New NSF Structure Reflects Broad Agency Reorientation

Date: March 16, 1992 Revamping of the biology directorate and creation of a social sciences unit aims to accommodate new trends in life sciences When Cora Bagley Marrett assumes full duties in May as the first assistant director of the new social, behavioral, and economic sciences division (SBE) of the National Science Foundation, she will give social scientists something for which they have long lobbied: their own voice in high-level NSF decisions. NSF announced the new directorate last Oc

Mar 16, 1992
Scott Huler

Date: March 16, 1992

Revamping of the biology directorate and creation of a social sciences unit aims to accommodate new trends in life sciences

When Cora Bagley Marrett assumes full duties in May as the first assistant director of the new social, behavioral, and economic sciences division (SBE) of the National Science Foundation, she will give social scientists something for which they have long lobbied: their own voice in high-level NSF decisions.

NSF announced the new directorate last October, following the recommendations of a task force that spent a year studying ways to improve the former biological and social sciences directorate (The Scientist, Oct. 28, 1991, page 3). The task force overwhelmingly suggested that it was time to end the uneasy marriage between the social and biological sciences, sending such social sciences as anthropology, political science, economics, and psychology into their own directorate.

Under the new structure, Marrett, a professor of sociology and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin since 1974, will oversee the budget of the SBE divisions (which totaled $85.87 million in fiscal 1992) as well as provide leadership for the social sciences at NSF.

For life scientists, however, the changes go much further than the separation of social sciences from the new biological sciences (BIO) directorate.

The completely restructured biological sciences directorate, say scientists and NSF assistant directors, reflects a new emphasis at NSF--on the environment, on whole-organism biology, and on interdisciplinary science, all perceived as waves of the future.

In the words of Barbara Schaal, a Washington University biologist and a member of "Looking to the 21st Century," the task force organized more than a year ago to address the changing needs of the old biological, behavioral, and social sciences directorate, "The new programs ... reflect the current state of science, and hopefully will reflect science into the future."

And though sources both inside and outside NSF reassure scientists that central matters like funding will not be much changed, the new structure can seem complex. Bruce Umminger, director of the new integrative biology and neurosciences (IBN) division in the biological sciences directorate, explains some of the changes this way: "Half of IBN is a vestige of DCB [division of cellular biosciences]--but we kept the development and physiology, then we got physiological ecology from BSR [biotic systems and resources]."

Umminger looks up from his alphabet soup. "It is complicated," he acknowledges, but he maintains that clarity is just around the corner. And even now, observers seem happy with the new system.

Scientists Laud Move Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Service Associations (COSSA), looks to Marrett's arrival to underscore the fact that "social, behavioral and economic sciences are full partners in everything NSF does," instead of junior partner to biology.

Life scientists, too, are pleased with the resulting biological sciences directorate. Paul Magee, dean of the college of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, and chairman of the task force, says BIO's newfound freedom from unrelated social science concerns "now allows biology to focus on its special agenda."

The constant changes in that special agenda are reflected in the shakeup: Not one biosciences division remained intact, as the five divisions that remained in BIO were combined into four slightly wider-ranging divisions emphasizing cooperation and communication.

Some changes were simple: "The division of molecular biosciences became the division of molecular and cellular biosciences; it picked up a program in cellular biology from the old division of cellular biosciences," Umminger says. Similarly, the old division of instrumentation and resources, after losing unrelated elements to SBE, is now the division of biological instrumentation and resources.

Other changes, though, require readjustment. For example, most of the programs from the old division of biotic systems and resources now constitute a new division, called the division of environmental biology (DEB). This change was made, says Magee, to reflect the increasing importance of environmental issues: "The idea of making a division that openly made environmental issues its focus was one of the recommendations of the task force."

Echoes Schaal, "I think the biological community, especially those of us who deal with biodiversity, perceive [the environmental situation] as a crisis. We saw this as something that was going to affect all mankind."

One program that did not end up completely in the new division, however, was population biology and physiological ecology, whose physiological elements surfaced in another new division: the division of integrative biology and neurosciences, of which Umminger is the acting assistant director.

With the cellular biology programs that did not move to the new molecular and cellular division, integrative biology includes physiology and behavior programs from the old behavioral and neural sciences division as well as developmental biology. These changes, Magee says, "implement the argument for a more holistic approach to biology."

This division expresses the task force's view, says Magee, "that developmental biology not be restricted to cells." Umminger says that integrative biology gives "a place to organismal biology, which we believe is becoming more and more important. Our division looks at the organism as an integrated unit."

Organisms are not the only integrated units at NSF, though. Task force members, biologists, and social scientists were united in their praise of the work-together approach adopted by BBS director Mary Clutter (she is now the director of BIO) and NSF director Walter Massey, who sought a great deal of candid input from scientists.

"We really tried to solicit the opinion of the scientific community," says Schaal of hearings held by the task force. And once the task force gave its recommendations, Clutter and Massey acted.

"This is extremely rapid change for a government organization," says task force chairman Magee. "I think a lot of credit is due to Walter Massey and Mary Clutter." The final emphasis of the directorate restructuring is on interdisciplinary study. "Really nice research was having trouble [getting] funding because it didn't fit the mission of one program or another," recalls Schaal. So the new divisions are organized around what Umminger calls "the cluster concept." Each program starts a year with its own budget, but to encourage interdisciplinary work, each program will have "a cluster reserve."

These monies, Umminger says, "must fund a proposal that involves that division and some other division or even directorate. We hope that will foster cross-fertilization."

This interdisciplinary approach applies to other NSF tasks: "We think this will allow better peer review, too," says Umminger. With this interdisciplinary approach, he says, "we can more effectively identify the correct panel."

BIO director Mary Clutter agrees that the changes won't bother scientists much. "As far as scientists are concerned, this is where they already are in their research; if you go into a university, you can hardly find a scientist who isn't collaborating with other disciplines." And as for funding, she says, "They'll still submit proposals in the same old way."

Robert J. Cousins, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, says that the NSF changes have "all the right pieces," and he approves of the shift in emphasis: "It encourages people to apply for funds, because they have a definite home. I believe that stimulates scientists."

When she got a call from NSF in January, University of Wisconsin professor of sociology Cora Bagley Marrett expected to be asked for her input in the design of the new social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate. "I thought [the call] was going to be about how the directorate was to be structured," says Marrett.

When NSF director Walter Massey instead asked her to head the new directorate, it took only a short period of thought for her to realize that this was "a great opportunity," she says. "Not just for me, but for science."

For Marrett, the position, which she will undertake full-time in mid-May, will allow her to further develop her own interests along a broad scientific spectrum. With a B.A. from Virginia Union University and an M.A. (1965) and Ph.D. (1968) in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Marrett has been at the forefront of the advances of both women and African Americans into science, and she has often addressed ethnic, racial, and gender issues in science.

But as a member of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 and as a faculty member of the master's-level Energy Analysis and Policy Program at the University of Wisconsin's Institute of Environmental Studies, she has pursued, she says, "a general interest in science policy, of which energy policy is just one piece."

Marrett sees the new directorate as a chance to promote the interdisciplinary studies that have become the mainstay of the sciences in recent years. "I'm talking to people about what we're doing on behalf of science," she says, "rather than in these particular areas.

"I would welcome contacts from life sciences to make sure we're dealing with things that cross our disciplines." --S.H.