Critics Open Fire On Shakhashiri As He Exits Education Post At NSF

Despite praise from Congress, others charge that his single-minded drive for bigger budgets alienated many scientists WASHINGTON - Muted by the uproar following the removal of Bassam Shakhashiri as head of the directorate for science and engineering education at the National Science Foundation is the applause of many scientists who are glad to see him gone. "There aren't any tears being shed around here, I can promise you that," says one NSF program officer. "Most of us see it as a chance to

Jul 9, 1990
Jeffrey Mervis

Despite praise from Congress, others charge that his single-minded drive for bigger budgets alienated many scientists
WASHINGTON - Muted by the uproar following the removal of Bassam Shakhashiri as head of the directorate for science and engineering education at the National Science Foundation is the applause of many scientists who are glad to see him gone.

"There aren't any tears being shed around here, I can promise you that," says one NSF program officer. "Most of us see it as a chance to get the directorate back on track; some are just looking forward to an improvement in their day-to-day existence."

The source of their relief is the June 1 announcement by NSF Director Erich Bloch that senior science adviser Luther Williams is switching jobs with Shakhashiri as part of a reorganization to create a $300 million education and human resources program. It was one of the most controversial moves of Bloch's six-year tenure, which ends next month (see story on page 6).

Shakhashiri's defenders portray him as a man unfairly dismissed after a highly visible - and successful - campaign to raise the profile of the agency on behalf of science education (The Scientist, May 28, 1990, page 1). They worry that, with his departure, the foundation will pull back from its role to strengthen science education at all levels.

But his critics paint quite a different picture of what the man represents. In their minds, Shakhashiri aggravated the traditional tension between researchers and educators in a single-minded drive for a larger budget, shunned evaluation studies out of fear that any negative findings might be seen as a criticism of his stewardship, and allowed political criteria to impinge on scientific goals in the awarding and denial of grants. For those critics, the question is not why the man who dominated science education at NSF for the past six years has been dismissed, but why Bloch waited so long to do it.

Shakhashiri, who says that his dismissal is a product of "irrational behavior" by top NSF officials, rejects such criticism as totally unfounded. "Science education exists within a hostile environment," he says, fostered by jealousy among the heads of the research directorates that the budget for science education was growing faster than their own. Regarding evaluation, he says that "a major effort" is budgeted for fiscal year 1991, which begins in October. "You can never evaluate things enough," he says, "but you need to make sure that there's a sufficient track record in place, and you need to do it properly."

As for occasionally overruling negative staff recommendations in the awarding of grants, and delaying or revising proposals that had been favorably reviewed, he pleads guilty only to having taken an active role in the affairs of his directorate. "I've always said that I want to be able to defend on the steps of the Capitol every proposal that we fund, and I can't do that unless I'm thoroughly familiar with them."

Bloch says that he made the change because "it was time to move the program to a higher level" and that he felt "six years is a long time for someone to serve as an assistant director." He told Congress last month that "I decided that we needed to link together more closely the education and the human resources tasks at the foundation. Then I asked myself, `Who is the best person to head up this effort?' And I realized that the right man - Luther Williams -was already on hand."

The question on everybody's mind is: Will Luther Williams be as aggressive as Bassam Shakhashiri in demanding more money for science education? But it's not a question that the person tapped by Director Erich Bloch to oversee educational and human resource efforts at the National Science Foundation is particularly eager to answer.

"The question isn't simply one of money," explained the 49-year-old molecular biologist at a June 1 press conference in which he was introduced. "Besides the level of resources, we need to identify needs. Now, if you're asking me, `Will I be an advocate of those needs?' the answer is yes."

Williams' firm but cautious reply is in keeping with the quiet personal style of the former president of Atlanta University, a predominantly black research institution. As senior science adviser for the past year (The Scientist, June 12, 1989, page 2), Williams has played an important but unsung role in beginning to knit together the federal government's disparate activities in science and math education. He's been the foundation's liaison with the Department of Education in an attempt to shore up the notoriously poor relationship between the two agencies, and he's also co-chairman of a committee comprising officials from several federal agencies, chaired by Energy Secretary James Watkins, that's looking into the nation's need for more scientists and a more technically savvy public.

