NSF's Director Is Leaving to Become Head of Carnegie Mellon U.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Subra Suresh, who has led the science agency since late 2010, says the unexpected offer from Carnegie Mellon was an opportunity he could not turn down.
February 05, 2013

Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation since late 2010, will leave the federal science agency in March and become president of Carnegie Mellon University in July, the NSF and the university announced on Tuesday.

Mr. Suresh, who was dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before taking office at the NSF in October 2010, said he was leaving the agency with a record of accomplishments that include promoting international collaborations and expanding interdisciplinary research.

For Carnegie Mellon, the appointment completes a search that began in August 2010, when Jared L. Cohon announced plans to step down after 16 years as president of the Pittsburgh university, which has highly ranked programs in fields that include computer science, finance, and business.

In an interview, Mr. Suresh described the university presidency as an opportunity he did not seek but could not turn down. "Especially," he said, at "an institution of the caliber of Carnegie Mellon."

His planned departure from the NSF after just 21/2 years will mark the shortest tenure of a permanent director since 1993, and it comes as the science foundation and other federal agencies face the prospect of deep budget cuts at a time of governmentwide austerity.

The NSF, which distributes some $7-billion in federal financing for science, nevertheless is in relatively good shape, having just come through a period of "very healthy growth," Mr. Suresh said.

"I feel very good about where NSF is, at this point, and hopefully it will continue," he said.

In a letter to the foundation's staff announcing his decision, Mr. Suresh spoke of "mixed emotions," describing his excitement toward Carnegie Mellon and sadness over leaving the NSF.

Listing accomplishments from his term at the NSF, Mr. Suresh mentioned efforts to harmonize grant-review procedures with science agencies abroad, expand overseas partnerships, and encourage research projects that span multiple academic fields.

The White House noted other achievements under Mr. Suresh's leadership. John P. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, cited Mr. Suresh's introduction of family-friendly policies making it easier for grant recipients to keep their labs operational while taking maternity leave or meeting other family needs. And President Obama said Mr. Suresh had "done his part to make sure the American people benefit from advances in technology, and opened up more opportunities for women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups."

Mr. Suresh was reluctant to sketch out specific goals for his time at Carnegie Mellon, saying he wanted to meet with faculty members and students before publicly discussing his plans.

He said, however, that his interest in interdisciplinary research made Carnegie Mellon particularly attractive because of the university's reputation for allowing its faculty a high level of freedom to work across specialties.

Mr. Suresh said the offer from Carnegie Mellon was just as unexpected as his departure from MIT had been. While at MIT, the possibility of coming to the NSF "was not even on my radar screen," he said. "So these things happen, and they happen I think for a good reason, and I'm really excited about the possibility."