NSF Beat: Opportunities at the National Science Foundation
By Sharon Cutler Ross
Scientists, engineers, and educators who fill rotational assignments at the NSF are a key element in providing “the talent and resources that are critical to meeting the NSF’s mission.” The Foundation contracts with rotators principally through two programs: Visiting Scientists, Engineers, and Educators (VSEE) and the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA). Briefly, a VSEE rotator takes a non-paid leave of absence from his or her home institution and receives a salary from NSF. Appointments are for up to one year with the possibility of another year. Under the IPA, a rotator is on loan from her or his home institution for up to two years as intermittent, part-time, or full-time staff. Again, an extension is possible. Both programs have a mechanism, Independent Research/Development, to arrange for time during the work year at the home institution for continuing work with graduate students or other ongoing projects.
Mathematicians and mathematics educators are most likely to serve in the Directorate of Human Resources in areas such as the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Undergraduate Education (DUE), and Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education (ESIS). But the lines between areas are frequently crossed and a rotator can expect to wear many hats. “It’s perhaps as close as you can come to a functioning interdisciplinary department,” says Lee Zia, a Program Director in DUE. Zia, who presently has a permanent position at the Foundation, has served as a rotator. He cites the opportunities to see the workings of the NSF from the inside, to see the national picture in science and mathematics education, and to help shape projects as his reason for applying to be a rotator. Spud Bradley, ESIS Section Head for Instructional Materials Development, gives similar reasons for his work at the Foundation. “Seeing things from a national perspective, working with national leaders, and helping to shape programs” are important factors for Bradley.
Many of the same qualities that make for success in academia or industry are also useful in working at the NSF—good communication skills, especially writing; interest in new things; ease in dealing with people; willingness to speak one’s mind. The pace at the Foundation is much faster than at a university, a different bureaucratic style prevails, and thus there are additional qualities that are helpful in making for a good experience as a rotator—a flexible mindset, a willingness to deal with interruptions, the ability to work under tight time constraints, and an ego that can relinquish ownership of projects and writing.
Washington, DC, obviously has much to offer as a place to live. As NSF staffers, rotators have additional resources for professional development such as Congressional hearings and workshops and talks sponsored by the National Research Council as well as those sponsored by the Foundation itself. The collegial atmosphere at the Foundation often leads people from their original interest in coming to the NSF into exploring and working in other areas. A tour at the NSF has the potential for career renewal or redirection as well as providing a venue for contributing to mathematics and science education in the nation.