When I got asked to be on the Advisory Committee (AC) for the Biological Sciences at NSF, I said yes. I supposed this was an important thing to do. I have been trying to say no and preserve time for my own interests and those of my group, but am vigilant to opportunities where I feel I might make a difference.
I didn’t know exactly what being on the AC would entail, and will not look up the email that enticed me. I’m not sure how far this open meeting thing extends. But what NSF does is give out money for research, education, and for broadening the reach of science in America, all things that are important. Would we be asked to weigh in on what gets what percentage of the money?
One might think so because the top of page one in the orientation materials tells about that money, all seven billion dollars of it. There if you can read this, you can see what we have to play with. Keep reading through this report, likely available on the page for the AC.
There is a lot of other interesting stuff in the orientation booklet. There is also some other stuff we were given. I tried to read it before I came, but I kept looking for what we were supposed to do with the information and did not find that, so stopped reading. After all, I have plenty of other things I have to take action on every day. I figured we would learn this at the meeting.
We got a schedule which basically consisted of talks followed by discussion. To talk, our leader, Kay Gross, had us turn our name cards on end. She did an amazing job of calling on people in order and it meant that while you were waiting for your turn you did not have to fret or waive your hand, or interrupt. But the problem was that we couldn’t really have a discussion with 30 people at the table. For example, one person said that he had a hard time figuring out how to get minority undergraduates in his research laboratory. That is something I know how to do, but I didn’t tilt my card. After all, it would be 5 or 10 people before I would be called on, and the discussion would have moved on.
The whole day went like this, very interesting talks about important subjects, like is there a shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or not? Michael Teitelbaum thought not, at least not overall. I’m going to believe him because he was Science’s Person of the Year in 2013 and published this in the Atlantic. He also wrote an important book on whether the US is Falling behind in science. It was exciting to hear him, to have him seated only a few seats away, someone I had only before talked to on the phone, back when I was involved on the NSF/Sloan molecular evolution panels. It makes me really happy when such amazing, famous people are so nice.
Still, I’m confused. I guess I expected a really clear set of concrete tasks. I expected maybe we could ourselves decide what we do. They gave us the AC Charter. It says we are established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, FACA. We are “To provide advice and recommendations to the National Science Foundation concerning support for research, education, and human resources in the biological sciences.” There is some more detail that includes advising on program management, overall program balance, and some other stuff. We cost about $100,000 a year, of which 40K is for NSF staff support cost. We meet twice a year. We report to the Assistant Director of the Biological Sciences Directorate.
All that makes sense and seems consistent with what I figured was our charge. But I was still puzzled that this did not seem to be what we were doing. But then there is Item 8 on our list, the Designated Federal Officer (DFO). This person is an NSF employee who will be the DFO. This person can approve or call the meetings, prepare and approve meeting agendas, attend the meetings, and “adjourn any meeting when the DFO determines adjournment to be in the public interest.” This seems bizarre to me. I guess I just assumed that part of an advisory committee would be a certain degree of independence. After all, they are free to ignore what we say, so why can’t we organize ourselves?
It isn’t like there aren’t other committees at NSF that are free to act quite independently. The Committee of Visitors, for example can ask for anything they want and try hard to understand the operations and fairness of a program. I was on one once for DEB (can’t get away from acronyms if it is the federal government, I give up). I tried so hard to find bias, asked for all kinds of things, and was really delighted with the depth of fairness I found.
It isn’t that the DFO isn’t a nice person, or doesn’t want the same things we want, the best for the research and education future of the country. It’s just it seems an odd way to do things. Maybe I’ll understand it better tomorrow. Or maybe they will decide I’m not the kind of person likely to be effective on this committee.
Another way to understand how this committee works is to look at the minutes from the last meeting, before I joined. It met in March, in this same room. Someone took minutes, which we approved today. These minutes give the flow of the meeting, introductions, items. The first item is the Bio budget. It was presented. The committee discussed it, according to the notes, nothing substantive. Then they went on to a CoV report. The committee discussed it and approved it. Basically all the rest of the minutes go on this way, with presentations followed by discussions. Occasionally the AC had a more meaty discussion, as when they were enthusiastic about GoLife. Well, there was really a few more substantive comments, but I’m not going to go into them here.
This is unlike any other advisory committee I’ve been on, but it is late, so I’ll save my thoughts on what an advisory committee should do for another time.