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Joane Nagel Joins NSF Sociology Program Staff

“There are many funding source alternatives for sociologists who seek research funding, but for theoretical and basic science work, the National Science Foundation is the place,” said University of Kansas sociologist Joane Nagel in a recent interview with Footnotes. As of August 12, Nagel replaced Reeve Vanneman as one of two program directors in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Sociology Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences. Vanneman, who served in the post for the past year, has returned to his home institution, the University of Maryland in College Park (see December 2001 Footnotes).

Nagel will serve a two-year term at NSF under the provisions of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) as a temporary “rotator,” a term applied to some 500 NSF scientists who leave their home institutions for a year or two to manage NSF’s science funding programs. Nagel is among the current cohort of IPAs who serve as disciplinary specialists at NSF, administering NSF’s $4-billion basic research enterprise. At any given time, approximately 40 percent of NSF’s 1,200 or so employees are rotators. The Intergovernmental Personnel Act was established to allow federal agencies to “borrow” experts in given fields to fill specific positions.

Nagel will work with colleague Patricia White, who is a permanent program director in the Sociology Program, in completing the work of the program (i.e., assigning grant proposals to reviewers and advisory panels, evaluating proposals, and making grant decisions).

“Pat and I will work as a team in order to assure good coverage of the incoming proposals and to collaborate on assessing proposals,” explained Nagel. “This arrangement is similar to how the economics and political science programs function,” she said.

The Sociology Program annually receives approximately 225 proposals in two separate “waves” corresponding to two proposal receipt deadlines. In addition, the program receives about 100 dissertation improvement proposals each year. The program administers about $6 million annually in new and continuing grants.

Nagel believes it is important for the sociology program to serve as a facilitator as well as a direct supporter of sociological research. The program also, she believes, must fund research in a range of substantive areas that employ a variety of research methodologies.

Nagel is very interested in bringing a social science perspective to bear on recent significant events in order to better validate social science approaches to meaning and culture. “It is important that social scientists work not only to understand the structural and material features of our social world, but also the underlying ideational structures—for example, notions of justice, purity, danger, sexual respectability, and equality. These must be examined in order to better understand meaning systems that govern peoples’ ‘rational’ choices,” she said. “For instance, understanding meaning systems is central to our understanding the events of September 11, 2001,” said Nagel, who believes research on meaning systems will allow an unveiling of hidden commonalities inherent in such events and expose weaknesses in current scientific assumptions about social behavior.

NSF grant programs utilize advisory panels to evaluate research, which, in the case of sociology, consist of eight to ten sociologists who travel to NSF twice a year to read the proposals and help advise the program directors in making funding decisions. Nagel recently completed a two-year term as a member of the Sociology Advisory Panel.