NIST director expected to head up National Science Foundation

The low-key head of the federal government's elite standards and technology body appears to be on his way to head the National Science Foundation (NSF), at least on an interim basis, science community sources said on Tuesday.

Arden Bement, director of the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, reportedly informed his staff that he would assume the reins at NSF soon. That has fueled speculation that current NSF Director Rita Colwell will tender her resignation either Tuesday or Wednesday. NSF is the nation's flagship basic research agency.

Colwell is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Science Committee on the Bush administration's fiscal 2005 budget. The witness list includes: John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Charles McQueary, the Homeland Security undersecretary for science and technology; Raymond Orbach, director of the Energy Department's science office; and Phillip Bond, Commerce's technology undersecretary. Bond's Technology Administration oversees NIST.

Bement has high respect from scientists and technologists who know him but has a low profile in Washington and nationally. NIST has played a part major U.S. technological advances of the past 100 years. Bement came to NIST in December 2001 from Purdue University, where he joined the faculty in 1992 after a 39-year career in industry, government and academia. He previously held senior positions at the Defense Department.

"Bement is an unknown quantity for all of us, even by the standards of past NIST directors" one Washington science community member said. "He's just not been a public figure. He's not a very inspiring person."

Another source defended Bement, saying that he shares the "classic scientific profile" of being "introverted, intuitive, thinking and judging" as defined by Carl Jung, but that is a "cultural mismatch" in America's entertainment-saturated culture. "How do you get on the front page when you have Beyonce and any of the Jacksons to contend with?" he said.

David Peyton, director of technology policy at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), could not confirm the reports but said the organization "views Dr. Bement as a highly qualified candidate." He also noted Bement's experience with TRW, a NAM member where Bement was a vice president.

In a 2002 interview with National Journal, Bement, 71, said the NIST job "would be a good capstone for my career."

Colwell was slated to leave at the end of the six-year directorship in August anyway, and in an interview with National Journal a year ago said the job offers were "coming in thick and fast." It is unclear whether she has landed a new position but is said to be interested in university administration.

Colwell, a life scientist who interrupted a succession of physicists as NSF directors, is credited with having dispelled concerns of neglect for other disciplines at the independent agency.

NSF and NIST spokesmen would not confirm the reports Tuesday.

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