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Q&A - Richard Buckius: Securing the Future

Engineer-Educator Leads Efforts to Diversify Engineering

Richard Buckius, an expert in thermal sciences, became vice president for research at Purdue University in September 2008 after a four-year rotation at NSF, including three years as head of the Directorate for Engineering (ENG). At NSF, he oversaw an annual budget of more than $550 million for education and research into energy and the environment, complex systems, nanotechnology and other topics. In his 33-year academic career, Buckius has won top awards from the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, including the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, UIUC’s highest teaching honor.

Q: What distinguishes NSF from other government research-funding agencies?

A: Most federal agencies have directed missions in specific disciplines. NSF looks broadly at the long-term future of the nation. We address fundamental research by promoting discovery and education in nearly all disciplines. Another unique part of the agency is that one-third of NSF’s program directors are rotators, people like me who come from universities, spend a few years here and then return to their universities. That means the agency is continually changing with the infusion of new ideas.

Q: What do you see as ENG’s major accomplishment under your leadership?

A: ENG had one of its lowest success rates ever, in terms of number of awards made versus proposals received. To figure out how we could better serve the community, we went through strategic planning and came up with a new structure to reflect current trends in scholarship and education. The big research challenges today tend to require more than one scholar, so scholars are forming interdisciplinary teams. Our structure now helps us serve this community more effectively. In addition, our new EFRI (Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation) office puts out a solicitation each year around different topics at the forefront of engineering research. This flexibility enables us to focus our solicitations more strategically.

Q: What are some of the grand challenges for which you have solicited proposals?

A: Energy, environment, sustainability, health and security are among the key challenges. Previous requests have considered topics in the areas of bioengineering, infrastructures and cognitive engineering. Our most recent solicitation (in August 2008) seeks proposals in the area of biofuels and biosensing/bioactuation.

Q: In the 1960s, the moon race triggered a national revival in science education. What endeavor today could kindle a public passion for research?

A: The whole collection of interrelated challenges we’re facing in energy, environment, climate and sustainability could kindle such a passion. We have to hope that these challenges inspire our students and faculty to concentrate their time and efforts to solve these problems.

Q: Have there been changes in the federal government’s and NSF’s emphasis on basic research?

A: In the last five years we’ve seen important changes in the executive and legislative branches of government. The American Competitiveness Initiative (announced by President Bush in 2006) makes a major commitment to long-term fundamental research. The America COMPETES Act of 2007 (enacted by Congress in 2007) promotes “high-risk, high-reward projects that meet fundamental scientific and technological challenges.” I no longer see a clear distinction between applied and fundamental research at NSF.

Q: Surveys show that, in science and math achievement, American high school students trail their peers in other countries. NSF addresses this through various programs that encourage STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) education. What more can be done to motivate students to consider careers in science and engineering?

A: The U.S. still has some absolutely excellent high schools and students. In the future, however, we probably will have only a fraction of the engineering students that other countries, especially India and China, will have. We have to accept that we’re no longer going to lead or be productive based on sheer numbers. Instead, we need to focus on quality and to educate our students to become leaders.

We would obviously like to recruit more young people into engineering. STEM education is key to this. To try to ensure that we have pathways for undergraduate and graduate students to become engineers, as well as future faculty members, we are making a focused effort to support researchers who take their expertise into K-12 classrooms. ENG is adding to this effort through NSF’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program. RET allows K-12 teachers to work in a university lab and take part in the research of a faculty member. The teachers get a better understanding of research and transmit their enthusiasm to their students. This has a successful multiplying effect.

Q: What can be done to increase the participation of women in engineering?

A: Women are a much smaller fraction of the engineering population than we’d like. And I think the inclusion of all underrepresented groups – by gender, ethnicity and disability – needs to be a stronger element in engineering. Two years ago, ENG recruited its first-ever program director for diversity and outreach to work with the community to develop a plan to attract more people from underrepresented groups. ENG is also funding programs for K-12 students, undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs and faculty members to increase the diversity of engineering. These programs include RET and REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates), as well as fellowships, leaves and workshops.

Q: What qualities make a good researcher?

A: There’s not one model. Some people are logical and clear-thinking. Others are scattered. I’ve known people on both sides who have done exceptional work. Usually, what it comes down to is passion. Whatever style they have, good researchers typically are passionate about what they do.

Q: What qualities make for a strong research proposal?

A: NSF has two criteria for reviewing proposals. Intellectual merit includes advancing knowledge and exploring creative and original concepts, as well as the qualifications of researchers and their access to necessary resources. Broader impacts include promoting teaching and learning, widening the participation of underrepresented groups, enhancing the research infrastructure, disseminating your findings and benefiting society.

ENG receives 6,000 to 7,000 proposals a year. There are all kinds of models for success. But overall, you have to have a unique, transformative idea that’s truly novel and will have an impact.

Q: What other advice would you give to young scholars writing proposals?

A: Try to think like a reviewer. Stress the novel aspects of your work and differentiate it from the work of others. Emphasize its potential impact. Remember that the project summary is very important. Have a colleague or mentor review what you write before you send it in. And come to Washington, D.C., to meet our program directors. This is essential. You’ll find out about our programs and what we’re funding. And our directors will get a better appreciation for your idea. Finally, volunteer to be a reviewer. We’re always looking for new people, especially younger faculty, to help with reviewing.

Q: Will your experience at NSF change your approach to teaching and research as you return to academia?

A: Being at the Foundation has required me to read proposals and interact with experts in fields that are far from my own. I think this will give me a much broader perspective on research and inspire me to look for bigger challenges.

Young faculty applying for NSF grants, says Buckius, should also volunteer to serve as reviewers.