NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity

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When I visited the SACNAS conference some weeks ago, I spent most of my time in the exhibit hall, chatting with students at their posters and scoping out the institutional recruitment tables. A few organizations had primo real estate, with a large amount of square footage right by the entrance. They had a small army of representatives, always busy with students. The ones that I recall include USC, Harvard, and NSF.

There’s no doubt that NSF is serious about its institutional mission to develop the most talented scientific workforce in this country, which means we need scientists from all backgrounds. If you think that NSF isn’t committed to the recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs), you probably don’t have a lot of experience with NSF. They not only care, but they also put a lot of thought into how to do it right.

NSF has been committed to minority recruitment for a long time. Still, the sciences have a major problem with minority recruitment. NSF is doing what it can to budge the needle, but Congress seems committed to not fund science at a level to keep us competitive on the world stage with other major democratic nations (though that comparison may soon not be relevant). Even without all of the funds it needs, NSF can fill a leadership role, by creating expectations about the best practices that must be followed to remain competitive for funding.

This is an important distinction that I’d like to make clear: I’d say that most working scientists in the US honestly care about minority recruitment. Most of us want everybody to get a fair shake, and are okay with enhancing access for junior scientists from underrepresented groups. But, still, it’s not a priority for a lot of us. If it’s a matter of letting it happen, then most of us are on board. But when it comes down to actually investing your own time into recruitment and mentorship, then a lot of people are glad to pass the buck to someone else. For all the talk about support URM scientists, this usually isn’t something that people with funding from NSF actually do anything about, according to the data. And while there’s not enough action on URM recruitment, there is rarely any indication that URM mentorship is a priority for scientists unless they’re actually funded by one of the grants that requires this level of engagement.

NSF does a pretty good job allocating graduate fellowships to URM scientists. I’ve heard that 25% of the fellowships go to minorities, representing a steady climb over the years. As I’ve pointed out before, it doesn’t seem that they’re doing as good of a job providing fellowships to students attending minority-serving institutions, and to institutions that predominantly support first-generation college students. In other words, the NSF graduate fellowships are funding students who have already made it through the big bottleneck in the pipeline. I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests these fellowships are  supporting students who wouldn’t be succeeding in graduate school without the support. With one of these fellowships, you can often write your ticket into the grad program of your choice. What I’d like — and this is just me and my priorities — is to see the fellowships help students who are well-prepared to become excellent scientists but haven’t had the social capital and support from well-funded institutions. I’ve got a feeling that most folks who land NSF fellowships would still be quite successful in grad school without those fellowships, and not because of their scientific acumen, but because of all of the social capital that got them the fellowship in the first place. I think that’s not the most efficient investment of these resources, but I doubt that’s a shared vision.

The bottom line — regardless of the % of URM funding — is the bulk of funding goes to students who did their undergraduate work at a private university or a relatively prestigious public research university. That’s just where the applications come from. So if you’re talking to a minority student and want to advise them how to get a graduate fellowship, then your advice should start with, make sure you get into the most prestigious college you can, because that’s what predicts your success. As one of many faculty teaching in a university on the other side of that spectrum, well, that clearly sucks for my students. They’re stuck on the wrong side of the pipeline, even though they are just as well equipped to become excellent scientists.

Whose fault is it? Who is to blame that funds are going to the populations that don’t need the support? I’m going to point at three parties. If I’m wrong about these, please let me know.

The first party I blame is The Man. The system. Captialism. The reality of inequity. The disenfranchised aren’t automatically franchised. I don’t think we have a system anywhere that isn’t designed to support people with more money and more connections. What can do we do fix this? I’m not sure. Burning it all down won’t help. (I do know that having a Nazi as the Chief Strategist in the White House, and a bigot like Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, aren’t good starting points either.)

The second party I could blame, just a teensy little bit, is NSF. They’re focused on moving the needle towards equity, but the rate at which this needle moves could be affected by adopting different policies. They are not complacent, and have made moves to this effect. (You’ll note, by the way, when I discussed this last year, a bunch of people were put out. Which really shows you the difference between concern about diversity and action about diversity.) Yes, the relative dearth of applications from undergraduates at undersupported regional state universities is an institutional problem. These universities are always going to not have as much infrastructure to support applications for these kinds of graduate fellowships, compared to small liberal arts colleges with large endowments, fewer in-class contact hours, and fewer students per tenure-track faculty. I expect there could be more changes in policy that can result in the generation of more applications from a target population, but when I’ve discussed this topic with a variety of people, I’m told that’s an institutional problem. Well, yes, it is a problem that our institutions don’t have the same resources as other ones do. But the end product — not having enough fellowships going to the target population that NSF is targeting — is actually everybody’s problem. The wealthier universities are always going to be able to generate more support for their students to get them into graduate programs. They’re built for that. It’ll take more targeted support to counteract that fact.

The third party to blame, who I feel is most responsible, is us. You and me. The members of the scientific community. Who makes recommendations for fellowship decisions? We do. If we want to make sure that fellowships are distributed in a fair, ethical, and equitable fashion, then it’s up to us. If we’re concerned about bias, then we need to be trained about bias and then show up and do our job correctly. And it’s up to us to pressure the system to make changes that would remove bias. If we want to see change happen, then it’s up to us to communicate the need for these changes.

What can you do to improve equity? You can help increase institutional diversity on the fellowship panels by volunteering to serve. Here is the link to register as a prospective panelist. It takes more than a few minutes, you’ve got to upload your CV and fill out some stuff. But it’s worth it. Chairs and deans, I think this is a place where we can make a difference by asking our faculty to register as a prospective GRFP panelist. Please let folks know that this counts as institutional service for tenure and promotion.

Also, realize that by serving on these panels, you can learn a lot that will help you support students developing their own applications. I haven’t served on one of these panels yet, which I realize means that I’m complicit in this lack of responsibility. (By the way, I’m planning to write soon about my experiences serving on NSF panels.)

As researchers and teachers, I feel that our job is even more important at this moment in history. In the United States, the distinctions between truth and fiction, and between fact and fiction, seem to have little currency. Now, our federal government is about to be filled with top administrators that value white people over other folks. It’s our job as scientists to maintain and build our own diverse and resilient communities, and we never have been able to do that by just going with the flow. The only reasonable and responsible course of action is to swim against the current, and so long as we stick together, we will be strong. Now that our country just elected a white nationalist government that is installing white nationalist cabinet, then we must recommit to uphold our foundational values.

4 thoughts on “NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity

  1. Just wanted to let you know that your advocacy matters. I can’t do a lot as a postdoc, but I can sign up to mentor an undergrad summer student from an underrepresented group. Which I’ve just done. I know mentoring can be really time-intensive and I’d normally not bother. But reading your blog and tweets has moved me from “I’m happy with diversity when it’s easy” to actually trying to do something. Thanks.

  2. When I applied (unsuccessfully) for an NSF fellowship last year, two of the reviewers liked my application and one hated it, going as far as suggesting that I “lacked a passion for science.” I do not belong to an underrepresented minority and I was lucky enough to have strong support from several mentors throughout college, but I shudder to think of the effect a review like that could have on a talented first-generation student who didn’t have good faculty or institutional support.

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