IT & Networks

Data front and center at the NSF in 2020

The 2020 calendar year is all about data for National Science Foundation Chief Information Officer Dorothy Aronson, both within her own agency and in her work on the federal CIO council.

Over the next year, Aronson said she is “highly motivated” to increase data literacy throughout NSF and get employees all talking in the same language.

“IT people have a certain set of words that we use that we understand,” said Aronson, who is also the chief data officer at NSF. “Data people also have their own lingo … and then finally there are mission people who have their own way of talking. I think we’re all working toward the same objectives. However, we don’t understand each other.”

Aronson, who co-leads the workforce committee on the federal CIO council with Education CIO Jason Gray, wants to create clear career paths for data scientists. The government is currently grappling with how to cultivate its data for evidence-based policy making, which means that the federal government needs to attract more employees experienced with data — or retrain current employees. Not having established career paths for data scientists is an “emerging problem,” Aronson said.

“Because right now, there are a lot of data scientists who are federal employees, but they don’t have the title data scientists, they might be a microbiologist, or they might be an IT person,” Aronson said. “But for us to attract the right skill set the federal government, we need to be able to offer people the right terminology around their jobs. And so having the data science career path is an important step.”

As an example of employees that could be retrained, Aronson pointed to federal employees who have worked on financial data for years.

“The people who started with the financial data are definitely well-positioned to be considered data scientists, because that's what they do day in and day out is study that information,” Aronson said. “What they're not trained in might be Python or are some of the basic tools.”

While she also enjoys her new hat of CDO, she doesn’t think one person should be doing both jobs. It works for her agency, she said, because she had already been informally known as the foundation’s chief data captain before NSF was required to have a CDO. In that role, she facilitated conversations among employees across the agency who were interested in data. She does think, however, that CIO and CDO should typically be separate roles.

“I believe that data people and IT people are separate kinds of people and that there’s something of a conflict of interest [with] me being in the middle,” she said. “But, again, in a small agency you have to wear multiple hats and so it may not always be this way, but, for now, that’s the situation.”

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