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ASU research and innovation leader Sethuraman Panchanathan confirmed as NSF director

U.S. Senate unanimously confirms Panchanathan as NSF director.
June 23, 2020

Champion of transdisciplinary research will have opportunity to advance research on national scale with new post

Editor’s note:  This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

Arizona State University Executive Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan has been named the 15th director of the National Science Foundation, unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 18 after his December 2019 nomination by President Donald J. Trump.

During his six-year appointment, Panchanathan will be responsible for overseeing NSF staff and management, program creation and administration, merit review, planning, budget and day-to-day operations. He also will direct the federal agency’s mission, including support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering, keeping the U.S. at the leading edge of discovery. 

“Right now, the world faces significant scientific challenges — most obviously a pandemic,” Panchanathan said. “But in addition to providing creative solutions to address current problems, our eyes are on the future, leveraging partnerships at every level and encouraging diversity that breeds new ideas for a robust pipeline of young scientists. It is only through that expansive perspective on the scientific and engineering enterprise that we can recognize the brightest ideas and nurture them into tomorrow's world-class technological innovations.”

ASU President Michael M. Crow praised Panchanathan's confirmation.

“We are thrilled for Dr. Panchanathan on this tremendous achievement,” Crow said. “The NSF is the largest, most elite science agency in the world, and this is a fantastic opportunity for Dr. Panchanathan to advance research on a major, national scale.”

Panchanathan identified three pillars of his vision for NSF:

  • Advancing research into the future.
  • Ensuring inclusivity.
  • Continuing global leadership in science and engineering.

He has a history of doing exactly those things. His current position, which he has held for the past nine years at Arizona State University, has allowed him to lead the Knowledge Enterprise, which has advanced research, innovation, strategic partnerships, entrepreneurship, and global and economic development. During his time with Knowledge Enterprise, ASU has been named the most innovative university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for five straight years, beginning in 2015.

“World-class science requires talented scientists and engineers drawn from every corner of our nation — from remote rural areas to the largest urban centers. The best science is shaped by a wide range of perspectives,” said Panchanathan, who is a also professor of computer science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive engineering program. “I want people to get excited by science and have the opportunity to be part of the scientific enterprise. It is our responsibility to inspire talent and find ways to catalyze innovation across our country. NSF has a proven record in this area.”

For more than two decades at ASU, Panchanathan has focused on developing people-centric technologies and fostering innovative research and initiatives to change society for the better. He was a founding director of ASU’s School of Computing and Informatics, which went on to become the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Panchanathan is the Foundation Chair in Computing and Informatics at the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. He also founded the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, where he researches human-centered computing to improve quality of life through artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques.

Beyond engineering and computing sciences, Panchanathan also champions transdisciplinary research through efforts to conceptualize and implement initiatives across disciplines, including the biological sciences, social sciences, physical sciences, humanities and public policy.

"Panch has led ASU to new heights of achievement in our quest to be known both for our excellence and accessibility," said Mark Searle, executive vice president and university provost. "Through his leadership, he has enabled ASU to achieve incredible advances in research and scholarship, to expand our entrepreneurship and innovation efforts and expand our global partnerships and engagements. It has been a great pleasure to collaborate with Panch in all ways, and he has been a great partner in our efforts to advance ASU. Now he will bring his leadership talents to public service at the national level, and all of science will be better for his efforts." 

For the past five years, Panchanathan has been a member of the National Science Board, the oversight body of the NSF whose members are appointed by the president. During this time, he helped formulate the NSF’s strategic plan for the organization’s $8.3 billion annual budget to ensure the nation’s bright future in science and technology. The organization funds nearly 25% of all federally supported university research.

Former NSF Director France Córdova said in a statement that Panchanathan has been a “bold, energizing presence” on the National Science Board.

“This position requires the ability to connect with all stakeholders in the U.S. science and engineering community, walking the fine line between serving and leading,” Córdova said in the NSF’s statement on Panchanathan’s nomination. “Panch has the character and knowledge that make him an ideal fit for the job.”

At ASU, Panchanathan has led Knowledge Enterprise as the organization’s executive vice president. Under his leadership, the university’s research enterprise has grown nearly four times in size, with more than $640 million in research expenditures. In 2019, ASU was ranked seventh nationally in total research expenditures for universities without a medical school, and it is ranked among the top universities in the world for patents.

Panchanathan has aligned the university’s research and partnership initiatives to nationally important issues, including renewable energy, sustainability and personalized health. These activities have drawn top talent and extensive resources to ASU to conduct research that makes positive changes locally, nationally and globally.

