Yale News

Debra Fischer, Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy and former Dean of Academic Affairs, was tapped as the next director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences.

The National Science Foundation is a government agency that supports non-medical research in the STEM fields. Fischer will begin a three-year tenure as the director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences on Oct. 12 —  responsible for overseeing new research projects in astronomy and enhancing opportunities for astronomers in the field. As director, Fischer will remain on the Yale faculty but will not be actively teaching. 

“[Astronomy] is a field that is just absolutely exploding, because every new mission that we have gives us a new window on the universe and allows us to see things that have never been seen before,” Fischer said. “It’s just an incredibly exciting time right now in astronomy.”

According to Fischer, every 10 years, the most prominent scientists in the field come together to complete an inquiry called the Decadal Survey. The Survey is a two-year long project led by the top astronomers in the field. Scientists form committees to review proposals and past research projects in order to determine the top priorities in astronomy, and science more broadly, for the next decade. After its publication, the Decadal Survey sets the agenda for researchers and directors of research institutions across the country. 

According to Sarbani Basu, chair of the Astronomy Department, the pandemic delayed the 2020 decadal survey, so Fischer will begin the new position around the time the survey is ultimately published. As such, the appointment is especially opportune, providing the ability to officially implement the agenda after the Survey’s publication. 

Fischer’s scientific goals and main priorities as director are focused around the Decadal Survey, exoplanets and climate change. 

“As soon as [the Decadal Survey] comes out, the first thing I’m going to do is study it in depth and try to figure out what the National Science Foundation can do to be aligned with [its] goals,” Fischer told the News. 

In addition to the priorities outlined by the Decadal Survey, Fischer hopes to implement projects concerning exoplanets — the incoming director’s speciality. Such work will help bring attention to the direness of the current climate change crisis, Fischer added. Although most people associate astronomy with the discovery of a “Planet B,” Fischer emphasized that there is no planet quite like Earth. 

The new appointee added that there is a lack of action on the part of many researchers in astronomy concerning climate change, although many of them are aware of the issue.

In an attempt to be more environmentally conscious, Fischer hopes to implement an “energy budget” requirement for research proposals, so that scientists are aware of the carbon and energy footprints of their research before embarking on a long-term project. After all, as Basu clarified, some of the NSF’s projects in astronomy cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete. 

“[Fischer] is going to be trying to make astronomy a bit more environmentally friendly, so I really hope [it’s successful],” Basu said. “We use big facilities, which by their very nature, can use a lot of power.” 

Fischer highlighted the importance of diversity in the new directorship. Another goal is to talk to as many researchers in the “astronomical community” across all “types of institutions, range of careers [and] diverse ways of thinking of looking at things.” 

Fischer plans to reach out to researchers directly to understand the priorities of the astronomical community. The role of director is not to set the agenda, but rather to synthesize and manage different proposals communicated by current researchers, Fischer said.

“Under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act — we just call it IPA — faculty from universities go on leave from the university and work at different places… for up to three years,” Basu told the News. “So professor Fisher is still technically a member of our department [but] will not be able to teach.”

Fischer will be relocating to Alexandria, Virginia — where the NSF is headquartered — for the duration of the appointment, while still participating in remote University meetings and occasionally commuting back to New Haven, as scheduling permits. 

The appointment was a “fork in the road” for Fischer’s career. The imminent publication of the Decadal Survey as well as the presence of a science-supporting administration in D.C. make the directorship an especially exciting opportunity. 

Debra Fischer has always been one of the most extraordinary figures at this University because they’re exceptionally good at literally everything they do,” said Tamar Gendler, Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University. “For them to be appointed to this NSF position is just visionary. There is no one I can think of who brings together this set of skills, who would be better suited for making these decisions.”

Fischer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

Selin Nalbantoglu covers the School of the Environment as a beat reporter for the SciTech desk. Previously, she covered breakthrough research as an associate beat reporter.