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Posted by on Jun 2, 2015

Ask the CHCO: NSF’s Dr. Joanne Tornow

Ask the CHCO: NSF’s Dr. Joanne Tornow

The latest “Ask the CHCO” interview with Dr. Joanne Tornow from the National Science Foundation (NSF) reminded me of the essential need for subject matter expertise for the success of financial assistance programs. In the case of NSF, this includes the constant renewal of its scientific and programmatic workforce supporting the distribution of 94% of this agency’s budget to the scientific community.

Dr. Tornow and her team at NSF support approximately 2,000 employees and contractors, of which 300 are on temporary assignment from the scientific and university research community. To an outsider, having 15% of your workforce being temporary may seem like the creation of an unnecessary burden. But in the case of NSF, this churn is essential to its implementation and maintenance of a robust merit review system for Federal funding proposals as well as helping set the government’s science policy agenda.

Because significant change in the workforce is the norm, NSF takes several measures to plan and prepare for it, including:

  • Recognizing Cultural Change. Many of the NSF’s temporary employees have assignments of two years. This requires NSF to train new colleagues to recognize and navigate a team-driven, Federal environment. For some scientific leaders, this can be a bit of a culture shock, especially if they have been working independently or as the sole leader of a lab.
  • Assigning Mentors from Day One. NSF matches its temporary employees with permanent staff who help them acclimate to their new working environment. This not only benefits the temporary workers; it also serves as a mechanism for minimizing disruption to the 85% of the NSF workforce that is permanent. From a grants perspective, this can also help individuals with the transition from seeing the world as a recipient to an issuer of funds.
  • Normalizing Change at the Team Level. As I stated earlier, NSF has a robust merit review system in place. This system would not be successful if some teams were majority “rotator” staff. Instead, NSF creates teams with a 50:50 ratio of permanent to temporary staff to create stability and ensure teams have a steady stream of new ideas.

My other big takeaway from this week’s interview was all about recruiting. Convincing the best and brightest to join NSF requires them to establish, implement, and maintain an employee value proposition equal or more than the opportunity cost of staying in the field. Dr. Tornow stated that in the case of some disciplines, NSF’s stature as a premier funder and supporter allows it to promote its opportunities as prestigious positions. An NSF assignment is a path up the career ladder. In other cases, NSF is one of many leaders in the field. Dr. Tornow is working to enhance NSF’s prestige in these cases. That means convincing more recruits through more channels, whether temporary or permanent, that working at NSF is great because of the work they do makes a difference in the world and contributes to society at large.

Finally – you can’t help but be impressed by Dr. Tornow’s career path. From active scientist to NSF Program Officer to head of Office of Information and Resource Management (and some other stops along the way), she is clearly someone who has not shied away from opportunities outside of her comfort zone. With the right training – such as grants administration or workforce management – maybe you can create those opportunities.




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