New Director Takes Helm at National Science Foundation

Sethuraman Panchanathan has been officially appointed as NSF’s 15th director. Image credit: Arizona State University.

Following in the footsteps of many great science and engineering leaders before him, Sethuraman Panchanathan has been officially appointed as the National Science Foundation’s 15th director, sharing his vision for his six-year term and promising a continued push for inclusiveness in science and engineering.

“Right now, the world faces significant scientific challenges — most obviously a pandemic.” Panchanathan said. “But in addition to providing creative solutions to address current problems, our eyes are on the future, leveraging partnerships at every level and encouraging diversity that breeds new ideas for a robust pipeline of young scientists. It is only through that expansive perspective on the scientific and engineering enterprise that we can recognize the brightest ideas and nurture them into tomorrow’s world-class technological innovations.”

Panchanathan identified three pillars of his vision for NSF: advancing research into the future, ensuring inclusivity and continuing global leadership in science and engineering. He has a long history of doing exactly those things. His current position, which he has held for the past nine years at Arizona State University, has allowed him to lead the Knowledge Enterprise, which has advanced research, innovation, strategic partnerships, entrepreneurship and global and economic development.

“World-class science requires talented scientists and engineers drawn from every corner of our nation — from remote rural areas to the largest urban centers. The best science is shaped by a wide range of perspectives,” Panchanathan said. “I want people to get excited by science and have the opportunity to be part of the scientific enterprise. It is our responsibility to inspire talent and find ways to catalyze innovation across our country. NSF has a proven record in this area; the INCLUDES program and its emphasis on broadening participation is an example of NSF’s forward thinking.”

Panchanathan noted that it is NSF’s mission of funding basic research that has yielded groundbreaking discoveries over the years. “Seeding basic research across all fields of science and engineering is NSF’s core mission. NSF seeds discovery. NSF seeds the economy. NSF seeds the future,” he said. “Advancing basic research is our fundamental purpose and looking to cutting-edge areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and big data will accelerate our science and technology progress in the coming years. I am excited by the National Science Board’s (NSB) Vision 2030 strategic plan which is an excellent framework for advancing science and technology.”

Panchanathan began his career at Arizona State and founded the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), a group that designed technologies and devices to assist people with disabilities. He also founded and led the School of Computing and Informatics and the Department of Biomedical Informatics and was subsequently appointed as Arizona State’s Chief of Research and Innovation in 2009. During his tenure, ASU was named the Most Innovative University by the U.S. News and World Report five years in a row, and its research volume quintupled. He has also been serving as a member of the NSB since 2014. NSB establishes NSF policy and advises both the agency and the U.S. president.

Panchanathan is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Society of Optical Engineering. He served as a chair in the Council on Research within the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Panchanathan was the editor-in-chief of the IEEE Multimedia Magazine and also served as an editor or associate editor for many other journals.

Since NSF’s previous director France Córdova finished her term, Kelvin Droegemeier has doubled as President Trump’s science adviser and acting NSF director.

“A big part of why the National Science Foundation has such a rich history of leading the way in science and engineering has to do with the people who work there,” Droegemeier said. “Dr. Panchanathan has the creativity, tenacity, and commitment to lead this agency successfully and continue moving the scientific enterprise forward on the endless frontier. I’m excited to see him make his mark and take the agency to the next level.”

President Trump announced Panchanathan’s nomination to serve as NSF’s 15th director on December 18, 2019. The Senate confirmed Panchanathan on June 18, 2020. Droegemeier swore him in at a virtual ceremony that took place on July 2, 2020.