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Q&A: France Córdova, outgoing director of NSF

27 March 2020

The astrophysicist reflects on her career, scientific discovery, and the increasing emphasis on improving the research environment.

“It’s wonderful when everything falls into place, like when LIGO makes a discovery of black holes merging, or you see first light from a big telescope or something that has never been seen before,” says astrophysicist and science policy leader France Córdova. “But there is a long road to creating those moments. They don’t just happen accidentally. They happen with a lot of investment.”

France Cordova.
France Córdova. Credit: Stephen Voss/NSF

This week Córdova steps down from NSF after six years at the helm. She earned her PhD in physics at Caltech in 1979 and has published more than 150 papers in her field. She previously held a series of research and leadership positions at universities and scientific institutions and agencies—Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, NASA, the University of California, Purdue University, and the Smithsonian Institution. “My joy as a scientist has been to think broadly and creatively, to think how to use all our assets and how to engage others in the quest for more understanding,” she says.

PT: How did you get into physics?

CÓRDOVA: I have always loved physics. But in school I didn’t have any encouragement to pursue science—my parents were businesspeople. Even the science faculty in my high school didn’t encourage women to pursue science. So when I got to Stanford, I decided to pursue what I had been encouraged in and was relatively good at: writing and dramatic arts.

After college I had a job in New York with a Condé Nast publication, a stint I won in a national writing competition for women. I stayed on the East Coast for a while, working on a project-based science initiative for colleges and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During that time, I saw a television special on neutron stars, and it really captivated my attention. The next day I went to MIT and knocked on the door of one of the professors who was featured on the show. He referred me to the space center there. One of the professors was writing the first review article about cosmic x-ray sources, and he was excited that I was an English major. I helped him with the review article, and I analyzed x-ray balloon flight data.

Three professors got me admitted to MIT as a graduate student at large. But I wanted to be back home in California. I took some background courses in physics and math at Cal State while working at Caltech doing computer programming for a professor whose work was mentioned in the review article. Then I was admitted as a graduate student at Caltech, and my employer became my thesis adviser. I got to launch rockets from White Sands, New Mexico, and analyze x-ray satellite data. I was finally on my way to being a rocket scientist.

PT: What do you see as your main scientific contributions?

CÓRDOVA: While I was a graduate student, I used x-ray satellite data to discover pulsing soft x rays from a class of binary stars called cataclysmic variables. And I was among the leaders in multiwavelength astrophysics. In those days, exploiting the entire electromagnetic spectrum was a big deal. Facilities were just coming online that allowed you to do that, and graduate students like me were the first ones to do it. I edited the first book on this new approach, called Multi-Wavelength Astrophysics.

Later, I was the coprincipal investigator of the first payload to have a multiwavelength observing platform in space. It was on a European Space Agency mission, XMM-Newton. I traveled to French Guiana with my spouse and young children to watch the launch in 1999. Just a couple of months ago we celebrated the spacecraft’s 20th anniversary. It’s still in space and still making wonderful observations.

PT: Why did you move into administrative and leadership roles?

CÓRDOVA: It was an accident, really. One day somebody called me and said that the NASA administrator wanted to interview me for the position of chief scientist. I thought that was interesting, but I didn’t know anything about science policy. I went and had dinner with Dan Goldin, who still holds the record of longest-serving NASA administrator, and we just resonated. The next day, back home at Penn State, where I was head of the astronomy and astrophysics department, he called me and offered me the job.

I checked with other department heads, and they said it was a terrible idea, that it would take me out of doing research. But I talked with women, including a friend who was head of the history department at Penn, and my mom. They both said something like, “You can’t be talking about how important it is for women to be in leadership roles and not take a job that affords you a platform for encouraging women in science.”

I still supervised graduate students and even taught undergraduate students, until the roles kept getting bigger and I didn’t have time. But I have never really left the research community. In all my jobs I’ve advocated for research and I’ve been eager to know about and appreciate new research discoveries.

PT: What has been your experience as a rare woman both in science and in science policy?

CÓRDOVA: It’s been a late-blooming consciousness for me. Younger women seem to have that consciousness in a much earlier stage of their careers. There is more talk and more awareness about it. But in those days, we just tried our best to get on with what we wanted to do.

