Goodbye and Thank You

Today is the last day of my NSF contract.  I’m already back in Boulder, surrounded by a mountain of unpacked boxes and fighting for chair space with a dog happy to be reunited (she did not brave the move to DC).  For me, my time at NSF was many things: fun, educational, frustrating, rewarding.  My intent here is to share a few thoughts, and to give thanks.

As everyone knows, the past year has been an unusually challenging one.  From the launch of a new proposal review system to a sequestered budget, it’s been a year rife with debate and no small amount of stress, much of it fueled by factors beyond any of our control.    As Bruce Alberts recently wrote in Science, the funding climate in the U.S. is increasingly difficult, now certainly the toughest I have witnessed over my career.  That makes all of our jobs harder – within and beyond NSF.   In the last year, I’ve seen quite clearly that those within DEB are not blind to the reality, but rather dedicated to doing the best they can for the science community under an increasingly constrained situation.

And they are one of you.  Whether permanent staff or rotators, the past year has shown me how much those in DEB are dedicated to furthering research and education in environmental biology.  Hard choices have to be made all the time, especially under current budgetary scenarios, but my experience at NSF has been one in which program officers and panels alike are uniformly dedicated to being as human as possible under those tough scenarios.  In short, they give a damn.

In the end, that’s what service – to NSF or anywhere else – means:  giving a damn.  DEB is lucky to have excellent scientists who have given up much of their own research pursuits (whether on a permanent or rotating basis) to help further a broader research mission: and to a person, that’s why all of them are here.   Panels, with few exceptions, tend to embrace the same ethic, as do the best of individual reviewers.  The more all of us try to meet that bar, whether it’s in reviewing proposals, serving on panels, serving NSF as a rotator, or working here on a permanent basis, the better the entire system runs.  (That means if you depend on NSF funding but don’t prioritize careful reviews and panel service, please do!)

And if you’re out there struggling to keep a lab afloat, to land a first grant, to find support for an innovative idea, I know the process can be incredibly frustrating. Nobody likes to get a grant declined, especially one with high reviews, but I can assure you that nobody inside NSF likes declining one with those high reviews.  That’s happening more than ever of late, and not only is it no fun, it’s deeply worrisome to see so much excellent science go unsupported.  But ultimately I came to NSF because of a sense that the process was also fair, or at least as fair as a fundamentally human system can be.  The past year has only deepened that conviction.

So if you’re feeling at odds with DEB or NSF in some way, reach out – here or by other means – and also participate in the overall process as best you can, whether that’s as a reviewer, a panelist, an advisory committee member or a rotator.  By doing so you’ll help things be a little better in tough times, and hopefully help set the stage for future improvements.   Ultimately, both DEB and NSF function best when they operate in dynamic and effective partnerships with the community at large, ones where trust and mutual respect are a given.

This blog is one of only many examples of how DEB is trying to pursue that goal, and it was one of my objectives from the day I arrived at NSF.   And that brings me to a few thanks.  As I wrote in an earlier post, everyone in DEB, as well as BIO’s senior leadership, was supportive of this site from the outset.  To me, that’s a clear demonstration of a uniform desire for good community partnerships.   Thank you to all at NSF who helped make this site a reality, and to all of you in the community who have viewed and participated in the site to date.  I hope it keeps rolling and continues to expand in readership and participation.

My gratitude extends well beyond just the blog.  DEB has a superb staff who largely toil in obscurity, and yet are critical to the overall mission.  I hope you’ll get to meet them all in the near future via this site, and next time you’re at NSF, please make a point of thanking the staff for their contributions.  You’ll see some of them in panel support; others can be found throughout the 6th floor of the main NSF building.

DEB’s program officers are a fun and talented bunch, and they not only work hard for the broader mission as detailed above, they continually juggle new people coming in (like me) and must get them up to speed quickly, navigate their sometimes strong but also uninformed opinions, all the while keeping the system rolling.  I thank them all not only for the work they do, but for their thoughtfulness, candor and willing participation in a series of difficult but important conversations over the past year.

Penny Firth served as deputy division director for the past year, and moves into the acting director role this week.  DEB is in more than able hands.  I cannot thank her enough for the support she gave me over the past year, and for the years of exceptional service she has given NSF and all of us.  I also want to specifically thank John Adamec, Pete Ball, Desiree Davis, Greg Adams, Robin Randle and Shayna Daniel, both for the direct support they gave me over the past year, and for their superb work on so many other fronts.

Finally, thanks to all of you in the community.  Your patience, ideas, input and service over the past year are deeply appreciated.  It’s been an honor for me to serve as DEB’s director on behalf of all of you – both within and beyond NSF.


Alan Townsend

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