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October 21, 2002
Volume 80, Number 42
CENEAR 80 42 pp. 37-39
ISSN 0009-2347


ELLIS IN CHARGE: CHEMISTRY AT NSF
Inclusiveness and outreach to the chemistry community are part of division director's agenda

WILLIAM G. SCHULZ, C&EN WASHINGTON

A culture of "real-time chemistry"--an ability to respond rapidly to opportunities in chemistry--is what incoming National Science Foundation Chemistry Division Director Arthur B. Ellis hopes to promote during his tenure, which began in July. He says it is a culture that will depend on developing the division's agility, strength, and outreach to the chemistry community.

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Ellis PHOTO BY WILLIAM SCHULZ

Ellis moved to NSF in July from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he is a professor of chemistry. His research interests include development of semiconductor-based chemical sensors and nanoscale shape-memory alloys and development of instructional materials for chemical education based on current research.

Ellis replaces Janet G. Osteryoung, who retired from NSF on March 1, 2001. She had been division director since 1994.

Since July, Ellis has been tackling the job of running the division, which is one of five within the NSF Mathematical & Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate. He says he has benefited greatly from the support he has received from NSF and that it has helped him prepare for the challenges ahead.

"Job one is making sure that we take care of proposals fairly and expeditiously," Ellis says. "We handle 1,300 to 1,400 proposals every year, and the vast majority arrive between early July and January.

"The goal of the foundation is to process 70% of its proposals within six months," Ellis continues, "and chemistry has been closer to 80%. Our funding rate is around 30%, and we certainly don't want it to go lower than that."

The NSF Division of Chemistry supports programs and activities in analytical and surface chemistry; inorganic, bioinorganic, and organometallic chemistry; organic chemical dynamics; organic synthesis; experimental physical chemistry; theoretical and computational chemistry; and the chemistry of materials. An Office of Special Projects is home to such programs as the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and the Chemistry Research Instrumentation & Facilities program, which supports the purchase or upgrade of departmental multiuser instrumentation, instrumentation development, and chemistry research facilities.

AS DIVISION DIRECTOR, Ellis faces several challenges, says Ronald G. Brisbois, a professor of chemistry at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn. Brisbois recently completed a three-year term as a member of the MPS advisory committee, and he has served on the Committee of Visitors (1995 and 2001), which triennially reviews the performance of the Chemistry Division.

Foundation-wide, there are many meritorious grant proposals that are going unfunded, Brisbois says, and there is a perception among principal investigators that NSF's cross-disciplinary initiatives might be taking resources from the funding available for individual investigators pursuing core chemistry research.

"Chemistry is so central to MPS that there is a feeling that it is looked to more than other disciplines in order to support the big cross-disciplinary initiatives," he says.

But MPS has benefited substantially from some cross-disciplinary initiatives, such as the nanoscience initiative, MPS Acting Assistant Director John B. Hunt says. What's more, he points out that the probability of an individual investigator getting funded today is the same as it was 10 years ago. He adds that "there are kinds of research that require groups of investigators in order to be carried out efficiently, and NSF has responded to that requirement."

Another issue, Brisbois says, is staffing. "Art needs to advocate for more people in the Chemistry Division." He says that, as much as possible, there should be a better ratio of permanent staff members to "rotators"--people who serve the division on a temporary basis and who therefore might not have the time they need to develop an in-depth understanding of the division and how it meets the needs of the chemistry community.

Ellis acknowledges Brisbois' assessment of the challenges and concerns within the chemistry community. Some, like outreach, are, in part, a matter of management, he says, and some are a matter of money.

If and when Congress provides substantial funding increases to NSF--there has been a call on Capitol Hill to double the agency's fiscal 2003 budget over a five-year period--Ellis could obviously move rapidly to deal with the rate of unfunded proposals, for example. "A big part of my job is to be a strong advocate for chemistry," he says.

"The community can be of help here," Ellis says, "by notifying us of their breakthroughs in real time. We can work with the community to publicize their research advances to our many audiences."

Without large budget increases for the agency, Ellis and other NSF officials will make little headway in dealing with another main challenge--the average size and duration of NSF grants. Currently, NSF grants in the division average $130,000 each year and last for a total of three years. Ideally, Ellis says, the grant size should increase to about $250,000 per year for a total of five years.

Ellis bases his calculation on a survey of principal investigators (PIs) conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., an independent policy research firm. The survey concluded that with its current funding, "NSF is not meeting the needs of a diverse group of researchers and [is missing] research and education opportunities."

