Q&A with William Easterling, Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation

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Scientific discovery is made possible thanks to the bright minds conducting the research as well as the agencies that fund them. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the most highly regarded government science funding agencies in the world, playing an important role in supporting research and people “to create knowledge that transforms the future.”

During fiscal year 2017, NSF funded approximately 24 percent of all federally supported research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities—including Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, which received 27 percent of its total research funding from NSF.

Last month, Scripps Oceanography was honored to host Dr. William Easterling, Assistant Director of NSF and head of the Geosciences Directorate, and Dr. Richard Murray, Division Director for Ocean Sciences.

During the day-long visit, Easterling and Murray toured scientific labs—including R/V Sally Ride—and met with students and researchers. Easterling also delivered a seminar focused on the state of NSF Geosciences (GEO), a program he’s led since June 2017. GEO supports fundamental research spanning the atmospheric, earth, ocean, and polar sciences, so it has a strong connection with programs at Scripps.

Prior to joining NSF, Easterling was dean of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences since 2007. As dean, Easterling led strategic planning for research initiatives focusing on the food-energy-water nexus, clean carbon energy, additive manufacturing, big data challenges in forecasting, risk and uncertainty in environmental decisions, and more.

explorations now spoke to Easterling about his journey from the world of academia to the helm of NSF’s esteemed Geosciences Directorate, the future of science funding, and more.

Q: How did the opportunity to transition from academic science leadership to government science leadership happen?

William Easterling: I had been approached once before to consider the Assistant Director, Geosciences position, but it was too early in my deanship. But experience reminded me how much I thrived on being in the middle of big research in my two previous leadership positions—one running a major global research program for the Department of Education located at University of Nebraska and the other in charge of the Penn State Institutes of the Environment. I relished working with groups of faculty to plan major team proposals.

When NSF came around again, I had been a dean for 10 years and was looking for another challenge. NSF GEO was the perfect one, although the position had slightly different expectations when I signed up just a few days ahead of the general election!

Q: Prior to joining NSF, you spent many years at Penn State with roles including professor, founding director, and dean. In what way did those experiences shape the way you are approaching your current role at NSF?

WE: Funding programs of the Advisory Committee for Geosciences Directorate are deliberately designed to reflect the research, educational, logistical, and even the social and ethical needs of institutions engaged in discovery and training the scientific workforce of tomorrow. Each of the positions I occupied at Penn State gave me valuable experience and insight into those needs and how to guide NSF in meeting them.

As a professor and successful NSF grantee, I understood and thrived within the grant-supported research process; as director of a major interdisciplinary research institute, I learned the importance and subtleties of bringing widely different disciplines together to solve big research challenges with robust science. As a dean, I learned the importance of being fully committed to principles of shared governance when leading a group of highly intelligent, highly independent, and highly opinionated people. I also learned the importance of making tough, often zero-sum decisions, whether with personnel or resources. I find myself resorting to those experiences nearly every work day at NSF.

Q: What are some of the main issues you hope to tackle in your role as Assistant Director for Geosciences?

WE: I want to continue promoting fundamental research, but in a balance between pure curiosity-driven science and use-inspired basic research. Lord knows, there is so much we don’t know that we need to know to be able to better characterize and predict earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, severe storms, volcanic eruptions, and other geophysical phenomena that would improve people’s lives. I’m also thinking of novel ways to help transition the geosciences to be more diverse ethnically, racially, and with respect to gender.

Q: What are some of the interesting geoscience research projects being funded right now? Is there one that stands out for being particularly innovative?

WE: Well, I can’t come to Scripps and not point to one of the most exciting projects in the current GEO catalog. When I see the intentions of the new Scripps Ocean Atmosphere Research Simulator (SOARS) which will mimic the ocean with unprecedented accuracy, capturing the interactions of wind, waves, microbial marine life, and chemistry at the sea surface in a laboratory setting, I can’t help but be moved. It’s the perfect tool to engage students and examine scalable research questions concerning how the introduction of pollutants by human activities are changing the chemistry of the ocean and atmosphere, which could impact the way nature regulates climate.

Q: How has our approach to understanding earth systems changed since you entered the field?

WE: Hands down, the most important change in earth systems science in the past decade and since the approach emerged in the mid-1980s is the explicit recognition of the importance of including human activity as a major forcing of natural earth processes. No longer is the impact of human population growth and consumption on nearly every part of the earth system a testable hypothesis—it is an accepted fact.

We know with considerable certainty that human-induced changes in the earth system are in turn coming back to directly impact the welfare of humans and the physical systems and ecosystems on which they depend. And I watch with satisfaction as earth scientists coin and apply the term “the Anthropocene.” This new paradigm demands the participation of certain types of social science into the formulation and conduct of much of the research being done in the study of earth systems.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of earth and ocean science leaders? How do you think they can make the most impact?

WE: I think back on my career and marvel at how important my experience was as a fellow at the National Research Council. It was a wonderful exposé into how science policy is formed in the U.S. I have observed through the years a growing interest on the part of many of our earth sciences graduate students in becoming more involved with earth science-related policy in relation to big issues of the day, including climate change, geophysical hazards, hydraulic fracturing and other features of renewable and nonrenewable energy systems, and more general matters of sustainability. Yes, they want their PhDs to reflect depth in fundamental geosciences research, but they also want to be able to use that knowledge for the betterment of people and the environment.

My advice is, stay true to those goals. For those who seek that path, I cannot advocate enough for them to seek AAAS and other graduate fellowships aimed specifically at giving them a window into the science policy process, whether at NSF or one of the other science agencies or at the National Academy of Sciences, National Resource Council, or other NGOs. Learn how the science community weighs in on the formation of new research priorities in funding agencies. See how the executive and legislative branches convert national need into research priorities and then allocate funding to address those priorities, all with the assistance of trained scientists. You may, like me, leave D.C. eventually to pursue a career in academia or the private sector, but you will never cease falling back on your experiences in D.C.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

– Brittany Hook

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