Indian American scientist and innovator Sethuram ‘Panch’ Panchanathan was sworn in July 2 as the new director of the National Science Foundation.
The Chennai-born Panchanathan, who served on NSF’s National Science Board during the Obama Administration, was virtually sworn in by White House Office of Science and Technology director Kelvin Droegemeier, whom he precedes at the NSF. President Donald Trump appointed Panchanathan to the role, and he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate June 3.
A short while after he was sworn in, Panchanathan sat down for a wide-ranging interview with India-West, discussing how he developed his passion for science, the NSF’s role in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic — the agency has already apportioned $110 million to fund 800 COVID-related projects — and his vision of creating a pipeline of young innovators who can meet the challenges of emerging technologies and science.
Here is the interview, condensed and edited for clarity.
India-West: What are your priorities for your new role? I know that it's a little bit early to ask but you you've been with NSF in several capacities over the years. So I imagine you do have priorities.
Panchanathan: At the outset I'd layer three pillars of things that we would like to accomplish. One is advancing the frontiers of future research.
The other is improving access and enhancing access to talent. There's a tremendous amount of talent across the socio-economic demographic. So, how do you bring out the unbelievable talent that is inherent in the nation, at all levels?
The third piece is global science leadership.
The framing of all of that is the most recent National Science Board “2030 Vision” document which lays out a sort of framework for the next 10 years of what we might do as a nation in science and technology, but also what NSF can do to advance the future aspirations of the nation. (https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2020/nsb202015.pdf)
As you know, NSF is a very well-run agency and is doing on phenomenal things already, so when I get in there, I will have a tremendous platform to build from. We have bipartisan support for science and technology and the understanding that the future of science and technology is important and integrally tied to the future of the nation and its economic prosperity, as well as societal advancement. Therefore, it's not difficult to imagine there are things that you can do even in these difficult times because it is difficult times that prompt us to think about science even more.
India-West: And how confident are you that this current Administration will allow you to you play out your priorities?
Panchanathan: One of the things that I want to emphasize and underscore is that this Administration is extremely supportive. At the end of the day, the evidence speaks for itself. I look at the industries of the future. It's about artificial intelligence, quantum computing, synthetic biology, and 5G and beyond. It's about advanced manufacturing and robotics and automation and the future of computing.
The current Administration believes that NSF can be a huge player in terms of moving these initiatives into the future. I have all the support that I would ever want in terms of moving this agenda forward.
My unanimous confirmation by the Senate is good proof that people feel very bullish that science and technology has got a great future in our country and, more importantly, that we can be a global leader.
India-West: We're having a national conversation right now about developing a pipeline of STEM talent within our own country. What role do you see the NSF playing in creating that pipeline?
Panchanathan: If you look at the various programs that NSF has launched over the years, you will find that STEM is a huge part of the portfolio of thinking. Of course, NSF is a not the only entity that that can do that. It's a number of entities coming together. So the question then becomes, how do you partner effectively across agencies to build better futures for the nation?
I am deeply committed to partnerships in all forms: partnerships with industry, philanthropy, foundations, states, and regions. All of these are required if you want to collectively move the momentum forward. Success takes a village, right?
Academic institutions like the one I come from (Arizona State University) have chosen to expand the access to higher education for broad socio-economic demographics of students coming from all kinds of environments and backgrounds and experiences.
But clearly a lot more has to be done at scale and as quickly as possible.
I often say that there is so much talent domestically that we should look at how you inspire that talent, so that what we get from outside of the United States becomes augmentative and additive rather than substituted.
India-West: We're in the midst of a pandemic and I wonder what role you see the NSF playing in addressing the crisis and where your priorities for funding might be.
Panchanathan: Science is an important part in solving the current crisis. Academic science in all its forms; not only the physical sciences, but engineering and computing sciences as clearly as biological scientists, and also social sciences. NSF has got a broad swath of programs, all of which can essentially help move the solution paradigm forward.
We have already funded 800 projects and spent $110 million for COVID-related research at NSF.
We have to get energized to not only solve the current pandemic but also be prepared for anything in the future, and be more proactive about it, rather than just only active.
Modeling the pandemic is a very important activity currently. You want to develop the right models to know how the pandemic spreads. Fantastic projects have been proposed for modeling. And therefore, we then make them actionable, in terms of what we can do, as the results come out of those models.
India-West: When did your interest in science begin?
Panchanathan: My father was the prime inspiration for me. He's a scientist, and his work is in upper atmospheric physics.
My father worked at the physical research laboratory in Ahmedabad for his Ph.D. He didn't say things to me. But you know, I find that parents are best when they role model rather than tell you what to do. You see what they do and you get inspired by it. And that was my dad.
So his quest for scientific exploration, for discovery, for academic achievement, for solving real problems, for understanding the universe and how it works, to how people work, all of that has always inspired me and motivated me to want to pursue science.
My mom is very focused on education and ensured that we valued education. So the combination of my mom and dad were just the ideal incubator for me to be able to express my talent.
My dad always was a lover of science and astrophysics. So he always used to talk about the cosmos, the black holes, the gravitational waves, and when you constantly are surrounded by those kinds of discussions that my father had about his own research, it perks your curiosity. You want to learn more; it does impact you tremendously.
India-West: Could you encourage kids to pursue a STEM career?
Panchanathan: Children of the current generation are what I refer to as Homo sapiens dot.net. These are kids that never knew a world where internet was not there. So these children already know what technology can do for them.
My advice to them is be explorers: always ask questions, and then you will find that your natural curiosities will automatically land you in pathways that you would have never imagined.