“Panch’s confirmation as director of the National Science Foundation is a powerful validation of his success in advancing ASU’s research and innovation enterprise,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools. “His clear vision, passion and ideas have been instrumental in helping drive excellence across the entire research community at ASU. The strategic partnerships developed and thoughtful positioning of our research bodes well for our future growth, and the approaches cultivated here will be important on a national level as well.”

Panchanathan’s efforts at ASU to foster research and entrepreneurship innovation have also gained the attention of Arizona government leaders through the contributions his work has made to boosting the state’s economy. He was appointed the governor’s senior adviser for science and technology in 2018 and served on the Arizona Secretary of State Technology, Transparency and Commerce Council.

With his long record of leading research enterprises, Panchanathan was recently invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather about ways the U.S. can stay competitive in the global research field. Panchanathan’s plan included bolstering research, student, partnership and economic development ecosystems in addition to welcoming talent from around the world.

“It's not just a science problem, or an engineering problem, or a behavior problem, or a social problem, or a cultural problem, or a policy problem; it is all of the above and more,” said Panchanathan, pointing out the importance of global cooperation. 

Panchanathan is the second American of Indian origin to be appointed NSF director and is an example of how international talent helps to put U.S. research at the top of the global science landscape.

Over the course of his influential career, Panchanathan has been elected a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Society of Optical Engineering. He has served as editor-in-chief of the IEEE Multimedia Magazine and is also an editor or associate editor of several international journals and transactions.

Panchanathan has published more than 485 papers in conference and refereed journals and has been a chair, a program committee member, an organizer of special sessions and an invited speaker and panel member in many professional conferences and university and industry symposiums.

The new NSF director credits much of his success to empowering others to achieve their greatest potential, including the more than 150 graduate students, postdoctoral research assistants, research engineers and research scientists he has mentored throughout his career, many of whom now occupy leading positions in academia and industry.

Panchanathan will be taking an extended leave of absence from ASU as he serves this six-year appointment. ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Chief Science and Technology Officer Neal Woodbury will assume the bulk of Panchanathan’s oversight and engagement activities, effective immediately. As interim executive vice president, Woodbury will continue to advance ASU’s research, economic development, international development and corporate engagement and strategic partnership agendas, as well as oversee activities related to Knowledge Enterprise operations, institutes and initiatives. In addition to this new role, Woodbury will remain a faculty member at the School of Molecular Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a senior sustainability scientist with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a faculty member of the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine and the Global Security Initiative. He will also serve as CEO of Science Foundation of Arizona.

Top photo: Arizona State University Executive Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan has been named the 15th director of the National Science Foundation.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Understanding systemic racism and how to combat it

June 23, 2020

ASU professor says everybody has homework to do when it comes to learning about racism in society

Everybody seems to comprehend the practical use of the term systemic racism, but its real meaning can get lost in translation.

And no wonder.

It's hard to define, hard to see and hard to defend.

Eleanor Seaton, an associate professor in Arizona State University's T. Denny Sanford School of Family and Social Dynamics, studies and teaches about the negative impacts of racism. Seaton descends from generations of civil rights advocates from Mississippi.

Seaton spoke to ASU Now about systemic racism, its historical roots and why it continues to steer the cultural conversation.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Woman in braids smiling

Eleanor Seaton 

Question: “Systemic racism” is a term that is getting a lot of play in the media but seems hard to understand given its catch-all nature. Can you give me your best possible definition?

Answer: Rabbi Abraham Heschel stated that “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” Racism is a system of power and privilege based on perceived race and/or ethnicity that defines one group as dominant to and more deserving than all other groups. In this system, there is a dominant group (e.g., whites) and there are subordinate groups, including Native Americans, Black Americans, Latinx and Asian Americans. Racism is rooted in historical oppression (e.g., genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of Africans) such that subordinate groups were and are defined as “inferior” to the ”superior” dominant white group. The dominant group created and currently maintains societal privilege through values, behaviors and institutions. This privilege results in subordinate groups lacking access to power, status and resources.

One of the most common misconceptions about racism is that it is based solely on individual acts. Many people believe that a few individual “bad apples” are racist or engage in racist behaviors. In fact, racism is baked into our society and in the institutions that make up our society, including schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, banks, health care, the media and policing systems.

What is systemic or institutional racism? Institutional racism is when societal institutions engage in practices that favor the dominant group and practices that are biased against subordinate groups. It is important to acknowledge that institutional racism in one domain reinforces institutional racism in other domains, providing an interconnected system that constantly reinforces each other while reproducing racial disparities across the lifespan. I would argue that institutional racism is more dangerous than individual racism because institutional racism creates environments that dictate every aspect of life for subordinate individuals. Racism dictates where one lives and attends school, what types of jobs one is able to work, whether one has health care, whether one has access to healthy and nutritious food and whether one is treated fairly by the criminal justice system to name a few examples. The cycle repeats itself throughout the lives of individuals and across generations.

