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Vishton takes helm at NSF’s Developmental Sciences program

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    Leading at NSF:  William & Mary psychological scientist Peter Vishton is taking a leave of absence to join the National Science Foundation as the Program Director for the Developmental Sciences.   Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary psychological scientist Peter Vishton is taking a leave of absence to join the National Science Foundation as the Program Director for the Developmental Sciences.

Starting Sept. 3, Vishton took lead of the NSF’s Developmental Sciences (DS) program, in the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) division, which is in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) directorate.

“They have an appreciation for hierarchy and acronyms,” Vishton joked.

The temporary appointment, also known as a “rotator position,” will require Vishton to administer the review of about 150 proposals per year and determine which should be awarded. Vishton plans to serve a three-year term, which will be annually renewable. 

While his formal start date was last week, Vishton had already taken over much of the role’s responsibilities, working a few days a week as an “expert” before he officially came on as director. He says the extra time has allowed for a smoother transition.

As director, Vishton will be in charge of the process through which the NSF awards about $6.5 million in funding to scientists seeking federal support to advance their work in areas of developmental science. Vishton will oversee the NSF’s merit review process, meaning he’ll interact with potential principal investigators, form and facilitate expert review panels and ultimately recommend funding decisions.

“Program directors have the opportunity to be involved with a broad spectrum of national scientific programs and initiatives that ultimately increase intellectual awareness and enhance professional growth,” the NSF’s website notes.

The Developmental Sciences program fields approximately 150 project proposals a year, Vishton says. He is responsible for sending each of those proposals out for external review and convening a panel several times a year to discuss the proposals and set funding priorities.

“Of the 150 proposals we get, there will be some that are clearly not very good, but the majority will be really great ideas that have been worked into solid programs of research,” Vishton said. “The reality is that we won’t have the resources to fund anywhere near all of it, but one of my jobs as a program director is to look for ways in which you can leverage that funding to get more support for this kind of research.”

He says one way to leverage funding is to encourage researchers to take an interdisciplinary approach to their work.

“Researchers who are interested in development may also be interested in education, so there’s overlap between those fields,” Vishton said. “If we find projects that are relevant to development and education, I may reach out to the Education and Human Resources Directorate and try to find a way that we could co-fund the project.”

Vishton says a highlight of the job is getting to work with researchers from a wide range of different fields. In his own lab, Vishton focuses on infant perception and motor development, but as program director he has to get outside of his comfort zone.

“I’m interacting with people from across the psychological sciences discipline,” Vishton said. “I’m communicating with experts across education, across linguistics, talking with sociologists about projects that span our two different fields. There’s such a broad range of interaction with people that I just wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths with as a psychology professor. It’s a lot of fun.”

Vishton knows about the position’s “fun” perks from experience. He’s done it before – in fact, this is round three. He served as interim director in 2007 and program director from 2010 to 2013. He says the best part of the job in the past has been a chance to look into the future.

“When you step into this role of looking at grant proposals, it’s like flipping ten or eleven chapters ahead in the novel that you’re reading,” Vishton said. “I get to see not just the things that people have been doing, but the things they are thinking about doing in the future. Those new ideas have the potential to really transform how we think about certain issues in human development, human perception, cognition, learning, all the things the developmental science program focuses on.” 

Vishton 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.

“Not only do they take actual conflict of interest very seriously, they also are concerned about even the appearance of conflict of interest,” Vishton said. “If there are a bunch of proposals and there is one that is just not as good as the others, even if I care a lot about that person, I would feel very wrong to make a funding decision based on a personal or professional relationship.”

For the next three years, Vishton will be paid his standard salary, plus expenses; the NSF will reimburse William & Mary for the equivalent of his salary as a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. About 20 percent of his time will be reserved to maintain his own research program, so he will continue to spend one day a week back at his office on campus. He says he plans to bring what he learns at NSF back to William & Mary.

“Hopefully I’ll gain a better understanding about what is happening at NSF and be able to help and encourage my colleagues here to get support for the work they’re doing,” he said. “That’s a big part of my motivation to undertake this work.”