manifest until after I had left NSF! However, occasionally change occurs more quickly — one program grew from the compelling vision that a PD colleague expressed in her recruiting talk.

While my passions were for environmental applications of computing, I learned of, bought into and contributed to the visions of others, in areas that included international collaboration, interdisciplinary research in biology and computing, creativity and computing, and social computational systems. Through negotiation and consensus building, both vertically and laterally, individual interests can grow into proposal solicitations and programs. Importantly, these interests are tempered, if not driven by a strong ‘bottom-up’ research community influence — hypothetically, for example, PDs might notice an influx of research that intersects computer vision and human perception, which can lead to a new program a couple of years later. Such ‘serendipity’ is common at an agency like NSF, housed in a single building, with representatives of all scientific and engineering disciplines.

…’serendipity’ is common at an agency like NSF, housed in a single building, with representatives of all scientific and engineering disciplines.

Day-to-day responsibilities of a Program Director

A core responsibility of a PD is the vetting of research proposals — clustering proposals into overlapping topic areas and panels, recruiting panelists and other reviewers, overseeing the review panels, and making funding recommendations. This latter task is typically more complex than simply passing on the recommendations of a panel, though these recommendations are the most important single factor a PD considers. A PD must make assessments across panels; in my case, these would typically be panels in areas such as planning, scheduling and search; machine learning; multi-agent systems; and knowledge representation. The PDs of a larger programmatic unit, in my case Robust Intelligence (RI), then come to joint recommendations across all the program’s areas — for RI these were robotics, natural language technologies, computer vision, computational neuroscience and other areas of AI that I covered. Attention to factors such as research area balance, both for the current year and recent years, play a role in addition to panel recommendations. What sympathy I have for current Federal budget woes stems from my experience at NSF trying to reach consensus with other PDs over funding recommendations under tight budget constraints. After reaching agreement, PDs write up the recommendations as ‘review analyses’, which justify the expenditure (or not) of public funds for proposals.

PDs spend a good deal of time talking with researchers. There is no greater treat than emailing investigators with news that I (RI) was considering recommending their proposals for awards — the follow-up talks on budgets and award specifics were very pleasant. Investigators also contact PDs to describe research ideas, wondering where they fit into NSF programs. This usually happens by email and phone, but NSF welcomes investigators to come to its offices with an appointment. Initially, talks with investigators of declined proposals were difficult, but it’s safe to say that these discussions changed me most and I quickly grew to appreciate them. I would often reflect with investigators on the main messages of their proposals’ reviews to better inform possible revisions and resubmissions.

PDs spend a good deal of time talking with researchers.

Early in my time as a PD I realized that I could not recommend funding for nearly all proposals that were worthy of funding. This was a source of genuine dismay; it’s an irony to me that I felt more empathy for investigators because I stood on the other side of the fence from them in these conversations, and of course because I had stood where they were, too (and would again). Tough decisions often resulted in small but significant points of pride as well — I recall one such instance when four PDs came together, pooling their very limited discretionary resources, to ‘save’ an excellent proposal that would not have otherwise been funded. One remembers these small victories. My experiences are also translating to civic action now that I have left NSF. In particular, I am writing my congressional representatives on the under-funding of science and other issues — something I hadn’t done before (and I don’t recall it having occurred to me to do before).

Within a few months of getting to NSF I was running panels. I felt some responsibility that panelists’ lives were significantly disrupted because of travel, particularly those coming from a great distance and/or with family and professional responsibilities — empathy again. I also found it hard to recruit panelists from among some groups, such as parents of young children, who may well constitute segments of the population weighting the broader impacts of computing more heavily than the rest! Generally, I was encouraged to innovate for the good of the organization, and I chose to pursue remote (‘virtual’) panel participation on a large scale as one such innovation. With few exceptions I gave panelists a choice of whether to come to NSF for a panel or to participate remotely. Some panels were exclusively composed of remote panelists, and I ran two such panels from my Vanderbilt office. That said, one of the few NSF activities that I would characterize as ‘fun’ was dinner out with panelists who physically came to NSF; informal time with panelists after hours is a real social and intellectual perk. There is much I have said elsewhere on panelist choice to travel or ‘phone in’ relative to ecological footprints, broadening participation, panelist wear and tear, and other factors. Suffice it to say here that I am satisfied that I helped sprout a seed through this experience — aware of my DD’s cautious encouragement that changes might not manifest while I was there.

