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.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.
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.