How bad is the loss of NSF dissertation improvement grants?

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Last week, NSF announced they have stopped awarding DDIGs – the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants in the divisions of Environmental Biology and Integrative Organismal Systems.

How bad is this decision? In the words of Jane Lubchenco:

Those are strong words, especially coming from an eminent scientific diplomat accustomed to choosing her words carefully. The Ecological Society of America has asked NSF to reconsider its decision, as have the American Society of Naturalists, Society for the Study of Evolution, and Society for Systematic Biology, in a joint statement. I think NSF is definitely taking this response from our academic societies seriously, though I don’t know what the odds are that they might change course.

I’ve been privy to a range of facts and opinions about the cancellation of the DDIG program, while working at La Selva Biological Station at the moment. There are a bunch of grad students who were getting proposals together, many researchers who once had DDIGs, and those like me who submitted a DDIG, didn’t get funded, but still benefited. Here’s some of the things that were brought up in conversation. Also, the comments in a post from Dynamic Ecology from last week put this in perspective.

Dissertation improvement grants have been important for the training of biologists. Learning how to write competitive proposals is an important skill, and a legitimate external funding program is a very helpful mechanism for training. Many doctoral programs in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology require their students to write DDIG proposals as a part of the comps/prelims to advance to candidacy. The DDIG allows graduate programs to provide training for federal grantwriting in an exercise that rises above intellectual masturbation. Instead of providing a hoop for students to jump through, they are writing a major grant for real. In our discipline, there isn’t another kind of program that exists that could substitute for this training role to prepare students to write competitive proposals. NSF shares this concern that this might change how doctoral programs go about training students. In DEB blog, they wrote, “we sincerely hope that graduate training programs will strive to find ways to sustain that culture [of independence and risk-taking].”

Submitting a full grant proposal (as opposed to a fellowship application) to a federal agency is a big deal for people new to the game. The DDIG provides graduate students with an avenue of introduction to this experience, removing the activation energy for preparing future proposals beyond graduate school. While NSF doesn’t have enough money to go around, of course, I’m sure they want all capable PIs to be confident and prepared in their early careers, and the DDIG review experience is important here.

One friend said something like, “a DDIG is a tremendous antidote to the imposter syndrome. At the moment when you’re deep into your dissertation and you begin to doubt whether your work is good and important, you get this external validation that gets you through and launches you into your postdoc.” The money of the award itself matters, but in itself the seal of approval from the National Science Foundation is not insubstantial. I’m not sure what is more important for the recipients – the money itself or the line on the CV. (I just put a wacky poll on twitter about this. For a non-trivial minority of folks, the bragging rights to having a DDIG on their CV is more important than the funds. That’s because this is perceived as a sign of grantwriting chops, which is a huge criterion for job search committees. Everybody loves a winner, after all.)

When NSF spends money on panels that review dissertation improvement grants, these funds are not merely wasted overhead — they have direct benefits for the students who receive reviews, even those who are not funded. Even if a grad student isn’t planning for a faculty position, grantcraft is still an important part of doctoral training. I understand it’s NSF’s job to fund proposals. However, please keep in mind that NSF charge includes the propagation of broader impacts, which often include the development of the scientific community and training of junior scientists. As a grad student, my DDIG proposal wasn’t funded, but the reviews were really important, and were an important stepping stone as I was ramping up to write proposals as an assistant professor. We can think of the cost of the reviews not as a loss, but as a positive good. Should NSF be paying for helping graduate programs train their students? Well, I think that’s the business NSF is in – they’re paying for graduate training directly with GRFPs, after all.

I particularly lament the loss of DDIGs because they allow graduate students to chart an independent trajectory, which is important for everybody — those heading into academic careers as well as those doing other things after they graduate. If a graduate student is being funded by their PI’s grants, then their work will then fall under the umbrella of the project run by the PI. On the other hand, if a student writes their own proposal and gets funded to improve their dissertation, they have the funds to gain experience and skills in a direction that will help them as they continue their career beyond grad school. There is so much talk and concern about how students need to be trained for mainstream jobs outside universities (which, oddly enough, academics often call “alternative careers”). DDIGs allow students a greater chance to finish their PhDs more ready for whatever they are planning.

NSF has explained to us that the problem isn’t so much the cost of the grants themselves, but the cost of running the program. They run four panels to evaluate the DDIGs, involving 80 panelists and a big time investment from staff. Then, when a grant is funded, that’s part of a program officer’s portfolio, and it requires reporting and oversight. The awards can be a huge boon to PhD students, but they’re very small compared to the regular awards that program officers oversee every day. With the budget cuts at NSF, bringing in more program officers to oversee DDIGs doesn’t seem like a likely endeavor, if they’re trying to fund projects that result in a big bang for the buck. In short, while the amount of money spent on DDIGs awards is relatively small compared to other awards, they occupy about as much time and effort as larger awards. If NSF wants to make the most of the time of their limited staff, are DDIGs the most efficient use of their resources?  Compared to other federally supported funding agencies, NSF runs with low overhead, which is laudable. I’m okay with a little more overhead expenses to keep the DDIGs.

That said, let’s keep in mind that NSF was just compelled to make a 11% cut to its budget and clearly this is a difficult task. The fat has been trimmed long ago as a result of budgetary stagnation, and these cuts are going into bone. Lots of other important things are being cut, too.

