Leadership & Governance

NSF Gearing Up to Boost Women in Science

France A. Córdova, National Science Foundation

March 20, 2015

Video produced by Julia Schmalz and Lisa Philip


PAUL BASKEN: We have with us today the director of the National Science Foundation, France Córdova. The NSF has a budget of about $7 billion a year. And with that, it funds about a quarter of all the basic scientific research taking place on university campuses, including most of the mathematics, science, computer science, and social sciences. Welcome, Dr. Córdova.


PAUL BASKEN: This is Women's History Month. And in a recent appearance before the House science committee, on Capitol Hill, you began by talking about some accomplished women scientists. But these are the anomaly. We know from research that women are paid less than men in science. They appear less at conferences. They have a hard time getting advanced. They drop out of the sciences more often.

It's a problem that's been talked about for a while, wondering what it is that's going on at the National Science Foundation to help solve this problem.

FRANCE A. CÓRDOVA: Well, first of all, I used those as examples of discovery science. I wanted to put a focus on NSF's basic mission, which is to further the progress of science. And to illustrate that, I chose, as you pointed out, examples of women scientists doing this. What the National Science Foundation is doing, first of all, is investing in research to better understand this issue and many of the social issues that challenge us today. And we are studying women in science all the way from elementary school through high school, and college and beyond, to understand the nature of the challenges that they face.

We have some specific programs that I could call attention to, like our very well known Advance program, which focuses on the advancement of women at the university level in the professoriate in order to understand and help them advance in their careers as women scientists and engineers.

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PAUL BASKEN: Can you tell us about maybe one or two of the women that you talked about before the House committee? And what, if anything, have you learned from their career paths that may be useful for fixing the problem going ahead?

FRANCE A. CÓRDOVA: The person that I know best about is myself. First of all, I only have met one of the three women whose research I mentioned. I have learned of their research through reading about what they've done. So one of them I was on a panel with in Davos, Switzerland — the World Economic Forum, where we talked about communicating science to the public. And I was impressed with not just her research, which is very important — and there was much, much interest in Davos, because it's about gene editing, a big, important subject today — but also, her talking about her experiences in K through 12.

And she has a son of that age, and going into the schools, and talking with them about science. And she said that there is a scientist in every child. And I think when I said it, it made a real impression on the members of Congress who were listening to it. And they asked me if they could borrow that, because it's something that people resonate with, the latent scientist in every child that we could try to bring out.

PAUL BASKEN: Looking at the NSF in terms of numbers, the grant numbers, is there something that you can see the NSF, when you took over, you could see the NSF was doing in a way that maybe it should be doing differently? And what are you doing to change anything there within the agency?

FRANCE A. CÓRDOVA: Well, we have two focuses in our proposal for the fiscal-year-2016 budget that are relevant. One is to increase our research in the education directorate to look at this and some other questions but from the point of view of where do we need more research, and how can we invest in that research that will inform our understanding, and how to go forth. And so that's one place where we're asking to increase our investment.

The other is in a program called Includes, which is an acronym that stands for including more women and minorities in science and engineering careers. And this is an attempt to look at best practices and the great things that we've already been doing everywhere in all different age levels for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering, and asking, How can we scale up those efforts and communicate them more widely so that they can be adopted by others?

PAUL BASKEN: I see. And could you set maybe a benchmark for NSF in maybe five or 10 years from now, and say a certain target that you'd like to meet that would seem realistic?

FRANCE A. CÓRDOVA: I can't set an exact benchmark. But I have asked our NSF senior leadership to look at that and make a more-definitive road map of what we could expect with continuing investments outcomes to look like. Some of those outcomes, of course, will not be ours, because we are a research organization that tries to inform others about best practices, things they can adopt. And so they would be working in partnerships with others to decide where is it that we could possibly go.

But definitely, we would like an increase in the numbers of women who feel that they have access and better understanding of what a science and engineering career is like and how to obtain it.

PAUL BASKEN: Terrific. Thank you, Dr. Córdova.


Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.