Physicist readies to begin one-year term as ‘rotator’ at the NSF

  • Off to the National Science Foundation
    Off to the National Science Foundation
    Theoretical physicist Marc Sher will serve a year-long term as a “rotator”—a temporary program director at the National Science Foundation. He will oversee the awarding of $12 million to $13 million in NSF grants funding work in theoretical particle physics and cosmology.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

William & Mary physicist Marc Sher will take a year’s leave of absence to join the National Science Foundation as a temporary program director—also known as a “rotator.”

Sher will fill in for the NSF’s regular program officer, who is taking a mandated one-year hiatus. In his role as rotator, Sher will be in charge of the process through which the NSF awards $12 million to $13 million in funding to scientists seeking federal funding to advance their work in areas of theoretical particle physics and cosmology.

In mid-August, Sher spent several days in training at the NSF in Arlington to prepare for his term. He explained that the work load picks up in  December ,with the arrival of around 100 grant applications. He sends each application out to five referees, who are charged with writing reviews.

“The reviews come back in February,” he said. “By then I will have picked a panel of about 15 physicists who will come to Washington, D.C. for three days.”

The panelists read each of the referee reviews and make recommendations for funding to Sher, who makes the final decision for funding. Sher’s connections among the U.S. community of physicists will be as important as his understanding of the subject matter, which includes topics such as string theory, dark matter and other physics that can range beyond the Standard Model.

“You need to know the subject matter of course, but there are some things, like string theory, that I don’t know much about,” he said. “But you also really have to know people. You have to find between 300 and 500 reviewers. You have to know who the people are who will write good, helpful reviews and the people who won’t.”

Sher said he will start putting together his panel once he looks over the proposals for funding. “I will try to balance my panel to match the proposals,” he explains. “So if 80 percent of the proposals that come in are string theory, I would assemble a panel that is 80 percent string theory.”

He points out that per NSF guidelines he will recuse himself from discussions involving a funding request from William & Mary or any proposal that might involve a conflict of interest. “I just walk out of the room,” he says.

Like all NSF rotators recruited from universities, Sher will be paid his standard salary, plus expenses; the agency will reimburse William & Mary for the equivalent of his salary as a professor in the Department of Physics. As he prepares for beginning his term as a rotator, he says he alternates between feelings of anticipation and dread.

“The hardest part will be telling physicists that I think are much better than me, ‘Sorry, but we can’t fund you,’” he said. “And sometimes you have to say that to friends, too. But you have to be fair.”