NSF needs to continue to fund big and bold science. As our nation is continuing to disinvest from scientific research and higher education, we would drive ourselves into irrelevance if we invest our dwindling resources into low-risk research resulting in incremental advances. To use their buzzword, we need to continue to pursue transformational projects. Funding transformational research doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to pour more money into large projects run by established PIs. Some of our biggest groundbreaking research comes from doctoral students, and it’s quite possible for NSF to fund DIGG proposals that offer a chance to revolutionize how we see the world. This is a huge point that is raised by the DEB blog. I would take this point even further — that DDIGs offer an opportunity to pursue a much greater number of high-risk and potentially transformative projects at relatively low cost. If NSF is serious about the mission for transformative work, then maybe investing heavier into low-cost awards for graduate students might reap greater rewards?

Another aspect is how this relates to the long game for congressional allocation. When cut happen, it can’t look like the cuts don’t hurt. If NSF keeps funding graduate students at as they always have, then this doesn’t help send a message to Congress that cuts have consequences. Also, if the small awards are maintained as the big awards are cut, then that would steadily convert NSF into an agency that funds rinky-dink awards instead of 6-figure and 7-figure awards. It’s playing ball with the Republican agenda to shrink science into irrelevance. We can’t let NSF cut back big awards to PIs but then keep funding students — in the long run that diminishes science for everybody.

We also should be asking whether the funds distributed through the DDIG program really are the cats’ pajamas. Remember that these proposals don’t make a dissertation happen — they are dissertation improvement grants. As far as I know, there isn’t anybody out there who didn’t complete their dissertation because they didn’t get a DDIG. (I surely hope not, at least.)  I also don’t think anybody’s dissertation sucked just because they they didn’t get a DDIG, and I think a grad student would be foolhardy to plan a dissertation based on the presumption that they’ll land a DDIG. So how much can $20,000 improve a project that’s going to happen anyway? Friends pointed out that this amount of funding often allows grad students to add “….and genomics” to their thesis. It allows PhD students to add a chapter or two to their dissertation, and publish one or two more papers. This is clearly good for students, and good for science, but I honestly don’t know how much awesomeness can be added with the funds when the dissertation is still happening regardless. I haven’t been on one of these panels, but I presume that awesomeness is precisely what the panel is trying to maximize. But on the other hand, I think PhD students are particularly efficient with how they use their research funds, and often have some of the most groundbreaking ideas, so any opportunity to give some more money to grad students might be the best use, right?

It’s also possible to think this isn’t a bad call, given the budgetary circumstances. While dissertation improvement grants are going away (unless the outcry and appeals work), this doesn’t mean that NSF isn’t funding doctoral students anymore. There are still going to be funds for 1000 graduate fellowships (which, unfortunately, is half of the number we are used to). So when Lubchenco said that NSF isn’t funding dissertation “grants,” that’s technically true, but NSF still is supporting graduate dissertations in a very substantial way with their fellowships. Some other points were raised by people I’ve talked to — since there are funding cuts across other NSF programs, then protecting graduate students from cuts might not spread the pain in a fair or wise manner; should we maintain funding all this research at the graduate level when it’s so difficult to get funded once you’re done being a grad student? If NSF has some kind of parity between funding at the graduate level and the PI level, then cutting back on GRFPs, DDIGs, and such does make (some kind of weird) sense. I think cutting the program’s not a good thing, but then again, I don’t have a fully clear picture of everything that happens at NSF. I’m particularly curious what people who have served as rotators at NSF think, who haven’t been involved in this decision but have more insight into what it takes to run a panel and oversee funded awards, and what savings are really accrued within NSF from cutting this program.

What do you think? Do you think getting rid of the DDIG program was a mistake? What other areas of NSF do you think might be cut? Is there an angle I’ve overlooked, or do you have a different take?

4 thoughts on “How bad is the loss of NSF dissertation improvement grants?

  1. Great Post- I saw many in the evo/eco community making some of the same points on twitter. Many said that it was the process, not the $$ that was most important. Summarizing my thoughts responses to them:
    Perhaps this is an opportunity for a more community based program to save $$ and get even more training opportunities. If NSF gave societies a block grant and the society ran the program as a community reviewing exercise? Have each applicant review 3 other proposals and then senior researchers contribute 1-2 reviews and run a virtual panel. I am increasingly convinced that we are wasting our time trying to separate the top 10% from the top 30%, so I would advocate for setting a bar for “good proposal” and then distributing the funds through lottery (you could weight it to make sure that you are giving out awards to underrepresented groups).

    Ivan

  2. Great post, putting all the main discussion points in one place.

    Re: the long game of congressional allocation, DDIG grants seem like a small enough pot of money that continuing them shouldn’t affect NSF’s ability to fund larger awards all that much. Hard for me to imagine even a distant future in which NSF has mostly gotten out of the business of giving out larger awards for the sake of giving out tiny ones.

    Re: your wacky poll, I’d argue that any students who voted for “bragging rights” on the grounds that faculty search committees really put a lot of weight on DDIG grants were mistaken to do so. Because faculty search committees don’t actually put a lot of weight on DDIG grants (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/nsf-announces-cancellation-of-ddig-program/#comment-59184). Search committees do care about your ability to get (future) grants (unless the position has no research expectation, obviously). But whether or not you’ve gotten a DDIG is only one among many lines of evidence they look at when making that projection, and far from the most important one. Of course, one can imagine other reasons why some students might have voted for “bragging rights”.

  3. In case you were wondering how much of the funding directed towards grad students has come from core proposals, relative to DDIGs, here’s input from an IOS program officer:

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