Let me discuss institutional racism from a recent societal example. Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her dog in Central Park without a leash. Chris Cooper (no relation), a Black American birdwatcher, encountered Amy and asked her to place her dog on a leash, which was consistent with the park’s rules. Amy did not like Chris telling her what to do, and threatened to call the police on Chris. Amy specifically threatened to tell the police that Chris was a Black American man and threatening her. We know that Amy lied because Chris recorded the entire interaction. However, this illustrates the institutional nature of racism in law enforcement such that Amy knew that she could rely on one of society’s institutions – remember these institutions have been baking in racism for a very long time – to sanction an innocent man because he was Black.

Q: How is historic oppression connected to racism in current times?

A: My grandfather fought in World War II, so let’s use an example of two World War II veterans. The GI Bill (Serviceman Readjustment’s Act) was signed in 1944 and provided returning war veterans with funds for college education, unemployment insurance and housing. The white veteran was able to take advantage of these federal policies, and get a free and/or reduced college education, unemployment insurance and secure a mortgage to buy a home through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) because the banking industry favors white individuals over everyone else due to the baked-in nature of racism. These benefits were not available to my grandfather because the GI Bill refused to pay college education for Black American veterans and the FHA refused to provide mortgages to Black American families, given the nature of racism in the banking industry.

So, over time, the white veteran began creating wealth through college education and home ownership. … Thus, all the advantages that the white veteran secured for himself, his family and descendants were not possible for the Black American veteran. Federal programs like the GI Bill and FHA built the white middle class, whereas institutional racism prevented the GI Bill and FHA from building a Black middle class, and the results are evident in the wealth gap. Currently, white families have 10 times the net worth of black families

Q: Most people believe that since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and with the election of President Barack Obama, we have moved towards a post-racism world. That’s not the case?

A: It is true that the U.S. elected the first Black American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Yet, a cursory glance at racial disparities in health outcomes indicates that the U.S. is not post-racist. Post-racist suggests that Black Americans have achieved equity with their white counterparts, and the data don’t support that conclusion. Black Americans have higher death rates due to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide compared to whites. Black American women are more likely to have pre-term births compared to white women, and more likely to die during and after childbirth compared to white women. The infant mortality rate is higher for Black Americans compared to all other ethnic-racial groups. Black Americans are more likely to die from all cancers combined and for most major cancers compared to other ethnic-racial groups. Black American men are six times more likely to die from HIV/AIDS compared to white men, and Black American women are 18 times more likely to die from HIV/AIDS than white women. One can examine educational and criminal justice disparities, and the results are similar. No, we are not post-racist.  

Q: Are the George Floyd protests are a turning/inflection point in our society regarding racism?

A: I believe that the current protest movements related to the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are a turning point. In general, I’m a racial pessimist but I’m greatly impressed by the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I am hopeful and inspired by the multiracial and multiethnic attendees at the various protests in this country and around the world. Simply put, this feels different! However, it’s on all of us to determine the results of this inflection point. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let’s bend the arc toward justice and move forward with a progressive agenda that eliminates racism.

Activist and academic Angela Davis stated, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” This turning point is also a teaching moment and everyone has homework to do! White people have three homework assignments:

  1. Educate themselves on racism.
  2. Truthfully interrogate their own racial experiences, including white privilege and the fact that they have unearned privilege due to their race or ethnicity while others have unearned disadvantage due to their race or ethnicity.
  3. Become anti-racist and work to eradicate racism in their respective schools, jobs, neighborhoods and networks.

Non-Black individuals of color have two homework assignments:

  1. Work to eradicate anti-Blackness in their respective communities.
  2. Become part of the solidarity movement for Black Lives Matter.

Everyone needs to understand that eradicating racism is in society’s best interest. I strongly believe that when the most marginalized and disadvantaged individuals in society are treated fairly, protected, cared for and loved, everyone in society will be treated fairly, protected, cared for and loved. Becoming an anti-racist society fulfills that goal, and truly demonstrates that black lives matter. I’ll let Fannie Lou Hamer have the last word, who stated “Nobody is free until everybody is free.”

Top photo: Hundreds of protesters gather in the Gaslamp area of San Diego, California, at a May 27, 2016 demonstration. Courtesy of istock/Getty Images.

Reporter , ASU News