Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s new vice president for research, was recently selected by President Barack Obama for nomination to the National Science Board. When confirmed, she will be the second MIT professor that is currently a member of the board alongside Subra Suresh ScD ’81, who serves as an ex-officio member as president of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The 25-member board governs the NSF and advises the president and Congress on policy matters related to science, engineering, and education.
The Tech had the opportunity to sit down with Zuber last week to discuss her thoughts on her appointment and what she will do going forward.
TT: How do you feel about the whole situation?
MZ: It’s an honor, obviously. Those of us who are in a position to help the government do its business ought to help. One of MIT’s core values is to try to help the nation, and so around here, if you get asked to do something like this you just do it; it’s just a given that whenever MIT can help the country, we help the country.
TT: Are you going to accept the nomination?
MZ: Yes, that is correct. It’s a lot of work to get someone nominated to something like this; you really don’t pursue it unless you’re going to do it. It was a six-month process to get nominated that involved lots of background checking and related things, like any appointment to the executive branch does. But even as that’s going on, you don’t know if it’s actually going to happen because things happen and many possible appointments don’t move ahead for one reason or another.
TT: What are you going to do in your new position?
MZ: This position is on the board that oversees the National Science Foundation, which funds a great deal of basic research in this country. My job is to provide advice in that area and make sure they can use their investment in the best possible way. In this capacity, the group of individuals that’s associated with this also make themselves available as a resource for either the White House or Congress on matters on science and technology. If issues come up on Capitol Hill or within the White House for which the expertise of individuals on the board are desired, we would try to help however we can.
TT: Do you have an idea of what your specific role in the board will be?
MZ: What I was told is that their interest in having me participate was my experience with large science projects. So much of science has become interdisciplinary and many of the challenges that face the country deal with interdisciplinary projects that are large in scope and have complex interactions. In that sense, my experience is hopefully relevant to that.
TT: Are you still going to stay an active researcher?
MZ: I think it’s impossible for me not to do research; I still have my research group here, responsibilities at MIT as well, so I’m going to balance everything as well as I can. What I was told by the White House was that the fact that I was an active researcher was something they viewed as very positive because people who are active researchers understand the challenges with the current research environment very well.
TT: Are you still going to fulfill your duties as the newly appointed vice president for research here at MIT?
MZ: The White House position is four meetings a year in Washington, a lot of teleconferences, and trips to Washington when needed in order to advise whoever needs advice. Because part of my responsibilities as vice president for research are to manage relationships in Washington and to provide information to decision makers in Washington, or pointing them to members of the MIT community who can provide them with expert information. The role on the NSB is actually very compatible with the position that I have here at MIT. The fact that both of these things happened at the same time is fortuitous.
TT: Where is the fiscal cliff in your mind on how it relates to your new job?
MZ: One of the things that I will be doing in Washington is trying to educate decision makers on how crucial research and education are to the future of this nation, including in terms of its economic productivity. We have not dealt with the issue of sequestration and across-the-board cuts. We have to do our very best to make sure that we educate individuals in Washington, to show that you’re eating the seed corn if you cut the research budget. Future productivity in this country is going to be largely rooted in advances in science and engineering. That said, we have to make sure we’re prepared if cuts occur, and work to make sure that we can bring opportunities that are available, even in this challenging time, to the attention of our faculty. I have great confidence that our faculty and research staff will compete very effectively for the research dollars that are available.
TT: Any final comments?
MZ: I’m extremely excited about doing this and very excited about student involvement in research. Whatever I can do in my new capacity to help students have access to the experience of creating knowledge is something I’m going to be sensitive to and a big advocate for.