New NSF appointee looking to hit the ground running

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There’s been a change in leadership for one of the key scientific leadership posts at the National Science Foundation. Sean Jones was appointed as the new director of NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate last month. He’s been with the agency for more than 10 years, starting as a program manager in 2009. Jones talked with me about what the directorate does, and the direction he hopes to take it.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: Get us started, if you would, by telling us a little bit about the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical sciences itself – what sorts of work is the directorate involved in day-to-day?

Sean Jones: Thank you for that question, Jared. So the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences is the home of five unique divisions, starting with the Division of Chemistry, Division of Materials Research, Physics, Astronomy and Mathematical Sciences. And our directorate really is about fundamental science, and advancing work that scans and the scales of the universe, from fundamental particles all the way to the cosmos. So it’s an exciting directorate for the National Science Foundation.

Jared Serbu: It is the research that y’all work on primarily internal, or are you more of a grant-making organization or a combination of both?

Sean Jones: We are a grant-making organization, and we support the great work at universities and [federally funded research and development centers].

Jared Serbu: Maybe say a little bit about how that selection process works, and how you select candidates for research projects?

Sean Jones: Well, the National Science Foundation used the gold standard peer review method, where academic researchers submit their great ideas and we have the peer community really review them for transformative science, not only intellectual merit, but also in broader impacts.

Jared Serbu: And did you know those candidates need to have any particular impact in any particular area? Are you looking forward benefits to particular sectors of the economy or to the federal government itself, or just really trying to advance the state of knowledge and in basic scientific fields?

Sean Jones: So broader impacts is really meant to be broad, in the sense that we want to see impact in a wide range of different spheres and areas. And so researchers can really talk about the broader impacts on technology, the broader impacts on advancing the scientific field, as well as broader impacts where it may enhance or engage the education and outreach activities in their local areas.

Jared Serbu: And as you come in to lead this directorate, any particular vision that you have to move the organization forward, what do you want to do here?

Sean Jones: Yeah, well, I think there’s three pivotal points here that I’m trying to really focus our directorate on and that’s really supporting the boldest possible science going forward, increasing our partnerships, and that’s with our federal agencies, as well as with industry partners, and also an increased commitment for more inclusive access.

Jared Serbu: Say a little bit more about what you mean by more inclusive access.

Sean Jones: Yeah, so when we look at the science and technology enterprise, we look at the United States, we really want to increase the access for all those who are interested in being a part of this great research endeavor. So we’re looking at increasing access for those who want to go into STEM fields, and also increase access to all the resources that our directorate really provides to advance the research enterprise itself.

Jared Serbu: And do you see yourself as having a role in encouraging people at young ages to enter STEM fields in the first place?

Sean Jones: Sure. So the National Science Foundation through this broader impact that we were talking about before, a lot of our awardees really do a lot in outreach, and a lot in integrating education within their research plans. And many of those activities really do go to inspire the next generation of those who are interested in STEM, and in science.

Jared Serbu: As you think about the broad portfolio that you work in, in the directorate in the mathematical and physical sciences, are there any super interesting research questions that come to mind that you think people would be interested to hear that are being worked on?

Sean Jones: Wow, well, there’s so many exciting research questions. But I really have to look at what the administration’s been calling the industries of the future and some of the work we’ve been doing pushing artificial intelligence, but also quantum information science – some really fascinating work and research that’s going on there. And then a lot of work going on with our – major research facilities in physics and astronomy, really just given us a deeper appreciation and view as to how the cosmos is actually, has been built and is being developed.

Jared Serbu: Wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you coordinate with other federal entities who are also involved in federal – who are also involved in R&D, S&T work? I’m thinking of the Department of Defense, for example, which also has equities and trying to promote basic research.

Sean Jones: Sure, so we actually do work closely with our federal entities and partners. We work on interagency groups where we advance grand challenges and larger visions through the administration priorities. But we also collaborate on research programs and making sure that we find the best science for the nation through our various programs. We actually partner, when it comes to our major facilities and very large infrastructure projects, where it’s a little more expensive than one particular agency could afford, or the science itself is more appropriate for one agency to take the lead on. And we actually collaborate in many of these large projects.

Jared Serbu: That’s Sean Jones, the newly appointed director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation. Subscribe to the Federal Drive on Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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