Bertenthal to Replace Marrett at NSF's SBE Directorate

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named Bennett 1. Bertenthal, of the University of Virginia, as Assistant Director of the NSF Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), replacing Cora Marrett, who left the Foundation in September, after four years of service. Bertenthal, an APS Fellow, will assume this position just as Rep. Robert Walker (R-PA) is retiring from Congress and as chair of the House Science Committee, following two years of openly attacking NSF’s behavioral science support. Primarily, Walker questioned the need for a separate NSF directorate devoted to the social sciences. Ironically, Walker recently described himself as a social scientist (he has a degree in political science) and indicated that the field has much to contribute. Bertenthal said that while he hopes to impart the his value of social and behavioral sciences to Congress in his capacity as Assistant Director, he expects that criticism will continue.

“I hope that the controversial part of funding social and behavioral research is behind us, but I suspect that it really isn’t,” he said. “There will continue to be some skeptics, or at least, people who are uninformed about the ways in which behavioral research needs to be studied scientifically and how it is really foundational to our ability to better understand the needs of the people. It would be delightful if there weren’t any renewed controversies, but I think that I am prepared and I will not be surprised if there are new individuals who come on the scene [after Walker retires] and question the appropriateness of funding behavioral research.”

Confidence in Leadership

Leaders in the behavioral and social sciences community have confidence in Bertenthal’s ability, not only to handle any nay-sayers in Congress, but in his ability to further the field. “Bennett and I talked several times over the past few months about where NSF could go in behavioral and social science,” said APS Executive Director Alan Kraut. “We both agree that there are enormous opportunities for growth. The fields are ready to explode, the staff is terrific, and the leadership is supportive. I am delighted he accepted the position and think he is exactly the kind of person to take NSF to its next level in behavioral science.” Anne Petersen, who recently resigned as Deputy Director of NSF to join the Kellogg Foundation, described Bertenthal as highly regarded as a scientist. “[He] will be a tremendous asset to NSF and psychology in linking the social and behavioral sciences with the physical and other sciences. He also comes with very high marks for his service to scientific societies. He brings tremendous energy and intelligence to the position.” Bertenthal, who specializes in studying the origins and early development of perception, action, and representation, will take the helm of the SBE in January 1997. Jeff-Fenstennacher, who has served as executive officer of SBE since 1991, is serving as Acting Assistant Director until then. Bertenthal’s new duties will include leading the Foundation’s research activities that build fundamental scientific knowledge of human behavior and characteristics, and social and economic systems and organizations; directing activities in support of the Foundation’s international endeavors; and overseeing the collection, analysis and publication of data on the status of the nation’s science and engineering resources.

Bertenthal has been on the faculty of the University of Virginia since 1979 and admits that the transition from academia into the administrative word of NSF will take some time. “I think it is going to take a while to develop the appropriate mind-set because up to this point I have been in a position where my principle responsibilities have been toward my own research and toward teaching,” he said. “Now the arena has changed considerably both in terms of thinking about the collective research of the scientific community and in trying to provide some new ideas and new strategies that can be used by others.” Bertenthal earned both his master’s degree and his doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Denver. He then served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Brain Research Institute and Department of Pediatrics at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine before joining the University of Virginia as an Assistant professor in 1979, working his way up to full professor in 1991. A fellow of both the American Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association (APA), Bertenthal has also been active in the Society for Psychophysiological Research (SRCD), the Psychonomic Society, and the International Society for Infant Studies.

During his tenure at the University of Virginia, he served as associate editor of the journal Developmental Psychology, co-chaired the program committee for the SRCD, and served as members of APA’s Division 7 Executive Committee and the Committee on Scientific Awards. Over the course of his career, he has received many grants and, for the past 10 years, has reviewed grants for both the National Institutes of Health and NSF. “I am making a transition from being a bench scientist to an administrator and that is a very new and unknown situation,” said Bertenthal about his move to NSF. “[But] I feel that after many years of being a consumer of federal research funds, I have some insight into what researchers need from the federal funding agencies to be able to better conduct their research.”

Some of the issues Bertenthal hopes to get involved with pertain to the grant award and review process, though he cautions that it is too soon for him to layout an agenda. “It is a little premature to say exactly what my priorities are at this point,” he said. “I have specific biases based on my previous experience and they specifically relate to trying to expedite the review process- if that is at all possible. I would like to see if there is a way that grants could be reviewed more quickly with a faster turnaround of grant applications-perhaps using shorter applications and/or standardizing applications so that there is no difference between NSF and other institutes’ applications.”

He added that this process could involve rethinking-along with the rest of the Foundation- some of the criteria currently used for evaluating grants. He said he is also especially interested in trying to develop some additional strategies for supporting young investigators.

His first order of business, though, will be to learn and absorb as much about the Directorate as possible. “If want to find out as much as I can about what the real needs are that are represented by SBE and to learn as much as possible about the operation of SRS, which is the social and technological indicators division,” he said. “I need to begin really talking to people and finding out what they have been doing in their various positions and also finding out how I might be able to best facilitate what they have been doing.”

In spite of all of the preliminary “getting-to-know-you” work he faces in the first few months of his tenure at NSF, Bertenthal is excited about the issues and programs NSF will be dealing with as it transitions into the next century–especially as it pertains to technology.

Learning and Technology

“I think that one of the most important initiatives at NSF right now is the new initiative on learning and intelligence systems as we move into a new century and a new millennium,” he said. ”Technology is going to continue to dominate our lives and we need to learn as much as possible about how to use expanding technology in ways that can improve the quality of life and ensure that it doesn’t lead to greater differentiation among different groups of people, which is a potential problem in that it could tend to exacerbate [economic and social] differences among people. It is a very exciting time for thinking about how behavioral science really plays a fundamental role in virtually all science, and I think there is a growing appreciation within the Foundation for the important role it plays.”

It is for these same reasons that Bertenthal believes in the importance of the Human Capital Initiative, the umbrella behavioral science research agenda spawned by APS. “I think that we really need to begin to harness all of the potential resources of people, learn how we are going to best take advantage of their capabilities, and develop ways to make sure that people have an opportunity to realize their own potential. There is so much that we still need to learn and the Human Capital Initiative is a place where I think there is a natural and very exciting partnership between the SBE Directorate and education and human resources. It is also a more general goal of mine to try take advantage of the strengths available across the Foundation for both facilitating research and specifically for learning more about human behavior and the social conditions that are currently present in the country,” he added.

Another project he hopes to pursue, initiated by his predecessor, is a thorough survey of the current situation among graduate students in science and technology that would examine how successful they are in completing their graduate programs and what they are doing afterwards, as well as what types of available funding exist and whether there is any evidence that different forms of funding may provide different outcomes for students. “At this point it is too early for me to feel confident in terms of stating where I see the Directorate going,” he said. “I really want to emphasize the need for trying to absorb as much as possible about the needs of the members of the Directorate as well as better understanding some of the priorities at NSF. It feels a little like beginning a great journey and not knowing exactly where I am heading. But I am very excited by the challenge, and I think it is a great opportunity for me to try to help shape science.”

Observer Vol.9, No.6 November, 1996

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