Feature

Norman Bradburn, PhD, may be best known as a statistician. But, say those who know him, his depth and breadth of experience and training as an administrator and a social and behavioral scientist go well beyond that to make him an ideal choice to serve as the new assistant director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

He's worked at the University of Chicago most of his career as a pioneering researcher, applying cognitive psychology to questionnaire design and survey methodology, and has served in several key administrative positions, including as university provost and president of the school's National Opinion Research Center (NORC).

"He's a top-notch scientist and he brings a maturity to the job that will let him work well within the top levels of NSF," says Howard Silver, PhD, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA).

Bradburn's administrative experience has allowed him to become familiar with the way in which the physical and biological sciences work. He has an unusually wide background in the social and behavioral sciences, having been trained as a psychologist, with a degree in social psychology. And his survey work has put him heavily in contact with sociologists and social scientists as well as economists.

He's no stranger to the Washington, D.C., policy community, either, having chaired a number of national statistics-related committees.

"He knows from an investigator perspective, an institutional perspective and even a national perspective what it takes to make a research engine run," says psychologist John Cacioppo, PhD, of the University of Chicago. "He has immense knowledge and expertise from a lifetime of outstanding work. And he has an amazing ability to solve problems that keeps people together."

Those skills will come in handy for Bradburn, who took the reigns of NSF's Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) March 13 in a year in which President Clinton is calling for a 17 percent budget increase for the agency. That hike includes as much as a 19 percent increase for each of the core scientific directorates, which would raise SBE's $146 million annual budget by $28 million.

Leading the expansion

The promise of a big budget increase and some fresh initiatives for SBE is one of the reasons Bradburn accepted the job, he says.

"It was an opportunity that seemed too good to pass up," says Bradburn.

Although it's too early for him to say what his priorities will be for the directorate, he's committed to expanding funding for training, particularly in the area of methodology and statistics.

"There are a lot of changes and advances in methodology and statistics that are only slowly diffusing into the field," he says. "I'd like to see training strengthened at the graduate and young professional level."

There's also a promise of funding for a big new research initiative for SBE in 2003, says COSSA's Silver. No one knows what the topic will be.

"That's the key question," says Silver, "and something Norm will take the leadership position on during the planning phase, which will start as early as this summer."

An exciting time

Although the social and behavioral sciences have not reached the point where they have equal status with the other sciences funded by NSF, they are "coming into their own," says Bradburn. He senses strong support from the foundation's top administrators and a great deal of interest from other directorate chiefs in cross-directorate initiatives that intimately involve the social and behavioral sciences.

"I've still got to push the status of the social and behavioral sciences along," he says. "But I think these are exciting times, times of expansion and growth."

A key to making his job as head of SBE successful is ensuring that the influx of money is used productively, says Bradburn. But he thinks recent advances in the social and behavioral science arena will make it easy for him.

In particular, advances in research methodology and technology--including brain imaging techniques, advanced computerized data-collection technologies and advances in statistics--are improving the ability of the social and behavioral sciences to tackle more complex questions.

"There's a subtle interplay between technology and what researchers can do with computers and analytic techniques that allow us to ask and answer questions we couldn't before," says Bradburn. "Advances in cognitive psychology, for example, have come in part because computer control of stimuli has allowed us to measure reaction time in milliseconds--the point where all the interesting stuff is happening."

Making research run

Bradburn has committed to overseeing the expansion for two years, with an option to extend his stay after that. He plans to maintain his ties to the University of Chicago, including his work on a book and a new research project. After 40 years living in Chicago, it will be hard to uproot, but he and his wife are also excited about the change.

Bradburn has already spent a bit of time in the nation's capital. He chaired the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on National Statistics from 1993 to 1998, led the Panel to Evaluate Alternative Census Methods and is a member of the research and advisory panel of the U.S. General Accounting Office.