[SIGCIS-Members] job opening at NSF

Bill Aspray bill at ischool.utexas.edu
Sat Oct 25 06:55:08 PDT 2014

Well, this is my morning to reply to the Pauls (not palls) of computing history. I wrote earlier this morning in reply to Paul Edwards, now to Paul Ceruzzi.

The NSF Historian job is probably a great job.  NSF has had a significant impact on STEM education and research, and some impact on the STEM workforce. But a person applying for this job should go in with eyes wide open, for three reasons:

1. Quite a long time ago, I was the PI on a project to write a history of the computing directorate of NSF and its impact. In the middle of the project, the NSF Historian (at that time, George Mazuzan) was relocated out of the NSF Director’s office into OLPA, the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. OLPA is responsible for maintaining the good name of NSF, to make sure that the organization continues to get well treated in Congress with strong appropriations and minimal oversight. I had many problems dealing with OLPA. For example, when I claimed in my manuscript that in certain areas of computing DARPA was more influential than NSF, OLPA wanted me to delete or change these portions of my manuscript. In the end, we agreed not to publish the history. This was a long time ago and certainly the OLPA staff has changed, but the structural tension between OLPA’s public relations goals and objective historical assessment remains.

2. The reason I was contracted to write a history of the computing directorate and other people were contracted to write histories of other directorates (for example, Toby Appel for the biological sciences directorate) was that Mazuzan had found his many other duties such as writing speeches for high-level NSF officials and answering public enquiries about NSF’s histories did not leave him time to write much history himself. He become primarily a manager to these contract historians.

3. NSF has historically not been very good at record keeping. What I found primarily were the “jackets”, which are the file folders that are produced when someone applies for a grant and which include the reviews and final proposal determination. These are sometimes very interesting, often sensitive, and do not give good evidence of the overview of what is going on in the organization. I found very few white papers, committee reports, files of the associate director responsible for running the computing directorate, etc. All of this to say, being in this position does not open up a goldmine of scholarly sources. However, if you hold this position, you are an insider and NSF employees have to talk to you. That is not true for outside scholars. Within the past month, a long-time NSF employee refused to give me an oral history interview because this staffer did not want the hassle of clearing the interview with the NSF lawyers (who also are housed in OLPA).

While I would be pleased to see a computer historian hold the NSF Historian position, you should go in with eyes wide open. One might think that the culture of NSF is more like that in the open scientific research community, but in many ways this job is much more similar to being a corporate historian.


On Oct 22, 2014, at 10:23 AM, Ceruzzi, Paul <CeruzziP at si.edu> wrote:

> In case you haven't seen this, there is a job opening for a historian at the NSF.
> https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/384375000
> Paul Ceruzzi
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