It's Jeannine Cody's job to take the call when an environmental biologist contacts the National Science Foundation (NSF) about a grant proposal. Her master's degree in the field has taught her the lingo, and she helps find reviewers as well as writing up the minutes of panel meetings where the proposals are discussed. But Cody isn't the typical NSF research administrator. She's a science assistant, a relatively new breed of professional that has quickly become essential to the smooth operations of the $5.5 billion agency.
"They're incredibly talented and energetic," says Joanne Roskoski, executive officer for the $600-million-a-year biology directorate, which has led the way in creating these slots. "They've proved so popular that every cluster in Bio has at least one."
The positions are designed to be temporary, typically for 2 or 3 years, although a few have been converted into permanent slots. But what makes the assistants so valuable, say senior managers, is the speed with which they absorb all aspects of NSF's merit-review system. "They take some of the load off program directors, giving them time to think strategically," says Joseph Burt, acting head of the division of human resource management. "What they do isn't clerical, but it's also not strictly scientific."
In return, the assistants, who are often right out of graduate school and typically have a master's degree in a relevant field, get an insider's view of federal support for academic science and a springboard for their careers. Some decide to return for a doctoral degree; others parlay their NSF experience into a permanent job in research administration, often at another federal agency.
Their numbers are still small, just 30 or so in a professional workforce that tops 600. But NSF hopes to expand their ranks as part of a $75 million management initiative in the agency's 2005 budget request to Congress. And so far NSF stands alone among science agencies in employing such temporary, yet professional, helpers. "I'm not aware of another federal agency that has such a position," says Burt.
The science assistants come from backgrounds as varied as the programs that NSF runs, and their career aspirations are equally diverse. "It's opened the door for everything I've done in science," says Elizabeth Martin, a former NSF science assistant in population biology and systematics who now works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Florida, in its bird conservation network. "I wanted to do something more applied [than what I was doing at NSF], but having NSF on your résumé certainly impresses employers." Martin, who is also pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Florida in wildlife ecology and conservation, says she still draws on contacts from her NSF days in both her work and her studies.
Leila Harris was one of NSF's first science assistants when she joined the geosciences directorate in 1994. Her work for the interagency global change program was a real-life application of her bachelor's degree in environmental policy and political economy from the University of California, Berkeley. But although she enjoyed interacting with some 30 program managers across five research directorates during her 3-year stint, she decided that teaching and research were more appealing than policy. So she returned to school for a Ph.D., and in January she began a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in the geography department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "I got great mentoring at NSF," she says. "They strongly encouraged me to get my doctorate."
Part of NSF's management initiative would increase in-house training, with the goal of making employees more proficient in electronic grants processing. Nat Pitts, who heads NSF's Office of Integrative Activities and oversees its merit-review system, sees science assistants as a key part of this process. They are usually ahead of the curve, he says. "They are sharp, with great computer and communications skills. They are also incredibly quick at manipulating data sets." Their role as an intermediary with NSF's outside clients can be invaluable, he adds. "We all used to answer those questions," says Pitts. "Now Brett does it."
That would be Brett Mervis, a science assistant who came to NSF as a student intern during his undergraduate years and who returned in May 2002 after earning a master's degree in criminology. But he's already got one foot out the door, with plans to earn a Ph.D. and then work for the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. That's fine with Pitts. "If they're good, we want them to go back to school," he says. "We don't want to abuse them."
That doesn't appear to be a problem. "It's like being a fly on the wall," says Cody of her vantage point during panel meetings of reviewers or during discussions about program initiatives. "You might think you know how NSF operates, but seeing it in action is totally different." Their relative youth also injects a refreshing naiveté into the culture of an agency that, like any federal bureaucracy, tends toward stodginess and self- importance. "Imagine working with someone who you've cited in your thesis," she says. "You get to read proposals, and you learn by osmosis. It's definitely cool."
But no matter how many science assistants they employ, NSF officials have no intention of undermining the system that is seen as the gold standard for competitively awarded basic research. In particular, insider status doesn't necessarily translate into greater success in negotiating NSF's stringent merit-review system. "I've applied for NSF funding twice," confesses Harris, describing her unsuccessful bids for a graduate research fellowship and for dissertation support. "And having worked there didn't win me any extra points. But I certainly know what needs to be in a proposal. And I hope to someday get an NSF grant."
Reposted with permission from Science  News, 2 April 2004