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NSF staff, fellows and supported scientists present findings and debate policies at prestigious scientific meeting

National Science Foundation


IMAGE: Georgia Tech graduate student Priyanka Rohatgi tests whether the nuclear receptors engineered in yeast cells have the same function in mammalian cells. view more

Credit: Photo by Gary Meek; courtesy Georgia Tech

At the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this week in San Jose, Calif., National Science Foundation (NSF) staff and NSF-funded investigators will present results and insights representing the full scope of science, from graduate education to the biochemistry of extremophiles. One of the world's best-known scientific gatherings, the AAAS meeting this year has as its theme, "Innovation, Information, and Imaging."

Below is a sampling of sessions organized by, or featuring, NSF staff and NSF-funded scientists, that address breakthroughs in basic research as well as the policies and priorities that shape the scientific enterprise.

Gender in STEM policy, practice, and research: Advances in North America and Europe

Women remain underrepresented in science and engineering, and tend to earn less than men in similar science and engineering jobs. Reducing the gender gap--by both encouraging gender equality and applying a better understanding of gender issues to research--is a priority of governments worldwide.

When it comes to gender considerations in STEM, "we're at a transformative moment," said Wanda E. Ward, head of NSF's Office of International and Integrative Activities. She will lead a session at AAAS on the role of gender in STEM policy, practice and research. It will specifically focus on advances in Europe and North America--including the roadmap for action developed after 2013's Gender Summit 3, which was hosted by NSF in partnership with other funding agencies in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe.

"NSF and our sister agencies across the world are committed to integrating and leveraging the gender dimension into the scientific community and scientific research itself," said Ward.

The session includes discussions about gender from the perspective of higher education leadership, funding agencies, and the European Union.

Graduate science education in flux: Alternate pathways to science careers

There is growing interest in the future of STEM graduate education, as evidenced by recent reports from the National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, the Council of Graduate Schools, the National Academies Board on Higher Education and Workforce, and scientific societies like the American Chemical Society.

NSF invests close to one billion dollars a year in graduate education, reaching 44,000 graduate students annually through individual fellowships, traineeships, and involvement in the research of individual investigators. NSF Program Director Myles Boylan is among the speakers who will discuss changes, challenges and opportunities in graduate education at a session titled, "Graduate Science Education in Flux: Alternate Pathways to Science Careers".

The session, moderated by NSF Program Director Marilyn Suiter, examines how to best prepare graduate students in STEM for careers beyond academia, including through degree programs designed as alternatives to traditional doctoral and postdoctoral training.

This topic is ripe for discussion as NSF issues a solicitation for its National Research Traineeship program and takes stock of ideas, opinions and perspectives offered in its online Graduate Education Forum.

Strategies for effective broader impacts work

NSF considers two criteria in the merit review of proposals: What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity? And: what are the broader impacts of the proposal?

While most researchers understand the meaning of "intellectual merit," experience shows that many have a less than clear understanding of "broader impacts."

At a session titled "Strategies for Effective Broader Impacts Work," several current AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellows will share what they've learned about broader impacts while working at NSF.

Presentations will preview a tool to assist principal investigators in thinking about the broader impacts of their research, and will discuss how advanced text-mining tools helped NSF's Earth Science Division analyze its broader impacts portfolio, culture and values.

Kevin Niemi, from the University of Wisconsin, will discuss the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) and what the NSF-funded research coordination network can provide.

"The idea that NSF-funded research should contribute something beyond its intellectual merit is as old as NSF itself," says Elise Lipkowitz, an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and one of the session presenters. "We are excited that this session highlights new data and resources to assist principal investigators, both individually and in the aggregate, in fulfilling this vital aspect of the agency's mission."

Searching for alternative chemistries of life on Earth and throughout the universe

A deeper and more systems-based understanding of life's chemical complexities and the rich diversity of its environmental dynamics will be fundamental to our search for signs of life elsewhere in the universe.

At the Friday session, "Searching for Alternative Chemistries of Life on Earth and Throughout the Universe," AAAS Fellow Jay Goodwin will moderate a discussion with leading NSF-supported scientists on efforts to discover alternative biochemistries and their potential origins here and elsewhere in the universe.

"Earth is our home, and in many ways our laboratory, where we perform our field studies," says Goodwin. "What we learn of how life works here, and how different it can be, will help us to find it where it may exist beyond our home."

Engineering information: Adapting risk and resilience frameworks to cybersecurity

Information technology and the Internet have brought tremendous benefits, but they have also opened a Pandora's Box of cybersecurity and privacy issues that are threatening to become a public menace.

At "Engineering Information: Adapting Risk and Resilience Frameworks to Cybersecurity," a group of leading experts from academia, industry and government--including two former advisors to the State Department, the Dean of the College of Engineering at University of California, Berkeley, and a program officer from NSF--will discuss the scientific underpinnings of cybersecurity from the perspectives of engineering, computer science, social and biological sciences

"The problem of cybersecurity and attendant issues of privacy affect the way we conduct our daily lives, business, economy, industry, warfare--indeed virtually all aspects of human endeavor," said Sankar Basu, a program officer at NSF and session organizer. "The vastly distributed, interconnected and multiparty nature of the cyberspace makes it a unique playground for attack as well as deterrence, and presents unprecedented challenges."

The symposium will explore resilience--an ability to cope with and adapt to continuous threats--as the guiding principle for preserving the security of cyber-systems of all kinds, from major infrastructure to medical devices. The group will also discuss the development of semi-quantitative methods that can integrate technical data with value judgments to allow rapid responses to new and evolving cyberattacks.

When experts collide: Driving cross-cutting innovation in biological imaging and informatics

What happens when you convene 25 pioneering biologists, spatial image analysts, programmers, artists, and educators and ask them to develop high-risk collaborative research proposals? How are big ideas developed and realized over many years by diverse interdisciplinary teams?

Find out at "When Experts Collide: Driving Cross-Cutting Innovation in Biological Imaging and Informatics," where participants in the NSF Innovations in Biological Imaging and Visualization Ideas Lab will present their teams' inventions and findings, plus stories about how such unanticipated collaborations can evolve and thrive.

Chuck Liarakos, advisor to the head of NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO), will kick off this symposium by discussing why BIO sponsored Ideas Labs as an alternative proposal solicitation and review strategy; how Ideas Labs work; and their interesting results.

This session is of special interest to organizations that are considering using Ideas Labs, as well as researchers who may participate in them or are curious about them.

Going public: Investing in science communication for scientists

Government-funded scientific research helps push science to new frontiers every day, but scientists are just beginning to determine the best ways to tell the public about their work--and how to build those practices into graduate education.

An expert panel at AAAS, titled "Going Public: Investing in Science Communication for Scientists," is set Sunday to discuss some of the most pressing communications questions facing scientists, including the roles of the government and universities in funding communications efforts.

Richard Boone, program director for NSF's Research Traineeship program, said that finding ways to effectively communicate with members of the public who do not have scientific expertise is especially important as an accountability issue for publicly-funded research.

"We serve the taxpayer," he said. "And the bottom line is we have to be able to communicate our work with every taxpayer, regardless of whether it's someone with a scientific background or not."



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