To understand Subra Suresh’s vision for the National Science Foundation, it helps to know the intent behind a sleek new stone-and-glass structure jutting sharply toward the corner of Main and Ames streets in Cambridge, Mass. Inside are six floors of laboratories designed, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield put it, to be “a cauldron for unexpected collaborations” and break new ground in cancer research. Named for $100 million donor David H. Koch, a billionaire industrialist and MIT alumnus who has battled prostate cancer, the center unites engineering research faculty from multiple fields with molecular geneticists and cell biologists.
Suresh, MIT’s dean of engineering from 2006 until he became NSF director last fall, revels in the intellectual combustion such ventures promise. More than linking people from separate disciplines, he encourages new styles of research and innovation that draw upon disparate fields to open fresh routes to progress. Former MIT President Charles Vest credits Suresh with being a leader in helping to create not only the cancer research center but also campuswide collaborative efforts in computational engineering and “Transportation@MIT.” The latter initiative pulls together hundreds of engineers, scientists, architects, urban planners, economists, and even behavioral scientists to improve transportation from the standpoint of sustainability, technology, business practices, and public policy.
As head of the country’s leading basic-research funder, Suresh is now in a position to promote the same kind of cross-cutting investigations on a national or even global scale. NSF is exactly the place for such collaborations, he believes; its portfolio is the most diverse of all federal granting agencies, and today’s most complex problems demand new modes of attack.
“One of the most important things I took away from MIT was how we can facilitate exciting research opportunities for the community by tearing down disciplinary barriers,” he tells Prism. “We are at a point in time in science and engineering where many different problems are so complex that multiple disciplines are converging in interesting ways that weren’t anticipated just 10 years ago.”
The NSF’s annual budget of about $7 billion funds all fields of science and engineering except clinical medicine, supplying some 20 percent of the government’s support for basic research in disciplines as different as anthropology, mechanical engineering, and environmental biology. It also funds a range of educational programs both academic and informal, including museums and television documentaries. And although NSF has long championed interdisciplinary approaches, insiders say it has met with limited success in changing the culture of a research community in which most leaders came up in the old ways of walled-off disciplines.
Vest, now president of the National Academy of Engineering, calls Suresh’s appointment “inspired,” adding: “He is well positioned by research and teaching experience to really understand what needs to be done to make NSF … more flexible and adept at supporting and empowering truly interdisciplinary research.”
Suresh’s enthusiasm for synergistic approaches comes at least partly from his own experience. In some 30 years of applying the tools of engineering to scientific problems -- and vice versa -- he has built what, by all accounts, is a stellar record of achievement in fields as different as fatigue-crack propagation in materials, the characteristics of thin films such as those in computer chips, and changes in the mechanical properties of living cells in disease and health. His research subjects have ranged from bridges to malaria-infected red blood cells, which, Suresh discovered, become a hundred times stiffer and more resistant to flowing through capillaries. He has published at least 210 papers in international journals, written three books and coedited five more, and holds 14 U.S. and international patents. Collaborations with microbiologists and other scientists here and overseas have led to, among other things, advances in the new interdisciplinary field of nanobiomechanics.
A longtime collaborator, Ares Rosakis, chair of engineering and applied sciences at Caltech, says Suresh “represents a superb combination of science and engineering. He can operate as a scientist, and then he can operate as an engineer. And when the project demands it, he can be both.” He’s atypical in another way, Rosakis adds: “One of the things that was quite amazing in working with Subra was that his approach was never only theoretical or only experimental. He could be both. He would always insist that we look at the problem and bring into it whatever tools we needed.”
Like himself, Suresh observes, today’s young researchers increasingly have broad-spectrum outlooks and are stymied by traditional boundaries. “We don’t want them to be falling through disciplinary cracks, either because that’s how NSF is organized or universities are organized.”
One way to soften boundaries at NSF, Suresh says, is to encourage “intellectual engagement seamlessly across the institution” among the dozen or so directorates and programs, and also vertically from the director on down. “This is one of the priorities for us internally. If a young person is working at the intersection of three or four disciplines, how do we make sure that the proposal is evaluated by the right people? How do we set up merit review processes for a truly revolutionary idea that may be considered too high risk by some communities but may have high reward? How do we foster it and select it and fund it?”
Uppermost, he says, is the nexus of energy, climate, and transportation, a priority he shares with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A major NSF effort is Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability, or SEES. Its clean-energy research projects take what Suresh calls “a broad and cross-disciplinary approach to sustainability science,” reaching across engineering and natural and social sciences. Begun in the final year of his predecessor, Arden Bement, SEES would get a hefty one-third increase, over current spending, in President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget.
New under Suresh is Cyberinfrastructure for 21st-Century Science and Engineering, or CIF21, comprising data-enabled science and engineering, computational infrastructure, community research networks, and access and connections to cyberinfrastructure facilities. It’s aimed, he said in his budget announcement, at offering a “framework for people, instruments, and tools to address complex problems and conduct multidisciplinary research.”
Suresh is quick to rebut suggestions that his stress on innovation, and the economic benefits that result, means he’s abandoning NSF’s tradition of long-term fundamental research. He quotes Vannevar Bush, the agency’s intellectual father and an early predecessor as engineering dean at MIT: “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!”
