In an interview given to Agência FAPESP, France Córdova spoke about initiatives designed to stimulate women to rise to leadership positions in academia, among other topics (photo: Piu Dip / Agência FAPESP)
Published on 05/13/2021
By Karina Toledo* | Agência FAPESP – Astrophysicist France Córdova, 71, is the head of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the foremost research funding agency in the United States and one of the most important in the world, with an annual budget in excess of US$8 billion.
This is not the only leadership position in Córdova’s career. She was the youngest person and the first woman to hold the position of NASA Chief Scientist. In 2007 she became the first woman and the first member of a minority to be appointed President of Purdue University (Indiana).
She has overcome many obstacles to make inroads into territory traditionally dominated by men. In childhood she was discouraged by school and family from pursuing a career in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). At high school in California she had to ask permission from the principal to attend classes in physics, then reserved for boys.
She earned a bachelor’s degree cum laude in English from Stanford University in 1969, the year humans first landed on the Moon. The feat motivated her to follow her calling to become an astrophysicist. Ten years later she completed a PhD in physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where she was one of only two women in a class of 18.
She worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Space Astronomy and Astrophysics Group from 1979 to 1989, and headed the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University from 1989 to 1993. As NASA Chief Scientist from 1993 to 1996, she was the principal interface between NASA’s headquarters and the broader scientific community.
In 2002 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and in 2007 she became President of Purdue University. In 2009 she was appointed to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, chairing the Board from 2012 to 2014.
She was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate to head the NSF in 2014. Under her direction the NSF funded the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which detected gravitational waves for the first time in 2015, a feat for which the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 2017.
Córdova was in São Paulo, Brazil on May 1-3, 2019, to attend the 8th Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC) alongside heads of other research funding agencies from some 50 countries on all five continents. The GRC summit was organized by FAPESP, Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and the German Research Foundation (DFG).
During her visit to São Paulo, Córdova found time to talk to Agência FAPESP about the NSF’s initiatives to promote women’s participation in science, among other subjects. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Agência FAPESP – The NSF uses two criteria to select projects for funding: “intellectual merit” – the potential to advance knowledge – and “broader impact” – the potential to benefit society. In basic science, you can’t always know in advance what the societal and economic impact will be, can you?
France Córdova – You don’t have to “guess” what the impact is going to be ten years or 100 years later. It’s very hard with curiosity- and discovery-driven research to guess at the real outcome. What you have to do is say why your research is important, why it matters to people. The broader impact of about 50% of our proposals is about broadening the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, young people, people with lower socioeconomic opportunities. This is impact in a shorter timeframe. Most proposals include some form of training for the next generation. Many have impact plans that encompass schools, public outreach, curriculum development, and so on.
Agência FAPESP – You’ve been NASA Chief Scientist and the first woman president of Purdue University, and you’re now the head of the research funding agency with the largest budget in the world. Does this mean the issue of gender equity in science has been solved in the US? Does the NSF support programmes to stimulate women’s participation in science?
Córdova – Gender equity is a major concern in science and technology, and we have lots of actions to promote it. There are many areas, including physics, my own field, where the representation of women is very low. This is especially so in the sciences, engineering and mathematics, although not so much in the biological sciences, and the social and behavioural sciences. It’s very slowly but steadily improving. We have several programmes. One is ADVANCE, which we’ve had for quite a while. It aims to encourage women to go up the ranks through the university, from the starting level all the way to full professor, and to be leaders, to persist, and particularly to achieve. I was principal investigator for the ADVANCE programme when I was President of Purdue University. When I came to NSF we started a programme called INCLUDES [“Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science”], and we have a great many – more than 70 – pilot programme across the US with different ways of increasing the representation of women and minorities, ranging from computer programmes for young children to increasing faculty and certain disciplines. Some are led by community groups, some by universities, foundations, scientific societies etc. We have networks of these projects, so they all communicate with each other. More recently we gave a grant for a backbone throughout the US to link up all these different projects so that they could learn best practices from each other. We hope this will do an important thing we call scaling. You can have a lot of efforts all over the country, but if they die once they’re completed, we say they don’t scale. We want to figure out how to do projects that become best practices, great examples that others can easily copy and use so that they can blossom in many other places. The INCLUDES programme is all about scaling.
Agência FAPESP – What kind of challenges did you have to face in order to reach leadership positions?
