Four years ago, Steve Breckler, PhD, took a leave from his research and teaching obligations at Johns Hopkins University to work as a program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C.
"I had been the recipient of many NSF grants," he says, "and I was curious to see what it would be like on the other side."
He thought it would be a nice change of pace for a year or two, then he'd be back to the lab. But he liked it so much he decided to stay. NSF recently made him the permanent program officer for social psychology. As such, Breckler has considerable influence in shaping his field.
For one, he makes the primary decisions about which research grant applications get funded in his area. And he often acts as the psychology "ambassador" to the rest of the foundation, showing how the research his colleagues conduct can be useful to other sciences, including engineering, computer science and neurobiology.
"I am social psychology at NSF," explains Breckler. "I essentially get handed a budget each year--$4 or $5 million--and it's left up to me, based on the advice of my panel of reviewers, to decide how to invest that budget. I have a lot of autonomy and the ability to set the course and the direction of my field."
He and others at NSF are encouraging more psychologists to consider a stint as program officer. It doesn't have to be a permanent move as happened with Breckler. Rather, many of the positions are for "rotators" who sign on for one to four years.
Gaining a broad perspective
Like Breckler, program officers run the review process for grant applications coming into their program, make decisions based on reviewer comments about which grants to fund, and keep in touch with researchers in their field, giving talks about applying for grants and encouraging applications in research areas the community feels are in need of more study.
In the past, most psychology program officers at NSF were permanent, so the concept of rotating in for a year or two of government service hasn't been on many psychologists' radar screens. But the landscape has changed with more than half of the positions now going to rotators. And during the next several years, many positions will become available for people wanting to rotate in.
"It takes some planning to uproot and move for a year or two," says Breckler. "So we want people to start thinking now about joining us a few years down the road."
NSF looks for veteran researchers to run its programs--people who may have been working in an area for 10 years or more. For NSF, rotators provide the fresh perspective of someone from the field. For researchers, it's an opportunity to step back and get a broad perspective on their discipline.
"It's extremely useful personally to be at the forefront of people's thinking about the field," says University of Texas, El Paso, psychologist Harmon Hosch, PhD, who served as program officer for NSF's law and social science program. "By seeing people's grant proposals, you see how they plan to wrestle with problems that arise in their research--more so than you get at a meeting. It helps you reconceptualize the field."
It also gives researchers a better understanding of other fields and how psychology can interact not only with other social and behavioral sciences, but also with biology, computer science, engineering and even physics.
Indeed, along with running a particular program, NSF program officers often become involved in cross-institute initiatives. The promise of working on one of those initiatives, called Learning and Intelligent Systems, attracted Mike McCloskey, PhD, to rotate in as the human cognition and perception program officer several years ago.
"I saw it as an opportunity to influence the direction the program took and the extent to which it involved cognitive science," says McCloskey, who returned to Johns Hopkins University after spending two years at NSF. "One thing that people don't always realize about the program officer job is that there are always decisions being made about how to allocate funds and which programs to develop further. If you're there and a strong advocate for your field, you can help bring resources to your program."
While at NSF, many rotators keep their own research alive by arranging to be at their home institutions a certain percentage of each month. NSF pays a rotator's salary--based on their salary at their home institution--as well as all expenses they incur, including trips home. But researchers shouldn't expect to maintain their research full throttle while at NSF, says Hosch.
"NSF is very supportive of your personal research agenda," he says. "But you're a full-time employee of the foundation, and there's lots of work to be done." So most program officers scale back their research programs until they return to academia full time.