…informal time with panelists after hours is a real social and intellectual perk.

PDs are responsible for post-award oversight as well, through annual and final reports, and site visits — typically the PD recruits the site visit team. In addition to vetting and oversight duties in a core area like RI, most PDs also participate in like roles for cross-cutting programs, which span two or more of NSF’s programmatic units. For example, I participated in various roles in Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES), Social Computational Systems (SoCS), and Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI), and I served as the cognizant program officer for a large Science of Learning Center (SLC). I gained a greater appreciation for the place of AI (and computing broadly) in a larger scientific and societal landscape, in large part because of my participation in cross-cutting programs. I know that other IPAs similarly walk away with a broader appreciation of their chosen fields.

I gained a greater appreciation for the place of AI (and computing broadly) in a larger scientific and societal landscape, in large part because of my participation in cross-cutting programs.

To stay up on the latest research developments and to gauge community interests, PDs are expected to attend conferences and other meetings in their respective fields — and they have a travel budget to do so. As a machine learning person who oversaw other areas of AI such as planning and knowledge representation, I would attend a broad range of talks at a conference to learn more about my areas of coverage. I would be invited to some meetings to give talks, typically on NSF programs. Ideally, after each professional meeting PDs prepare and circulate, by email or an internal wiki/blog, a conference report for the benefit of NSF colleagues.

Representing the United States

Sometimes I would represent NSF and the United States at international meetings; this was an honor and a pleasure. My first such meeting was on information technology and the environment, convened in May 2008 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Copenhagen. I entered a large hall; around a huge rectangular arrangement of tables with country placards for the many delegations, I saw “United States” at one chair; I asked an OECD organizer, “Who sits here?” and he replied, “You do!” Over the next few days the moderators would call upon me as “United States” and before calling for their attention I reflected more carefully on what I was about to say than I had ever done before. I still appreciate my superiors’ insistence that I attend that OECD meeting, in spite of a heavy crunch at the home office, because the meeting led to subsequent interactions with the U.S. Departments of State and Energy, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various non-profit organizations. In 2008 I was the sole member of the U.S. delegation; at the 2009 OECD conference on the same topic, again in Copenhagen, there were representatives from the State and Commerce Departments, as well as the CISE Assistant Director and myself.

I entered a large hall; around a huge rectangular arrangement of tables with country placards for the many delegations, I saw “United States” at one chair; I asked an … organizer, “Who sits here?” and he replied, “You do!” Over the next few days the moderators would call upon me as “United States”…

I also spoke at meetings of the European Union and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, with accompanying visits to research labs. At all of these meetings I was the recipient of substantial good will because of my affiliation with NSF, which is respected and emulated the world over. That was a wonderful feeling.

Walking the Mall and other experiences of Washington, DC

Living close to Washington, DC, was a big plus of my time at NSF. I include in this benefit the work-related activities of attending Congressional staff briefings, talks and workshops at the National Academies, and the like, but visiting the many monuments, museums, parks and other sites of DC during my off-times are among those activities I miss most from my 3+ years at NSF. I lived a block from the Ballston Metro station, and the National Mall and the rest of Washington, DC, was an easy 20-minute train ride — no automobile needed. Early on I vowed not to be one of those IPAs who never saw DC because I could so easily visit it any time. I visited DC 2-3 weekend days a month. Perhaps because fine art was not a strong presence in my upbringing, my favorite place to visit was the West building of the National Galleries of Art; the Portrait Gallery was a close second. My wife became friends with others who regularly attended public Senate hearings. On a nice day I enjoyed walking up the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial, then visiting the Vietnam and Korean Memorials, all the way to Grant’s statue below the Capitol Building. The Library of Congress is lovely — I could go on and on.

