Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Theory Program Director

The NSF has posted a search for a new theory program director to take over after Bill Steiger's term expires this summer. The program director plays a critical role for our community, running the panels for theoretical computer science grants and administering those grants, working with other program directors and the CISE leadership in establishing the funding directions of current and new programs and generally acting as an advocate within NSF for theoretical computer science. Most universities are very willing to give a leave for these positions and the NSF will typically cover your current salary.

Bob Sloan, program director in 2001-2002, wrote The Joys of Being an NSF Program Director for the latest SIGACT News.

If you have an interest not only in what we do, but also in the process and policy issues of what we do, then you too might really enjoy spending a couple of years being a program director. At many universities, definitely including mine, the whole funding process is a major component—perhaps the single most important component—in determining who will get tenure, promotions, etc. As somebody interested in process and policy, I really enjoyed getting to see how this system works from the inside.

Not only is NSF an interesting place, it is a highly purpose driven place. As faculty, we are called on to do many, many different tasks, some of which seem to have a clear goal, and some of which, well, leave one scratching one's head. One wonders, depending on where one is and who is the Dean/Provost/etc. any given year: Is the goal really to educate the masters students, or rather to keep them happy enough that we keep making money from them? NSF has one of the clearest goals possible: find the absolute best research to fund. (There can be huge disagreement about what is the best research, of course, but there really is not any disagreement about the underlying goal.)

Being a program director also gives you the ability to provide two good services to your research community. First, you have some ability to drive the direction of the research community. Second, you get to run the best, fairest competitions for funding possible. There is really quite a difference between the best panel run by somebody who knows the research area, knows who are likely to be good panelists, and is good at managing such things, and a panel run by an outsider who is a fair to middling manager of such things.

So if you would like to spend a year or two in DC and make a real impact for theoretical computer science, please consider applying.


  1. Such a shame Bill is leaving, he was just wonderful. I hope this positive trend will continue.

  2. What are the chances that some big-name full professor will take this job and use it as a soapbox to advocate for TCS and improve its funding climate?

    What are the chances that some more-or-less unknown journeyman will take the position in hopes that NSF connections will translate into an offer of a better job or a raise upon completion of the NSF term?

  3. What are the chances that some more-or-less unknown journeyman will take the position in hopes that NSF connections will translate into an offer of a better job or a raise upon completion of the NSF term?

    Does this happen? (Hmm...maybe I'll apply.)

  4. anon 1 must have been one of the lucky
    few to get funding from the theory program. One problem with being a program director in a program with no real money is that almost everyone ends up being unhappy, and human nature being what it is, the bearer of ill tidings seldom escapes blame.

  5. anon1 here. I actually did not get funding from the theory program while Bill was the director. I still think he is great at what he does. The funding situation is indeed terrible, but that is not his fault. He does his best to use the money he has well.

  6. To anonymous 2 and 4. I hope you realize how discouraging your postings are to people who might consider applying for the job. We should be working as a community to improve funding for all of us. An NSF Program Director's job is one of the most important in any field. We need the most energetic and competent people we can find for the job.