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Exclusive: Obama’s Nominee for NSF Director Explains Why She Said Yes

1 August 2013 4:30 pm
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Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger

NSF-bound. France Córdova, after being selected as president of Purdue University in 2007.

For France Córdova, the current grim budget situation in Washington was no reason to decline a job offer as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). She figures that she has grappled with equally severe fiscal crises as president of two research universities—University of California (UC), Riverside, and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana—and still managed to move those institutions forward.

President Barack Obama yesterday nominated Córdova, a 65-year-old astrophysicist, to become the second woman, and first Latina, to lead the $7 billion agency. And today, in an exclusive interview with ScienceInsider, she was refreshingly candid about why she decided to add another chapter to her illustrious career as an academic scientist, university administrator, and public servant.

“Did I have any qualms when I was offered the job? One has qualms when you get up in the morning or when you get into your car and there’s a storm brewing,” she laughs. “But this is a good time for me.

“I’ve had the opportunity to lead a couple of wonderful universities. I’ve had a chance to do some exciting research, and I can look up in the sky at night and see XMM [the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission, launched in 1999] go by overhead and know that I’ve got my fingerprints, literally, on an experiment there. And I’m at a point in my life where I can say yes to this opportunity. …

“As for the current situation in Washington, every time I’ve had a leadership position there have been big budget concerns. At Riverside, we had huge cuts from the state. At Purdue, we had to regroup after the global recession and do all sorts of restructuring. That’s just part of being a leader. It would be just great if you were handed pots of money and you could put it everywhere.

 “There are always constraints, and money is usually a big one,” she adds. “Even so, there are still a lot of resources available at NSF and across the government. Would I like to see the federal investment in research grow? Absolutely, because it’s essential to our future as a country. … But I’m not worried about navigating budget constraints. It’s part of every job.”

Science community leaders are hailing her nomination to succeed Subra Suresh, who left this spring to become president of Carnegie Mellon University. And unlike Suresh, who as head of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was relatively unknown in Washington policy circles, Córdova is a familiar entity.

“I’m trying to think if there has ever been an NSF director with more impressive credentials,” says M. R. C. Greenwood, retiring president of the University of Hawaii and a top science official during the Clinton administration, in which Córdova served as chief scientist at NASA. Córdova left that job in 1996 to be vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara, followed by 5-year stints leading UC Riverside and Purdue, where she remains on the faculty.

For the past 18 months, Córdova has been chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, a part-time position that she will be forced to relinquish should—and the only real question is when, not if—she be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. She’ll also have to give up her seat on the National Science Board, the presidentially appointed body that sets policy for NSF, although the director is an ex-officio board member.

Córdova came to science relatively late because, as she explains, “I simply wasn’t exposed to science as a child.” The oldest of 12 children, she says her parents were very supportive of whatever interested her but that they were successful business people, not academics. The Catholic high school that she attended in southern California “didn’t even offer science to girls.” Even so, she and four girl friends “asked to take physics” and convinced school administrators to let them join the science classes being offered to the boys.

As a freshman at Stanford University, Córdova took an astronomy class “and I loved it.” But when she signed up for physics, “the class was completely male, and the manner of presentation left something to be desired.” That negative experience pushed her in another direction. “I had always loved the humanities and the arts, and I took a lot of anthropology, too,” she says. She wound up majoring in English.

Looking to broaden her horizons after graduation, she signed up for a summer program in Boston. In search of an internship, she walked into the Center for Space Research at MIT and offered to work for free. They wound up offering her a job.

“No, I didn’t have any training,” she admits. “But they needed someone to do some rote things for their balloon flights. Walter Lewin was also doing a big review of x-ray astronomy, which was a brand-new field at the time. And he thought that, being an English major, I’d be a good person to edit what he had written.”

At the end of the summer, however, she turned down MIT’s offer to remain as a “graduate student at large” and returned home. But she had been bitten by the space bug—she had seen Neil Armstrong walk on the moon that summer and was captivated by a Nova television program on neutron stars.

Pursuing that newfound interest in space science, she used her contacts to worm her way into Caltech. After doing well in some graduate courses, the physics department admitted her into its doctoral program, and she earned her degree in 1979. “I was fresh to the subject, and had some wonderful professors,” she recalls. “And that’s how I got into the field.”

Córdova’s career is littered with “firsts,” including NASA’s first female chief scientist and Purdue’s first woman president. But she doesn’t see herself as a role model for women. “My passion is more with trying to ensure that women know there are great opportunities for them in science,” she says. “And if I have an opportunity to make an impact, and to inspire others, then that’s OK, too.”

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