Washington Update

NSF Advisory Committee Addresses Impacts of COVID-19 and Broadening Participation in Science

By: Naomi Charalambakis
Wednesday, November 4, 2020

On October 29-30, the Advisory Committee (AC) for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) of the National Science Foundation (NSF) convened for its Fall 2020 meeting. Key themes emerging throughout the meeting included the importance of transdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships, the need to provide additional support for trainees to bolster the research pipeline, broadening participation in STEM fields, and improving communication about the importance of science to the general public.

Joanne Tornow, PhD, BIO Assistant Director, reviewed Directorate updates, including the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. As a result of the $75 million allocated to NSF through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, NSF BIO issued 151 awards in response to COVID-19 through its Rapid Response Research funding mechanism. Dr. Tornow also noted that while the pandemic disrupted many submission deadlines across NSF, core programs within BIO were less affected due to BIO’s “No-Deadline” submission policy.

Dr. Tornow also sought AC feedback for the 2022-2026 NSF Strategic Plan, which will likely be shared with stakeholders later this year. In particular, NSF is seeking input on the following:

  • What are the interests, values, and emergent science and policy issues that the strategic plan should recognize?
  • How can NSF help maintain U.S. leadership in an evolving global research and education landscape?
  • How can the plan best underscore the importance of fundamental research and its broader impacts?
  • What elements, if any, of the current strategic plan are no longer relevant?

The AC also discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the state of higher education with members noting that the pandemic could have long-lasting effects on the research workforce pipeline. Transition periods are particularly hard to navigate as undergraduate students are often unable to go to labs to gain necessary research experience for applying to graduate school, and senior graduate students and postdoctoral scholars face uncertain job markets. NSF has convened a recovery planning task force to address these issues.

A joint session with the NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering discussed strategies for broadening participation in science. One major theme that emerged is the need to recruit diverse trainees and promote retention by cultivating a culture where underrepresented minorities feel a sense of belonging. BIO Directorate staff highlighted their efforts to incorporate language in core program solicitations and conference/workshop proposals to promote inclusivity.

The second day featured a discussion with NSF Director Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, who shared his vision to strengthen the “speed and scale” of NSF, underscoring the necessity of fostering NSF partnerships, inspiring emerging talent, and translating knowledge into action. Dr. Panchanathan expressed his support for BIO and its role in driving biotechnology and catalyzing transdisciplinary collaborations, key aspects for cultivating domestic and global talent.

Recordings for Day 1 and Day 2 of the meeting are available on the NSF BIO AC website.