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News Release 05-017

National Science Foundation Names David Lightfoot as New Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences

February 10, 2005

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The National Science Foundation has named eminent linguistic scientist and veteran administrator David W. Lightfoot to head its Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. He will take office on June 1.

Lightfoot, Dean of the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University and a professor in its Department of Linguistics, will oversee NSF’s $197 million annual investments in fields such as anthropology, psychology, cognitive studies, political science, linguistics, risk management and economics.

“We are delighted to have a scholar of David Lightfoot’s caliber directing this critically important element of NSF’s portfolio at a particularly propitious time,” said NSF Director Arden L. Bement, Jr. “From the specter of terrorism to the tsunami devastation in the East to rapid social change and the ongoing global collision of cultures, the insights of social and behavioral research have never been more urgently needed.”

Lightfoot said, “I’m looking forward immensely to joining the National Science Foundation and to providing leadership in my new organization. The social and behavioral sciences are making exciting breakthroughs in basic understanding of humans and their world, and NSF will be an important catalyst in this process.”

Lightfoot has authored 10 books and several dozen scholarly papers on the origin, acquisition, development and historical evolution of language. He has elaborated and championed the theory, first posited by Noam Chomsky, that each human has a genetically innate but culturally unique “language organ” – a system of grammatical and knowledge patterns in the brain – whose functions can be studied through “cognitive physiology” and whose structure can be modified by “cues” from the social environment.

In his capacity as Dean at Georgetown University, Lightfoot promoted research collaborations in cognition and neurosciences, population health, bioinformatics, statistics and computing, among other initiatives.

Before coming to Georgetown in 2001, Lightfoot had established a new Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland and chaired it for 12 years. Previously he held academic positions at the University of Michigan, McGill University and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. He has held numerous visiting appointments in Europe and South America.

Lightfoot received his bachelor’s degree from the University of London, King’s College, and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, and has received several research grants from NSF and the University of Maryland.

As an Assistant Director of NSF, Lightfoot will lead NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE), which comprises three divisions: Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Social and Economic Sciences, and Science Resources Statistics. Until Lightfoot’s arrival, Wanda Ward, Deputy Assistant Director for SBE, will continue to serve as Acting Assistant Director.



Media Contacts
Elizabeth Malone, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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