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Weathers spends year as NSF program director

From April 2009 through June 2010, biogeochemist Dr. Kathleen Weathers was on loan from the Cary Institute to serve as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). While at the independent federal agency, Weathers was a core member of the ecosystem science cluster, working intensively to make recommendations about research funding and creating solicitations for new programs.

With a current annual budget of just under $7 billion, the NSF stimulates and funds research across all the basic sciences and engineering (excepting health science, which is under the purview of the National Institutes of Health). By selecting active, respected scientists to be Program Directors on a rotating basis, the NSF ensures that fresh ideas and perspectives guide the agency and keep the U.S. at the leading edge of discovery in a wide range of scientific areas, from astronomy to geology to cloud computing.

Weathers devoted much of her time orchestrating the peer review of both unsolicited and solicited proposals for research funding. During her tenure at NSF, the organization received some 44,000 grant proposals. As Program Director, Weathers coordinated the three to six external reviews that every proposal in ecosystem science received and led scientific panels to address the merits of each proposal. The rigorous process established by the NSF sets the gold standard in scientific review and is key in determining the few (in ecosystem science, <10%) among many strong proposals that receive funding.

Program Directorship requires juggling research at one's home institution as well as a commitment to service but comes with professional benefits. "Proposal review put my finger on the pulse of the next 10 years of cutting edge research," noted Weathers. The NSF also asks Directors to recommend broad topics for solicited research, such as in sustainability, energy and water, and interdisciplinary research.

This function of NSF directorship is part of the agency's intentional bottom-up dynamic to catalyze new research, "the idea being that if you set broad research agendas, then ideas will bubble up from scientists around the nation for investigations that we might never have predicted. In so doing, we assume the responsibility of guiding and shaping the future of science," Weathers stated.