CMU professor reflects on time at National Science Foundation

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Just as Jeannette Wing has made time for karate and ballet amid the rigors of top-level academia, the computer scientist has made key moves to promote advances in her field. She's just back from three years as assistant director of the National Science Foundation, presiding over Computer and Information Science and Engineering. Dr. Wing returns to Carnegie Mellon University to resume her positions of professor and head of the computer science department.

She talks to the Post-Gazette about the NSF, science education and robot friends like R2D2.

Congratulations on your tenure with the National Science Foundation. During your time there, you guided federal funding for computer science research. Can you tell us more?

I really wore multiple hats. One was to sit at the table with the director of the NSF and my fellow assistant directors who oversaw their own discipline-specific directorate and work as a team to put forth a vision and a strategy for funding research in science and engineering for the country. As the director of the entire [CISE] organization below me, I also had to manage the divisions, the division directors, the programs, and the program directors. ... I got the ability to create new programs, to move money around, to basically say, "How am I going to carve this money up into different pieces to different programs?"

It's in that role I get to set forth my own vision of where I see the field going. If I see there's an emerging area and I think the community needs to be paying attention to that emerging area, then if you put money there, then the community will become interested, right?

What were the biggest challenges you were faced with?

I think the biggest challenges were this Congress didn't give the amount we requested; it's hard to do new things when your budget looks like that. So the challenge I had was, how was I to create new programs and inspire the community to look at new directions when my budget was flat. That's part of the creativity that I had to have as a manager and a leader. And I was able to do that quite successfully.

Another challenge that I had was in working with the other assistant directors. A lot of where research in science and engineering is going now is in multidisciplinary, collaborative kinds of teams of researchers. And every time there's communication between two people, there's already, you know, some amount of effort needed. ... But when you have people from different cultures coming together, then it's even harder to have the conversation and sort of start a relationship.

After your tenure at NSF, what's the most important thing for faculty to keep in mind while applying for grants?

I think one thing that I did not appreciate as much that I'm now sharing with the faculty is what [President Barack] Obama's administration priorities are in science and engineering. He has a very dedicated staff in science and technology and in policy that really sends the signal to the country that science and engineering is important. One priority is economic prosperity for the country. Another is energy, environmental sustainability. Another is healthcare. And another is, of course, national security.

I would very much like to see Carnegie Mellon, not just the faculty in the computer department or the School of Computer Science, really do something big in sustainability or really do something big in health [information technology]. I don't think I would've had such an appreciation of paying attention to administration priorities had I not been at NSF.

There are guidelines and advice that I can give the faculty about what NSF is looking for. Every single proposal has to satisfy two criterions. One is called intellectual merit, which is basically the scientific merit of what you propose to do. The other is called broader impacts: How does the research that you're proposing to do help society?

It's harder for faculty to think of how does science connect to society. It turns out broader impact is taken quite seriously by NSF, by the National Science Board, by Congress.

You started as an assistant director in 2007. Did you see any change with the incoming Obama administration?

Oh, absolutely. I started under [President George W.] Bush and Obama came in January 2009 and to me, it was like night and day -- and this is why it was so exciting my last year at NSF, for many reasons. First of all, there was an administration, starting with Obama, who really spoke basic research [and] they spoke science and engineering.

For instance, Obama himself has given speeches at the National Academy of Engineering. If you look at the words that he spoke, littered throughout that speech was all about basic research, about science and engineering, about K-12 [Science Technology Engineering and Math] education, about innovation and how basic research in engineering and science leads to innovation, which leads to new economies, which helps society. The other reason why it was so wild to be in NSF during 2009, is because of the stimulus package. The America Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed by Congress in early 2009 and that gave NSF $3 billion to spend by the end of that fiscal year. Just to put this in perspective, at the time in 2009, NSF's total budget was $6 billion and through ARRA, they got an additional $3 billion -- which is tremendous!

It was a very exciting year just to get that money and to make sure that we spent it wisely. So that was very different. In fact, I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Where do you see the future of computer science going?

The trend now is using the intelligence of humans alongside the intelligence of a machine to solve problems that neither can solve alone. That's a huge trend and that's just part of the bigger trend where devices and computational artifacts sit alongside humans and people and organizations as co-equals.

For instance, one of the other programs I started at NSF is called "Cyber-physical Systems" which recognizes that all systems of the future will have [a] digital component that interacts with the physical world. You can think of that in terms of embedded medical devices, smart cars -- cars that have a lot of intelligence but they're actually driving in the physical world, and airplanes. [Those are] examples of our digital artifacts sitting in the physical world along with human beings.

Another example of this is the move in robotics where people aren't talking about just building robots that do things all by themselves, but as coworkers -- robots and humans working together.

Are we are stepping closer to our childhood fantasies of being a bionic person now? Or even being best buddies with something like R2D2?

[laughs] Yeah. It could be an even closer connection. We already can put devices in our heads that read our neural activity to the point that we can control a cursor on the screen. We are inventing prosthetic devices for disabled veterans and so on that can be controlled by their neural activity. So that's this brain-machine interface that's another example of how our computational artifacts or devices are attached to the human much in the same way that you're saying. But I don't know about bionic ... [laughs].

Maybe R2D2.

R2D2, absolutely! We have researchers here in this building who are building mobile robots that would be your assistant: get your coffee, get your mail, tell you how to get to my office from the parking lot. One of our faculty members here is working with other faculty members building those kinds of robots.

Including robots playing soccer, right?

Right! In fact it's Manuela Veloso, the very same person who is very involved in Robo-soccer. It makes a lot of noise, apparently.

When we think about the future in terms of technology, especially for Allegheny County, [we consider that] we have a very aging population. It will very much be the kind of computational devices, sensors, cellphones, cameras monitoring people at home to make sure that they're OK and personal robots all improving their quality of life as they're aging.

Instead of having everyone in a nursing home or in a hospital, they can be at home and be taken care of and continue to live independently with full reassurance and comfort knowing that if there is a problem, they can get health care immediately. And that's going to be through our inventions.

Grace Patuwo: .


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