Curious minds and good science communication are key, says US science chief

16 Jun 2017

Dr France A Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation. Image: Stephen Voss/National Science Foundation

At Inspirefest, Dr France A Córdova will discuss her career and the challenges facing science today. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

Read more from Research Week 2017

Curious minds, good science communication and environments that are receptive to change are key to making the most that science can offer to humanity.

That’s according to astrophysicist Dr France A Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US, who will speak at Inspirefest in Dublin early next month. 

When asked about the biggest challenges facing science at the moment, Córdova described how public perception is on the list. “I think it is ensuring that the public is aware of the benefits of science and what it has brought to them, to improve the quality of their lives and health and security,” she told

“We don’t always communicate that effectively and people take for granted a lot that science has given them.”

Solid engagement

Many issues of scientific importance fuel polarised and politicised public discussions, and Córdova is clear about the need for solid scientific evidence.

“There is no pro or con about the need to do good research and to better understand complicated things,” she said. “Climate is one of those complicated things and there are many other issues too – genetically modified foods, burying nuclear waste, vaccines and their efficacy, gene editing – wherever there are new technologies, there is both opportunity and fear of how they will be used.

“And that is where I think scientists who are good at explaining what they do need to [talk to] the public and improve the public perception of the basic research that we invest in.” 

Nurturing young minds

It’s not just information, though – a sense of curiosity is also key to reaping the benefits that science can offer.

“We have to encourage that, and it starts at a very young age; it starts with exciting children about the natural world and opening their minds to surprises and changes and having them ask questions,” said Córdova, who welcomes the greater access to science that the internet can bring, particularly for teachers who can engage their students with science and discovery in new ways.

“The more people ask questions and are curious about how things work, and why does it have this or that result, and what about doing more studies with particular aspects, the better off we all would be.”

Córdova is also keen to involve young people in the process of making decisions around tackling grand challenges. “Diversity of thought will make us better.”

A life in science

At Inspirefest, Córdova will speak about her life and career in the field of science.

It started with studying English, as she was not encouraged to study science initially. However, when she started to think about what she would like to be doing by age 30, she started to explore science and completed a PhD in astrophysics at Caltech, going on to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Pennsylvania State University.

In 1993, she became the first woman to hold the position of chief scientist at NASA, where she helped to shape the science strategy of the organisation.  

“I had an opportunity and I had a great boss [Daniel S Goldin],” she recalled. “I introduced him to people like Carl Sagan and a new field called astrobiology. That just changed everything for him, he locked onto it and there was no stopping us.”

Since then she has held many key positions, including president of Purdue University, and in 2014, former US president Barack Obama nominated her as director of the NSF.

Exploring environments

Córdova credits her environments for being receptive to change throughout her career, and she recommends that researchers find a place that works for them. 

“You have to go into environments that are open to change. It comes back to those curious minds, you need to work in environments that are curious and open and that value what you bring to the table,” she said. 

Having visited Dublin last year for the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Summit, Córdova is looking forward to returning. “We have had a really good relationship with Ireland and with SFI,” she said.

“I fell in love with Dublin when I was there last year and this time I will be doing more exploring, including in Co Clare, where my mother’s family was from.”

Dr France A Córdova will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication