Cora Marrett will become acting director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) when Subra Suresh steps down on 22 March. And while the temporary elevation of the veteran NSF administrator, now deputy director, comes as no surprise, some former directors are urging the White House to think seriously of giving her the job for real.
Last month, Suresh surprised the scientific community by saying he was leaving NSF after 2.5 years to become president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Friday, he announced that Marrett would be holding the reins until the Senate confirms whoever is named to succeed him.
It's a familiar drill for Marrett, 70, a sociologist and longtime academic administrator. She kept the trains running between the departure of Arden Bement in May 2010 and Suresh's arrival in October, and she has held the deputy director's job since January 2009 (except for a 4-month hiatus in 2011). She previously ran NSF's education programs and, in the 1990s, she headed its social and behavioral sciences directorate.
Low-keyed and soft-spoken, Marrett is very familiar to Washington science insiders. And she gets very high marks from several former NSF directors. "They couldn't do any better than to nominate Cora," says John Slaughter, an engineer who led NSF in the early 1980s. "She's helped to define the agency's programs in several areas, and her background and approach to management are extremely important to the foundation."
Neal Lane, a physicist who headed NSF in the mid-1990s, calls her "smart, dependable, and organized. I'm very high on her." Noting her scientific background, Lane says, "maybe it's time for a social scientist to be NSF director."
Only one deputy, psychologist Richard Atkinson, has ascended to the top job in NSF's 62-year history. And there's no word on when someone will be nominated. The National Science Board, NSF's presidentially appointed oversight body, has sent its thoughts to John Holdren, the president's science adviser, who is expected to play a key role in the selection of the next NSF director. Suresh's announcement notes only, "I have been informed that the process for identifying a successor is underway."