Those PIs surveyed said that the following key changes could be achieved with additional money from NSF: decreasing interruptions in research funding, attracting more and better graduate students, and widening the focus of research in a field. The survey is available online at http://www.nsf.gov/od/gpra/grantsize/mathematica_NSFRptFinal6.htm.

Ellis highlights NSF's Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) program as an example of enhancing research agility. It provides up to $100,000 for high-risk, high-payoff research projects.


"We want to make the chemistry we are supporting as comprehensible as possible."


CROSS-DISCIPLINARY work can also increase opportunities for chemists, he says. "We strive to create partnerships with other units within NSF and with other agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense," Ellis says.

"What we do as chemists is manipulate forms of matter, model them, and measure their properties. We leverage those capabilities by sharing them with other disciplines."

Ellis wants to develop the division's strength by "thinking about how we integrate research and education." One new program, for example, supports undergraduate education in nanotechnology.

"Nanoscale science and engineering provide new examples with which to update courses and provide new research opportunities," says an announcement for the Nanotechnology Undergraduate Education program, one of several grant programs that are part of the agency's Nanoscale Science & Engineering initiative. "The interdisciplinary nature of nanoscale science and engineering--its blending of chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, computer science, materials science, geology, and engineering--also provides new opportunities for faculty collaboration, both in teaching and in research, that cross traditional disciplinary departmental boundaries."

Ellis says that the initiative "allows instructors to update the curriculum and attract students to careers in chemistry. It offers an engaging way to address the issue of scientific literacy by following advances in science and technology in real time."

Ellis adds that he wants to make greater use of technology for improving outreach to the chemistry community. For example, he says, "we have sent out an electronic newsletter to the chemistry community and plan to do this on a regular basis.

"I want people to see this NSF division as accessible and user-friendly," he says. "But I have to do that within the limitations of the work and the budget."

As for staffing, Ellis says, "We have a terrific staff. I think we're in reasonably good shape, too, because we recently filled all 16 program officer positions." But Ellis adds that the Chemistry Division is always looking for new staff. "The ability to recruit visiting scientists as staff members is important. It brings in fresh perspectives."

"We are excited about Ellis," says another former MPS advisory committee member, Billy Joe Evans, professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "We needed a high-profile person from the full spectrum of research and education."

Evans points out that research and education are equal in terms of NSF priorities. And, in terms of the scientific workforce today, "we are simply not turning out enough people in the chemical sciences."

Programs like the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program--which supports projects that involve students in ongoing research programs or in research projects designed for the purpose of involving undergraduates--can be a pipeline for the scientific workforce, especially underrepresented minorities, Evans says.

EVANS BELIEVES that Ellis knows how to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the scientific workforce credibly.

For his part, Ellis is supporting the foundation's "culture of inclusiveness" in the Chemistry Division. "We want to make sure we are using all of our resources," he says, referring not only to demographic diversity but also to geographic and institutional diversity. "Inclusiveness is just good business--it's a good business practice."

All new proposals will come up against another management challenge for Ellis: Criterion II, a required statement about the broad social impact of NSF-funded research. Along with Criterion I, which addresses the intellectual merit of a proposal, this statement must be a part of any proposal submitted to NSF after Oct. 1. NSF will not review proposals that do not address both criteria in the "project summary" portion of the proposal.

Criterion II "helps when we talk to the public or to Congress," Ellis says. "We want to make the chemistry we are supporting as comprehensible as possible. We want to show why investment in chemistry is a good idea."

To help clarify Criterion II, the division recently published a letter describing the significance of the criterion and giving examples of the many ways in which the chemistry community is meeting it.

Both the Administration and Congress seem inclined to use Criterion II and other performance measures when proposing budgets or making appropriations for agency budgets.

Ellis "is the person who can address this and give some leadership to program officers," Evans says. Program officers at NSF have the most direct contact with investigators. "Until program officers address Criterion II systematically, there will be difficulties," Evans continues. Ellis, he says, has a track record of communicating the importance of research beyond an audience of fellow scientists.

Criterion II is "in our own enlightened self-interest," says chemist Alfred L. Moyé, a business and higher education consultant who serves on the advisory committee of NSF's Education & Human Resources Directorate. He points out that strengthening the link between research and education can itself be a broader impact.

"Students who are engaged in research stay in school and are far more connected," Moyé says. "Where's the problem with that?"

The congressional support that NSF has for a doubling of its budget will, understandably, come with some expectations, Evans says. "Certainly, we should not have a scientific workforce problem."

In addressing workforce as well as research issues, Ellis believes it is important for both the Division of Chemistry and the community to think outside the box. "Some of the best proposals we receive are not in response to a solicitation. We all need to think boldly and creatively."



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