NSF Selects Astrophysicist Anne Kinney to Lead Math and Physical Sciences Directorate

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Publication date: 
8 November 2017

The National Science Foundation has chosen Anne Kinney, currently chief scientist of the Keck Observatory, to lead NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. FYI spoke with Kinney about how she expects to draw on her past experiences as a science administrator once she takes on her new role in January.

The National Science Foundation announced on Nov. 1 that Anne Kinney will be the next head of its Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate. FYI spoke with Kinney on Nov. 3 about how she expects to draw on experiences from her career in astronomy and science administration when she takes the helm of MPS on Jan. 2, 2018.

Kinney familiar with managing broad research programs


Anne Kinney

Anne Kinney

(Image credit - W. M. Keck Observatory)

After receiving a doctorate in astrophysics from New York University in 1984, Kinney spent 14 years at the Space and Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. There she researched the electromagnetic spectra of galaxies and was an instrument scientist for the Faint Object Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Kinney then transitioned into science administration, serving as head of NASA’s Universe Division (now called the Astrophysics Division) from 1999 to 2006. “That required a great broadening of my expertise from one type of astrophysics to the entire field,” Kinney said. “Similarly, this requires a broadening of my expertise from astrophysics to all of the five fields: math, physics, chemistry, materials science, and astronomy,” she said, referencing MPS’s five divisions.

“One of the reasons I have a lot of confidence about going into the MPS position is I’ve already gone and led a group where I was not a scientific expert in the topic,” Kinney said, citing her time at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she directed its solar system exploration division from 2008 to 2013. She added, “I’ve changed fields a couple of times — not as a researcher, but as a science manager — and I find it enormously gratifying.”

Kinney will take over the MPS directorship from Jim Ulvestad, who has been serving in an acting capacity. The previous director was Fleming Crim, who served from January 2013 to January 2017.

Past facilities experience will be relevant to NSF, Kinney says

Kinney anticipates that her experiences with managing NASA programs will translate well to NSF.

“There are a lot of parallels between NASA and NSF in terms of NSF has facilities that they build and then operate. NASA has a more ‘violent’ type of facility where they, you know, attach a lot of explosives to it and launch it into space, but basically they have a facility and then they have to operate it,” she said.

More generally, Kinney also spoke of her ability to manage science programs with constrained budgets. “I’m used to looking at a very long list of problems and a budget that is too short for the list of problems, and then getting the information that helps you make the best possible decisions about how to proceed. That is an awful lot of what these jobs are,” she said.

With a budget of $1.35 billion in fiscal year 2016, MPS currently is the largest of NSF’s six research directorates and a big spender on large facilities. Much of MPS’s facilities funding is concentrated in its Astronomical Sciences Division, which supports a fleet of ground-based telescopes.


MPS Pie Charts

A slide from a presentation on the MPS facilities portfolio that Fleming Crim delivered to the National Science Board in February 2016. 

(Image credit - NSF)

Kinney stressed that her current job working as chief scientist of the Keck Observatory, an optical telescope in Hawaii, has given her an important perspective on facilities that will be particularly relevant to NSF:

One thing I’m particularly grateful for from my time at Keck is to experience life at a facility because MPS has the most facilities of any of the directorates at NSF. It doesn’t matter which type of facility it is — facilities have a suite of challenges and problems. And it was extremely useful for me to spend some time at a facility and grapple with some of those problems. How do you get funding for your next instrumentation? You’re always doing three things at once. You’re fixing your five-year-old instrument, you’re commissioning your current instrument, and you’re proposing and imagining your future instruments.

Kinney also noted that she is particularly proud of renegotiating the facility’s overhead rate while she was at NASA in order to fund the Keck Observatory Archive, a publicly accessible repository of data collected by the observatory. Kinney said she is a “big believer in archives” and looks forward to working with NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate as MPS grapples with data and software management challenges.

Multi-messenger astrophysics presents management challenges

As director of MPS, Kinney will be responsible for determining how the directorate pursues NSF’s 10 “big ideas” for future investment. One of the big ideas, “Windows on the Universe,” is focused on maturing the nascent field of multi-messenger astrophysics.

The recent detection of electromagnetic and gravitational signatures of a neutron star merger using numerous ground and space-based observatories highlighted the unprecedented level of collaboration the multi-messenger approach can entail. Agency leaders noted both the promise and the challenges of the big idea during a session at a meeting of the National Science Board on Nov. 8.


NSF 10 Big Ideas

Acting MPS Director Jim Ulvestad noted the natural overlap between the multi-messenger astrophysics, mid-scale research infrastructure, and harnessing data big ideas during a presentation to the National Science Board on Nov. 8.

(Image credit – NSF)

Roger Beachy, a member of the board, asked, “How do we as an agency then decide what is most important amongst all these large facilities? This piece will need the strongest manager one can ever imagine, right? This is really a complex idea and a complex collaboration.” In response, Ulvestad said he believes improving collaboration will require a culture shift.

“[There was] an interesting cultural question that we ran into with the neutron star merger, which was not unexpected — namely that the people working on the gravitational waves are people from the physics area, many of them particle physicists who are used to these big collaborations,” he began.

“And then you have these 70 electromagnetic observatories who were all from the Wild West, in some sense. They were all independent. They were all pursuing their own collaboration,” he continued. “I think that for the era of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, for example, that’s one of the things that needs to change. Those groups are going to need to become more cohesive.”

Kinney told FYI she could not yet comment on how she will approach prioritizing programs while at NSF, but said she expects multi-messenger astrophysics to be a major focus for MPS moving forward.

“It’s going to be a very rich field,” she said. “How the entire field responds to it is really important. We benefit in both physics and astronomy from having a wonderful field of people who are very flexible. The whole field is right now dealing with this question of how we work across agencies and across facilities to make best possible use of this new tool that we have at hand.”

She later added, “This is the first time that we’ve had a new, completely orthogonal way to observe things from the sky that happen in the universe, and it is bound to open up some profound understanding that crosses all of the disciplines at NSF.”

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