Science administrators, lobbyists, and congressional aides widely praise his appointment. "The man is a role model for minorities, as well as a hell of a good scientist," says Daryl Chubin, senior analyst at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment and project director for the 1988 report Educating Scientists and Engineers: From Grade School to Grad School. "I think that Erich [Bloch] bet he could satisfy both his critics within the research community by naming a respected scientist, and his critics in Congress by naming someone who's demonstrated his commitment to education. And I think he's right."

At the same time, there's genuine concern about how vocal Williams will be in defending programs that historically have been vulnerable to funding cutbacks.

"I think that NSF's commitment to science education has been suspect for most of the past decade," says one Senate aide who follows education issues. "And it's not clear that he [Williams] is willing to fight for his budget against pressure from the other ADs [the assistant directors who head the research programs at the foundation]. Dr. Williams has had a distinguished career and he's a very smart man, but Bassam spent six years learning the ropes and building up support for his program, and he did a tremendous job. He's leaving some big shoes to fill."


Asked why he acted at the end of his tenure, rather than leaving the decision to his successor, Bloch replied that "time is of the essence. It's important to position ourselves not just for tomorrow or next month, but for the future."

Most of the complaints against Shakhashiri relate to what one former NSF staffer calls "an abuse of the merit review system." But the accusations are nearly impossible to prove without breaching the confidentiality of a system in which scientists each year submit anonymous reviews of thousands of proposals and NSF, through a chain of command that begins with the program officer, decides what will be funded.

"There wasn't always a level playing field," says one current NSF staffer. "And that's not right. NSF has always had the reputation of not playing politics in its awards, and anything that leads people to question whether that's no longer the case can do great harm to the foundation."

That worry appears to stem from Shakhashiri's operational style, which overturned the accepted practice within the foundation of giving program officers virtual total control over the fate of proposals that are sent out for merit review. A reversal of a program officer's recommendation by a division director or section chief is rare, say NSF staff, and the direct intervention of the assistant director in determining the fate of any but the largest grants is almost unheard of.

The complaints about Shakhashiri's style, however, are made only by critics guaranteed anonymity. Their reticence, they say, reflects the fact that Shakhashiri has powerful friends, both in Congress and in education and scientific circles across the country, whom they do not want - or cannot afford - to cross. In addition, many are not sure that he is really gone from the education scene at NSF, pointing to Bloch's imminent departure and the uncertainty about when a successor will be named. They'd also like to put the past behind them, they say, in the hope that Williams will boost morale and restore amity within the education community.

Shakhashiri, on leave as professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, made himself indistinguishable from the program he was selling as he promoted the importance of science education to Congress, to his peers, and the public. That strategy helped win him a four-fold budget increase in his budget over the past five years, topped by a request for an additional $47 million hike for next year that some observers think could grow even larger. But, in the end, it also proved to be his undoing.

Bloch made that clear during a June 10 meeting of the foundation's advisory committee for science education, a group hand-picked by Shakhashiri that wanted to know why they had not been consulted before the changes were made. Although most members made it clear their concern was the future of the program rather than the fate of one man, one angry member went so far as to compare Bloch's action to the actions of the South African government toward Nelson Mandela.

"Just as the imprisonment, and then the release, of Nelson Mandela sent a clear signal to the world," thundered Florida A∓M University president Fred Humphries during the panel's tense one-hour dialogue with Bloch, "you're also sending a clear message by relieving Bassam Shakhashiri of his duties. Through the symbolism of Bassam and what he represented to the people on the education side of the foundation, you're saying that the research side means to control science education. And you're saying that anyone who tries to provide leadership at NSF will be killed off."

