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Researcher Loses Job at Nsf After Government Questions Her Role as 1980s Activist

By Science

September 11, 2014

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Valerie Barr was 22 and living in New York City in 1979 when she became politically active. A recent graduate of New York University with a master’s degree in computer science, Barr handed out leaflets, stood behind tables at rallies, and baked cookies to support two left-wing groups, the Women’s Committee Against Genocide and the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence. Despite her passion for those issues, she had a full-time job as a software developer—with 50-plus-hour workweeks and frequent visits to clients around the country—that took precedence.

After a few years, she found herself devoting even less time to those causes. By the late 1980s, she had resumed her pursuit of an academic career. A quarter-century later, she’s a tenured professor of computer science at Union College in Schenectady, New York, with a national reputation for her work improving computing education and attracting more women and minorities into the field.

That social conscience also led her to decide it was time to "give something back to the community." So in August 2013 she took a leave from Union College to join the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director in its Division of Undergraduate Education. And that’s when her 3-decade-old foray into political activism came back to haunt her.

Federal investigators say that Barr lied during a routine background check about her affiliations with a domestic terrorist group that had ties to the two organizations to which she had belonged in the early 1980s. On 27 August, NSF said that her "dishonest conduct" compelled them to cancel her temporary assignment immediately, at the end of the first of what was expected to be a 2-year stint.

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