‘International collaboration will be key to overcoming this pandemic … NSF continues to promote collaboration’

Indian-American scientist Sethuraman Panchanathan was nominated by US President Donald Trump as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency whose mission is to support fundamental science and engineering. An electrical and computer engineer by training, he spoke to Ruchika Uniyal and U Tejonmayam:

What role is NSF playing in the fight against Covid-19?

To date, we have funded more than 945 grants totalling $137 million in response to Covid-19 and the level of research we have seen from recipients has been outstanding. NSF is specifically supporting fast-track, fundamental, and transformational research activity associated with improving our understanding of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing Covid-19; developing a predictive understanding of the spread of the virus; and enabling approaches that mitigate the negative impacts of Covid-19 on public health, society and the economy.

Do you see computational simulations as becoming an essential part in the search for disease treatments or to counter pandemics such as the current one?

At NSF we immediately realised that computing and data were going to play very important roles. Researchers are turning to the most powerful high-performance computing resources available to gain a better understanding of Covid-19. In early March, NSF made all its computing resources accessible to the scientific community. NSF co-led the establishment of the Covid-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium, a new public-private consortium announced by the White House in late March to offer free computing time to researchers on their world-class machines. There are many other great examples of NSF-funded projects where we see computational simulations taking a big role against Covid-19.

How can India contribute towards solutions?

I think international collaboration will be key to our overcoming this pandemic. I want to continue the focus on international collaborations, including those with India, since that has been a priority for our mission from the beginning.

NSF’s proposed 2021 budget gives a big boost to artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS). That must be exciting for you given that you are a computer scientist yourself.

It is indeed exciting to advance all aspects of science and technology that benefit humanity. Within NSF’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, the boosts for AI and QIS are indeed significant, with an increase to $868 million for AI, an increase of $403 million over fiscal year 2019, and $226 million for QIS, an increase of $120 million over fiscal year 2019.  We are announcing two milestone investments in these industries: our NSF AI Institutes and our NSF Quantum Institutes, collaborative hubs that will bring academia, industry, and government together to overcome research challenges and catalyse new innovations and the next-generation workforce in AI and quantum.

The Trump administration keeps proposing budget cuts for NSF. How do you plan to address budget issues?

I have identified three pillars for my vision for NSF: advancing research into the future, ensuring inclusivity/accessibility, and continuing global leadership in science and engineering. I want to underscore that the administration has been very supportive in advancing science and technology priorities for the nation. The federal budget is a complex process involving the administration and Congress. I’m pleased to see that NSF has continued to receive strong support for our mission.

Some recent orders on immigration can make it harder for foreign talent to enter the US. How will this impact research?

The Department of State is responsible for implementing policy on visa applications. NSF together with our fellow agencies continues to embrace and promote international collaboration. International collaboration enhances US global leadership and ensures that the American research community participates in the best science and has access to the best resources around the world. I would encourage anyone thinking about pursuing a career in the US to do so as we provide great opportunities for students to express their talents.

Can investigations into foreign interference in US campuses harm bilateral research collaborations?

Our goal is to create an international scientific ecosystem that is secure as well as open and collaborative. Security threats harm collaboration and appropriate measures need to be put in place to address the challenge.

How can one put an end to the promotion of unscientific beliefs?

I am not sure if you can ever put an end to the promotion of unscientific beliefs, but I would hope that you can build up the public’s knowledge of science. To do that, scientists and governments must engage with the public and make science as understandable as possible, with a focus on openness and transparency.

How has India and your education at IIT-Madras shaped your career as a researcher?

India has provided me with high-quality education and a strong foundation. I credit my fellow students and the outstanding faculty at IIT-Madras for creating an environment of excellence and high achievement.

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