Give Marrett, 70, a few minutes at a congressional hearing to ask for a fiscal 2014 budget boost in an era of austerity, and you won’t hear about the National Science Foundation’s funding of research into enzymes that trigger aging in Hawaiian flora or about turning mushroom mycelium into packing peanuts in New York. Instead, she’ll speak fervently about human curiosity, as any emeritus professor might, explaining how NSF “pushes forward the frontiers of scientific knowledge” and “reflects the [Obama] administration’s determination to … allow leading-edge discovery and innovation.”
Growing up in the tobacco-farming community of Kenbridge, Va., the youngest in a family of 12 children born to parents who completed the sixth grade, Marrett was a voracious reader who never pictured herself becoming an ardent advocate for scientific research. After securing her bachelor’s from Virginia Union University, she earned her advanced degrees at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), researching organizational effectiveness and race and ethnic relations. A professor at the University of Wisconsin in sociology and Afro-American studies from 1974 to 1997 (her husband still lives in Wisconsin), Marrett began to move away from the classroom in 1990. She retained a part-time faculty spot while directing programs for the United Negro College Fund and later, in her first stint at NSF, from 1992 to ’96, shaping its social, behavioral, and economic sciences unit. For the next decade, she served as a top university administrator in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
On her second tour at NSF, starting in January 2009, Marrett was the assistant director responsible for education and human resources; she became acting director for five months when Arden Bement, then 78, stepped down in 2010 and again in March, when Subra Suresh resigned.
“Cora has worked diligently to apply her knowledge of academic governance and research infrastructure to change actual organizations,” declared a letter of recommendation for an honor, also recognizing her “wit, wisdom, and patience.”
Marrett exhibits that patience when a member of Congress questions grants for research into global social interactions or China’s dairy industry. Her agency bestows more than 10,000 grants a year and since 1955 has funded the work of more than 200 Nobel Prize winners. The teacher in her champions NSF programs that steer veterans, women, and minorities into science, and she takes pride that the foundation operates with a “very lean 6 percent administrative overhead.”
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