Córdova – I have the opinion that everyone faces challenges, no matter who you are or what job you’re doing. If you’re a truck driver, you face a lot of challenges just getting from one part of the country to another. There are always obstacles. Yes, women in science, technology and engineering face particular kinds of challenges. When you’re a truck driver, they give you education and you talk to other truck drivers about where you should never stop or roads you shouldn’t take, and technology you can use to get around traffic. You gradually learn as you experience the rules of the road. Helpful people give you good directions, and unhelpful people don’t. You learn where the obstacles are and how other people have overcome them. You try new things. You go around the obstacles or break through them. Of course, there have been all kinds of challenges along the way. Sometimes – rarely, but it happens – people don’t want to yield their positions and their power. Then you work on the people who are supportive. There are always people out there who will support you, but sometimes you have to look for them and then you have to accept their help.
Agência FAPESP – How would you rate the GRC meeting? How can the discussions held there help agencies to do their job better?
Córdova – I’ve gotten a lot out of the GRC. This is my sixth meeting. Every time I make more friends from around the world, and I also learn a lot because we have a different subject on which to focus each year. What the GRC does best is that it gathers research funders from around the world to talk about common challenges and the solutions they’ve found that work well. It’s really interesting to find out more about all this and bring it home and talk to our own people about whether this is something we could do as well. This time I asked the other members of the Governing Board how their agencies have benefited from the GRC. They mentioned these benefits I’ve just described, plus another, which is that they use the GRC to leverage things they want to do in their own countries. For example, if they go to the bodies that supply their budget – in the NSF’s case it’s the US Congress – and say we really want to go in such-and-such a direction, and we want to implement these principles in our research funding, they might not be taken as seriously as they are when they can show that the GRC had a big meeting on this topic and adopted a statement of principles, as we did two years ago and again this year on the broad societal and economic impact of research. So the members can show Congress or whoever funds them: “Here’s what they said. We think this is good motivation for moving in this or that direction.” Using the GRC’s prestige to further the good things one wants to do for one’s country really makes a difference. There is no other organization just for research funders, yet the progress of science depends on funding, so the research funding organizations have a huge responsibility to transform the benefits, the opportunities, for their countries. They need to take themselves seriously and to be taken seriously by the people who are funding them, which means demonstrating the benefits.
Agência FAPESP – You mentioned the issue of open access to scientific publications. What are your views on Plan S and similar initiatives?
Córdova – We’re following the policy established in 2016 under the previous administration. Right now we require a 12-month holding period before open access is granted to everyone. That’s the NSF’s official position right now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. Open access is very important. It’s clearly under discussion, and we have a lot of meetings about it.
Agência FAPESP – Do you think this is a good time to be doing science, given the number of people in high positions who are sceptical about climate change, for example, or the persistence of the flat earth movement and others that are anti-scientific? Is this a good moment for researchers?
Córdova – Yes, definitely. The more anti-scientific elements you see, the more you have to bolster the science. We are not a regulatory agency. We don’t make rules and regulations for what is done with science and technology. We’re also not a policymaking organization. The NSF is a research funding agency. The best way to dispel myths and understand the true nature of things is by funding research. It’s from good research that we really learn how the world works.
Agência FAPESP – The NSF’s budget could be cut by 12% if the US Congress accepts the proposal submitted by President Donald Trump. What are your expectations and what will happen if the cut is approved?
Córdova – We have the saying that the president proposes and Congress disposes. For now we’re waiting to see what Congress decides. We’re grateful for the money we have. We always tell Congress we do the best with the money we’re given. However, it’s clear that cutting the budget cuts the activity. I mean, we would have to reduce our activities. We always strive to be more efficient and effective. Now we’re doing many more partnerships. I might mention one with Amazon, and another in online education with Boeing, just to take two examples. Partnerships give us more leverage because they expand the funding base. Government and industry can work together, and private-public partnerships can really have meaning. They’re not just about the money. They’re about advancing certain areas of research that are important for the country. They’re not a substitute for public funding. Companies target a short-term horizon because they have to show profitability to their shareholders. Many of our shareholders are not even born yet. They’re our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’re often the ones who will benefit from the research we’re funding today. So we’re in it for the long term. A lot of the things we do with industry involve basic research, but that’s only part of our portfolio. Another big part of our portfolio is discovery- or curiosity-driven research and we have no idea where that will lead and how long it will take to realize its benefits.
* With Bruno de Pierro, Pesquisa FAPESP magazine