“Service to Country, Science, Planet”

It should be clear that a PD’s job is jam-packed — I worked longer hours as a NSF PD than I have ever worked before. There is, however, variation across IPA experiences depending on an IPA’s life circumstances and an IPA’s prioritization of free variables like the extent to which an IPA wants to engage in international and cross-cutting activities. IPAs’ Independent Research and Development (IRD) activities also vary. IRD allows an IPA to continue research for up to 50 working days a year while at NSF, subject to approvals — these approved IRD activities count as official government duty. Some IPAs take an IRD day weekly (e.g., Friday), traveling to their home institution on Thursday nights and returning to NSF Sunday nights. I clumped my IRD, traveling to Vanderbilt about 8 times per year, and occasionally taking a single IRD day at Vanderbilt’s offices in Washington, DC. Conference participation can also be part of an IRD plan. IRD travel to one’s home institution or conference is covered as official travel. Telework is another mechanism that gives IPAs and permanent staff flexibility in performing NSF duties while on travel or at home; for example, the two all-remote panels that I moderated from my Vanderbilt office were done on telework.

IRD allows an IPA to continue research for up to 50 working days a year while at NSF, subject to approvals — these approved IRD activities count as official government duty.

In sum, being a NSF PD was richly rewarding, changing my approach to research, education and citizenship. There is no single stereotype of a NSF IPA, but I would guess that to be happy, or at least rewarded as an IPA, one would have a significant interest in broader impacts of science, skills at and motivation for synthesis, and a desire to learn from tightly-coupled social interactions that faculty are often not practiced at — with NSF colleagues, researchers, as well as others in government. Learning the “inside story” on funding is a benefit, but for purposes of improved grantsmanship, I think it’s very over-rated and probably not a motivation that would sustain a person for long through the challenges of being a NSF PD. Rather, the chief sustenance comes from a dedicated team of colleagues and service to country, science, planet and the people of those constituencies.

First Person: “Life as a NSF Program Director”
  • A thoughtful and informative summary.  Thanks for your service to the community.

  • Mike Gorman

    Doug: I like your account of the PD experience, particularly your implicit answer to the question I got frequently when I was a PD–‘are you having fun’?  You enjoyed talking to panelists, other PDs, being in DC area.  I liked the job when I added value–but much of the time, I was just a bureaucrat, trying to get digital forms through the system to get things funded, do my travel, etc. 

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  • Doug_Fisher

    I agree, Mike — a tolerance for bureaucracy is important, though I never found travel, in particular, any more a hassle than filing a claim through my university. On other issues, like conflicts of interest, I actually had a respect for the processes — I think other sectors of our society and government would benefit from the processes followed by NSF. 

    I found this description from Mary Chamberlin, a past PD in BIO; her observations jibe with mine. She also highlights the tensions that can arise when an academic goes into a (hierarchical) government agency, but also highlights the advantages for the organization — not simply that academics bring in fresh thinking on science, but she alludes to another function, perhaps underutilized, that rotators can have important things to say about the processes that are followed.

    http://www.the-aps.org/publications/tphys/2011html/June/chamberlin.htm 

    Also, while its absolutely true that rotators bring in the latest knowledge of their respective sciences, though sometimes stove-piped, this doesn’t mean that the permanents don’t bring such knowledge to bear — they do, and often with a broader perspective that stems from their continual interactions across disciplines.

    Yes, and I frequently got the ‘fun’ question too — I would generally smile, and respond that it was rewarding, sometimes very interesting and I was glad I was doing it, but ‘fun’ was rarely the right descriptor

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  • Doug_Fisher

    Since this post, I have blogged about NSF’s Broader Impacts criteria, to include perspective stemming from my experience as a Program erector at NSF: http://science-and-government.blogspot.com/2013/11/nsfs-broader-impacts-criteria.html