Familiarity can breed contempt. But for Cora Marrett, chief academic officer for the University of Wisconsin system, the opportunity to return as a senior manager at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) proved irresistible.
Yesterday, NSF named the 64-year-old sociologist as the next director of its beleaguered education and human resources (EHR) directorate, ending a 2-year search for a successor to Judith Ramaley. It's a homecoming of sorts for Marrett, who served 4 years as head of the foundation's social and behavioral sciences program in the 1990s and is believed to be the first person to head two of NSF's research directorates.
"I think it's a great choice," says Rice University physicist Neal Lane, her former boss at NSF. "She knows the issues, and she knows NSF."
Marrett takes on a tall order. The directorate has seen its budget slide from $939 million to $796 million in the past 2 years, and it plays second fiddle to the Department of Education in the training component of the American Competitiveness Initiative that President George W. Bush proposed in the 2007 budget now pending before Congress. The directorate was recently reorganized under its acting director, Donald Thompson, who stepped down last month after 18 months at the helm, and several of its division directors are serving on a temporary basis (Science, 24 February, p. 1092).
Marrett says that she hopes to boost EHR's budget, using the public's heightened interest in science education as a lever, and increase collaborations with the rest of the foundation, other federal agencies, and the nonprofit sector. Although she says she doesn't come with an agenda, NSF Director Arden Bement hopes that she'll tackle the problem of low retention and graduation rates for undergraduates entering college with plans to major in science, as well as strengthening NSF's ties to the public schools and community colleges from which those students come. "We need those interfaces to be seamless," he says.
Marrett expects to join NSF in February, on a temporary 2-year assignment that could be extended for up to 4 years. She will remain a tenured faculty member at its flagship Madison campus, where she began teaching in 1974.