Q&A with National Science Foundation Director Dr. France Córdova

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Dr. France Córdova is the 14th director of the National Science Foundation. She was the youngest person and the first woman who was chief scientist for NASA and has had an illustrious career in academia, including being chancellor emeritus of University of California, Riverside, and president emeritus of Purdue University. 

Córdova sat down with The Spectrum on Wednesday to discuss President Donald Trump’s recent proposal to cut the NSF budget, Córdova’s brief foray into journalism and NSF-funded research at UB. 

Q: Before your speech today, President Satish Tripathi talked about your brief stint as a journalist for the LA Times

A: I think the journalists would be overblown for what I was. Right after I graduated, I presented myself to the LA Times and and they hired me as a copy girl, that job doesn't even exist anymore. I'm talking about technology phasing you out, you know that there is no more copy. And then I graduated within a few months to the editorial service. The Times has an editorial service where they take articles from all over and they cut them down to size to fit in. So I would got really good at editing, you know, just scratching out big paragraphs so that it would all fit, you know, so something that started out as 20 inches ended up being 2,  and then they let me just submit articles. You know — freelance. 

My roommate was the photographer for the section on the arts and leisure. So it wasn't the news section. But it was like interviewing upcoming movie stars and musicians. So I would go around with her and we did some stuff together. There was only one woman who was a journalist there And so I wasn’t really a journalist. In fact, at that time there was only one woman who was a journalist. I think her name is Dorothy, she’s very famous.  She was the only woman in the entire newsroom crew of the LA Times.

Q: What you said about Dorothy being the only woman in the newsroom. It's actually still a problem. Only 30% of AP newsrooms are women. You were the first woman and the youngest person to become chief scientist at NASA. And you received the highest medal honor there, and now you're appointed the NSF director. You have all of these successes in your career, but does one have a special space in your heart?

A: Well, I've enjoyed everything that I've done when I've done it. So I really enjoy being NSF director. So I can't say that I that I've liked anything more than that.

Q: President Trump's administration announced a five-year plan to improve STEM education in December, and they've been pushing for artificial intelligence with an executive order in February. But the President also recently proposed a 12% budget cut to the NSF. And that would cut down the research grants to graduate students by 25%. So how do you see this administration's attitude as a whole toward NSF-funded research? And how would that affect UB’s graduate students?

A: First of all, I think the administration has been very supportive of the National Science Foundation. The president's budget cut was a proposal to cut 5% from the what we call the request level for fiscal year ‘19. Congress chose to give us much more than the request level — they gave us $8.1 billion. So the President's request, which is shaving 5% of all the non discretionary budgets, on average, including NSF, was the request from the ‘19 request level. And it was done in order to have a plan to cope with our great national debt. So it wasn't aimed at NSF or science, it was aimed at the national debt.

That said, I think it's very important for your readers to understand that when the president proposes the budget on the February-March timescale, that's only a proposal, it's really congress that decides how much money will have last year. Fiscal year ‘19’s proposal was lower, much lower than what we have from Congress to spend. 

So graduate students and others looking at this recent proposal should wait and see what congress decides to do. That's the important thing. So we we actually got a nice bump up from congress for fiscal year ‘19. And we're going to be able to fund graduate students and much more with that. And we'll see what fiscal year ‘20 brings once Congress has made its decisions.

Q: So the Graduate Student awards isn't going to decrease by 25%?

A: For this upcoming round? No, not at all. For the following year. We have to wait and see how how Congress decides to act on the budget overall.

Q: You previously worked with UB President Tripathi during your time as chancellor at UC, Riverside. How does it feel like to come back to a university where he's a president now and you’re director of NSF?

A: It's just wonderful. I don't know why I haven't gotten back here sooner… I knew Buffalo is a huge institution, or wonderful research university, it just didn't know how beautiful the physical plant is, all the buildings and the grounds and how the faculty and the leadership, the deans and vice presidents work so well together. They and the students are doing such exciting things. I just spent a big part of the afternoon with students building these small satellites and they got a couple accepted for launch. And it's just wonderful to talk with them and to see what they're doing. 

Q: Yes, and you mentioned earlier you rode on UB’s autonomous vehicles. 

A: Yeah, I rode on a bus and a car. And it’s really interesting to see the technology up close. I mean, of course, I know they exist. But I hadn't seen how the technology actually works. And the autonomous bus, I believe, is 3D printed, which is another amazing thing. And something that NSF originally funded was 3D printing. So a lot of the systems in the autonomous cars are ones that NSF provided early funding for. So many things that I saw Buffalo — obviously, it was selected to show me things that NSF had invested in — but it's impressive to see what our how far our investments got.

Tanveen Vohra is a co-senior news editor and can be reached at tanveen.vohra@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @TanveenUBSpec. 

TANVEEN VOHRA


Tanveen Vohra is a former senior news editor and covered international relations and graduate student protests.