France A. Córdova is the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is responsible for advancing scientific discovery and technological innovation. She previously served as chair of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, president of Purdue University, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and as chief scientist at NASA.
Córdova spoke about her experiences and her current role leading the NSF with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. What drew you to the world of science?
A. I was curious about the nature of stars and the galaxies. Those questions captivated me as a young person. The other kinds of questions that captivated me were about the nature of matter. When I was growing up, everything was about the atom and there were a lot of discoveries that still had to be made about particles within nuclei. Thinking about those questions just resonated with me. I didn’t have science role models as a young girl, and it wasn’t until I actually graduated from college with a degree in literature that I realized I could be anything that I wanted to be.
Q. What are some of the lessons you learned as chief scientist at NASA?
A. I worked with Administrator Daniel Goldin to bring more scientists into headquarters to talk about the grand challenges — and what NASA was uniquely positioned to do that would have the most profound impact. The idea of focusing on the biggest challenges and how your organization is uniquely positioned to address certain ones that no other organizations could address as effectively was a big takeaway for me. That led to some of the missions that are going on today, including the search for planets around other suns and the search for life beyond earth.
I also gained insights from working with other agencies, scientific societies and the national academies. We considered issues ranging from rebuilding NSF’s South Pole research station to cross-agency public communication of science.
Q. What are your goals for the National Science Foundation?
A. One goal is to increase awareness and appreciation of science in this country and how it can be furthered, fostered and funded. Hopefully we can increase awareness among young people and the largely untapped talent pool of women and minorities to encourage them to think about careers in science and engineering.
Q. What are some workforce challenges that you are facing?
A. NSF will be moving from Arlington to Alexandria, Va. in a few years. Nobody likes to move. We want to be able to rise to that challenge and approach it as an opportunity. Another issue is staff support. About 94 percent of our budget goes out the door to universities and states and the people that spend the money. So we have a tiny overhead. I take the subway to the office every day and I’m often sitting with NSF employees who tell me, “I love my job, but I’m working very, very hard,” meaning they’re working extra hours. I want to work on providing more support where we are thinly stretched.
Q. What can the federal government do to attract scientific and technical talent?
A. When you rotate people through an organization, whether it’s a university or research institute or an organization like NSF, you bring in new talent and they infuse the place with ideas. A few years later, they go back to the place where they came from or to new places, and you have a circulation of talent and new ideas. I think that is a very good thing for an agency or organization to do. It’s a way to bring talent into the federal government. The other thing I’ve noticed is that many of the leaders I know in the federal government are people who have served in different agencies. It’s helpful not to get tied into a specific way of doing things.
Q. Who are some of your leadership role models?
A. I have learned good things from everybody that I’ve worked with. Leaders come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, but they have certain characteristics in common. One is that they have a real commitment to the mission of what they do. They love doing it. I’ve also learned that they have a real focus on goals, and they like to approach challenges with creative solutions. Often that means gathering great teams of people with great ideas. They are by and large good communicators. In addition to that, patience and fairness certainly are qualities that I admire in my role models.