I never thought very much about being a woman. I always thought about what I enjoyed and wanted to do. When my thesis adviser asked me if I’d like to be nominated to be an astronaut, I said no. That’s an example of how focused I was on my research.

PT: What were some of the highlights of your time at NASA?

CÓRDOVA: I arrived at NASA in late 1993. One of my most important roles was bringing in scientists to become more involved in future missions. An important result of that effort was a much-increased emphasis on astrobiology.

In those days, the International Space Station was being designed. How were we going to make it utilized for excellent science, and not only to show off engineering prowess and technological achievements? This led to experiments on the ISS like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, designed to address the question of matter–antimatter imbalance and the problem of the nature of dark matter. I spent a lot of time talking to Congress about the science we could do in a microgravity environment.

I really enjoyed working with other agencies as NASA’s representative. We did all sorts of things, like write the first federal definition of research misconduct. As NASA chief scientist, I got to coordinate that effort. It felt very good when we got that job done, and the definitions have lasted to this day. My time at NASA was my first experience testifying before Congress. Goldin always wanted a scientist at his side. Since then I’ve testified dozens of times.

PT: What have been highlights of your time at NSF?

CÓRDOVA: We have had great scientific breakthroughs: the gravitational-wave detections of merging black holes and merging neutron stars; the Event Horizon Telescope image of the shadow of a black hole; the IceCube detection of neutrino emission from a blazar, settling the 100-year-plus question about the origin of high-energy cosmic rays; and most recently first light from our big solar telescope on Haleakala in Hawaii. Not any of them were my doing, but I was the lucky person who was director of NSF when they reached culmination.

Córdova swearing-in ceremony.
France Córdova is sworn in as NSF director in 2014. White House science adviser John Holdren administered the oath and was joined by Córdova’s cousin, Adrienne Córdova. Credit: Sandy Schaeffer/NSF

Another big thing was coming up with NSF’s 10 big ideas for investment. They have been a tremendous way for people to see some of the directions in which science is headed. Six of them are research ideas, and four are enabling ideas. The overall purpose for these derived from my first couple of years, when we were playing a lot of defense. Some of our projects were being attacked by members of Congress, especially projects that had to do with social and behavioral science; they didn’t understand why we were doing them. NSF is very much a bottom-up organization where we let proposals come from anywhere, in every field of science and engineering, and judge them on their intellectual merit and broader impact. The big ideas are an offense strategy. They are signposts to the future, intended to collect energy and nucleate enthusiasm and to engage Congress, the administration, and the public.

Another thing we have focused on is addressing barriers that limit women in STEM. NSF has been a leader among the federal agencies in tackling harassment and bullying issues.

Finally, in February we signed the first collective bargaining agreement with our union employees in 38 years. The agreement clarifies and updates agency practices, such as teleworking, in a current context of rules and regulations. You can’t have big ideas and lead in the programmatic domain unless your own house is in order.

PT: In December President Trump nominated Sethuraman Panchanathan of Arizona State University to be your successor. (He has not yet been confirmed by Congress.) What are some of the challenges you have faced and expect he will face as well?

CÓRDOVA: There is no end to challenges. We have research security challenges. Funding is always a challenge. Creating a culture of support—the antithesis of harassment and bullying—is a big deal, and we are trying to take a leadership role in that space with codes of conduct for various research environments we fund. There is a lot more attention these days on the research environment, not just the research itself. We want to be able to embrace a lot more people as scientists and engineers in this country and internationally. We want them to come into a welcoming environment that has integrity.

I’m very excited about getting more students literate in computer science. I think that’s key to our future. It’s a tool like math. We have great programs, but they don’t scale because there is not enough sustained investment. We do a good job with graduate students and undergraduate students, but we really have to do more at the bottom and top ends, starting at kindergarten and including the reskilling of adults.

Now, of course, there’s COVID-19. It is an evolving challenge across all domains, personal and professional. It will take a lot to get us through this crisis and then recover.

PT: What are your plans going forward?

CÓRDOVA: I am going to take a recess and assess what is next. I think it’s time to turn on the creative juices. I’ll be at my home in Santa Fe, and Santa Fe is a great nurturer of creative energy.

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