“At the same time,” Suresh notes, “without diverting too many NSF dollars, there are opportunities to nudge fundamental research toward shorter-term benefits. Agencies like NSF and other federal agencies must find opportunities for the fruits of basic research to reach a broader cross section of industry and the population sooner than they have in the past.”
Suresh, 54, reached the pinnacle of American science from fairly modest beginnings as the son of a local government employee and a homemaker in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Something of a prodigy in high school, he joined debating teams in three languages: Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil, the local language. He also studied English throughout school and eventually added French and some German. Fleetingly, he thought of a career in the foreign service, but chose engineering as a path to financial success and an opportunity to go abroad. After getting a bachelor of technology degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (now Chennai), one of 15 elite science and engineering schools, he pursued a master’s at Iowa State University. He chose the school because it was in America, had no application fee, and offered the best financial package. Some of the better-known schools, he recalls, charged $15 to apply.
From Iowa, he went to MIT and in less than two years completed a doctorate on fracture propagation in fatigued steel. Suresh describes the research in eminently practical terms as “why things break,” be they skyscraper girders or blowout preventers. His adviser then, Robert Ritchie, was impressed with Suresh’s interest in real-world matters: “I think we’ll see Subra try to steer NSF to focus more on today’s problems and less on those of 30 years out. He’ll probably do it by trying to marry science and engineering so you get both approaches working together.”
When Ritchie left MIT for the University of California, Berkeley, he took Suresh with him for a postdoc there and at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where the two continued working on fatigue cracks.
From California, Suresh landed an assistant professorship of engineering at Brown, making full professor six years later. Brown’s head of engineering then, L.B. “Ben” Freund, remembers Suresh as “unusually savvy” for someone so young: “He knew how to assess areas of interest to decide what was worth the time and investment in terms of getting something useful done and what wasn’t. He didn’t have much patience for people who focused on deep scientific questions without considering what impact their work might have.”
Along the way, Suresh became a U.S. citizen and married an American. His wife, Mary, is director of public health for the town of Wellesley, Mass. Their two daughters, now in college, were taken on long visits to India as children to learn about their paternal heritage.
After 10 years at Brown, Suresh went back to MIT in 1993 as a professor of materials science and engineering. A standout not just in the lab but in managing people with competing interests, Suresh was given various program directorships — coaxing MIT and Harvard to work together in a joint center and helping create a joint educational and research program among MIT and two universities in Singapore. In 2000, Suresh became head of MIT’s materials science and engineering program. Six, years later he was promoted to dean.
In four years as dean, Suresh added 50 new faculty members to the engineering school. He led a redesign of the curriculum to make it easier for students to work effectively across educational silos. He instituted interdepartmental faculty searches, giving other schools a say in who gets hired, and stepped up recruitment of women and underrepresented minorities. In his last year as dean, the school for the first time hired more women than men as faculty members.
“His management style is gentle,” Freund says. “He doesn’t do things by diktat but by gentle persuasion. It’s very effective.”
When Suresh’s appointment was announced last year, most science policy insiders didn’t recognize the name. But colleagues, especially in engineering departments, were ecstatic. They knew of his research and recognized that as dean of engineering, he ran about half of MIT. They praised his managerial abilities and his relentless determination to improve the way things are done, describing him as highly organized, driven but mild mannered, and focused on real- world problems. They predict that his clear, well-prepared speaking style will make him a persuasive advocate.
A measure of his success inside the administration is the 13 percent increase, over current spending, for NSF in President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget – in a year when many other accounts have been frozen or cut. But Congress, which holds the power of the purse, will be a harder nut to crack – particularly the GOP-controlled House. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, where NSF is headquartered, provided an early warning when he invited the public to weigh in with comment on wasteful research projects.
If Suresh is anxious that Congress could curtail his ambitious expansion of research, it’s not his only concern. Speaking recently to the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology, he recalled that among his graduating IIT class, a large majority chose to pursue graduate study in the United States and ended up staying here. Today, that same proportion is finding career opportunities in a more prosperous India. “I worry whether in 10 or 20 years the U.S. will remain the chosen destination for people from countries that now supply a large share of our scientific and engineering workforce,” he tells Prism.
His response to the falloff in science and engineering talent arriving from abroad: a reinvigorated effort to bring American women and underrepresented minorities into science and engineering fields.
Increasing workforce diversity in science and engineering, Suresh says, leaning forward from a chair in his spacious Arlington, Va., office at NSF headquarters, is one of his prime goals. Women, he says, are entering research in greater proportions than ever but drop out before establishing long-term careers, most often because of family pressures. Suresh sympathizes, but he sees each dropout as a loss of American brainpower in the research world. He is talking with university presidents to find ways that NSF and other federal agencies can help trim the dropout rate. For minorities, he says the news is not good either from the standpoint of entry into science and engineering studies or in retention.
“By 2040, the U.S. will be a majority minority country,” Suresh says. “So how do we address that issue? Many minorities are severely underrepresented, and we need to fix that issue before it’s too late.”
He believes that America must maintain its attractiveness to foreign students at least until the quality of primary and secondary education in science and mathematics is good enough to produce a larger native-born workforce, especially including women and minorities. If other nations keep more of their young people and Americans have not taken up the slack, Suresh fears the country may lose its leadership position.
As Suresh talks, his face shows a hint of a smile that suggests the tougher the challenge, the more he likes it.
Boyce Rensberger is a freelance writer specializing in science and science policy.