That was too much, even for the normally phlegmatic Bloch. "Symbols are dangerous," Bloch shot back. "I know that an individual can become a symbol for something, but this is an organization that cannot function on symbolism. Since I have been here, one of my main desires has been to bring the directorates closer together, to get rid of that attitude of `us versus them.' It still exists, I'm sorry to say, and I'll take responsibility if you want to blame somebody. But it won't be for a lack of trying, I can tell you that."

A few legislators in Congress made the same point when they invited Bloch to a June 7 hearing on bills to strengthen technical education and create undergraduate faculty teaching awards. Three members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee were already upset that Bloch had ignored their May 31 letter urging him to talk with the committee before making any structural changes to NSF's educational programs.

"My greatest concern about the change," explained Rep. Doug Walgren (D-Pa.), who joined research subcommittee chairman Rep. Valentine (D-N.C.) and ranking member Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) in penning the letter, "is that you are sending a clear message that anyone who publicly states the facts in science education - in terms of how badly we are doing - runs the risk of losing his job. Bassam Shakhashiri was the only one with the courage to put a number [$600 million] on what we need to accomplish this goal," he continued, "and what happens is that the individual who pointed out that the words were woefully inadequate to the job that's needed winds up getting canned."

Once again, Bloch took strong exception to such an interpretation of recent events. "I have probably been the one who has most often pointed to the inadequacy of NSF funding and the need to double the budget, including more for science education," he replied. "So I take some of the credit for any increases that we have received. What's more, every AD [assistant director] can point to a number that he or she would like to have for the directorate, but that [advocacy] had nothing to do with the organizational changes we've put into place."

Both sides agree that Shakhashiri personalized his campaign to a degree rarely seen within science policy circles. But while his supporters say that strong leadership is essential to any policy, his critics see it as megalomania. They even poke fun at his annual Christmas card, sent in the shape of a postage stamp, that features a picture of him doing his holiday chemistry demonstration (The Scientist, May 28, 1990, page 13) in the middle and a number representing the directorate's annual budget. In five years, the only change was a steady increase in the face value of the stamp.

"That card tells the whole story," says one science educator, who clashed often with Shakhashiri. "It makes clear who is Santa Claus, and how much he was giving out this year to the science community."

Shakhashiri says that the cards are merely an example of his profound concern for science education, and that his primary goal has always been to strengthen the directorate's programs, not enlarge its budget. "The budget is only a means to an end," he says. "It's what you do with it that counts. Whatever success we have achieved was accomplished by the entire staff, not one man."

But even as the controversy swirled around Capitol Hill, there were signs that Shakhashiri's strategy wasn't working. "Bassam is a confrontational person," says one aide on the House science committee, "and that attitude helped those programs and increased the profile of the directorate at a time when it was under siege. But that's no longer the case. Everybody, including the president and OMB [Office of Management and Budget], is pushing for more for education. And a siege mentality isn't always helpful once the siege has been lifted."

Some of Shakhashiri's staunchest supporters say that they regret his decision to publicly fight his removal. Among those who wish he would accept his new role quietly is Bill Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association and the man who led the successful fight last month against a May 8 memo that proposed a more drastic reorganization for science education programs at NSF.

"What's done is done," says Aldridge. "Nobody's going to try to reverse a personnel decision by the NSF director. Congress will defend the program, not the person."

In the end, it is difficult for scientists to separate their opinion of the man from their feelings about the fate of science education. Mary Virginia Orna, a chemistry professor at the College of New Rochelle (N.Y.), waited anxiously for 16 months while her proposal to develop materials to help inexperienced high school chemistry teachers languished inside the foundation. Although she heard various dark rumors about why it was not being acted upon, she waited patiently until last August, when NSF finally sent her an approval letter.

Although the long wait forced her to delay work on the project for a full year, she bears no grudge against Shakhashiri. "I'd just as soon not lick old wounds," she says. In fact, last month she wrote to a dozen members of Congress protesting his dismissal.

"I think that we need a strong advocate for science education," she says, "and I'm worried that without him, the levels of funding will fall. I think that he's done an enormous service for science education, and I was sorry to see him replaced."