Last year, I served on a couple NSF panels*, and I’d like to share some thoughts. Instead of a coherent narrative, I’ll just give a bulleted set of observations and ideas.
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.
Every year, the National Science Foundation gives an award to the most bestest early-career scientist in the US. It’s up to the scientific community — that’s me and you — to make sure the pool really has the best. Which means it has to have a lot of women in it.
Months ago, we had a small spike in traffic here at Small Pond because we joined the chorus wondering how NSF can manage to go thirteen years without giving the Waterman Award to a woman.
We should have double blind grant reviews. I made this argument a couple weeks ago, which was met with general agreement. Except for one thing, which I now address.
Some readers said that double-blind reviews can’t work, or are inadvisable, because of the need to evaluate the PI’s track record. I disagree with my whole heart. I think we can make it work. If our community is going to make progress on diversity and equity like we keep trying to do, then we have to make it work.
We can’t just put up our hands and say, “We need to keep it the same because the alternative won’t work” because the status quo is clearly biased in a way that continues to damage our community.
In some academic fields, double-blind reviews of manuscripts for peer-reviewed publication is the norm. It’s no surprise that people who study human behavior use double-blind review. They must be on to something that most of us in the “hard” sciences haven’t picked up yet.
In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:
I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…
- I take a 20% cut in salary
- I get that money in research support
- I don’t spend any more time writing grants
… it just makes me happy.
Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”
I was pretty much amazed. I thought it was just me.
When I was a tween, a cutsey feel-good book was a bestseller: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If we learn to solve problems as kids, that should help us solve similar problems as adults.
Let’s do a kindergarten-level exercise in math and pattern recognition. Can you figure out what shape comes next?
If you said star, you’re right! Congrats!
Let’s do another one. What shape do you expect to find next?
If you said star again, then that means you’re two for two. Good job!
Let’s look for another pattern:
What do you think comes next? If you guessed , then you’re right! Your pattern recognition skills are fantastic!
I’m working on a couple biggish grants at over the next couple months. I’m doing something that I haven’t done before, at least not as a PI. I’m working with grantwriters, under the support of my university. These are for grants to support a bunch of people doing a variety of things, with many organizational components that are only tangentially connected to the science.
NSF just announced their Graduate Fellowship (GRFP) awardees.
The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates.
I was just about to prepare a blog post about Freedom of Information Act requests and federal grants, when I got this interesting piece of email:
I am a Program Advisor for [redacted]. One of my responsibilities is to locate funded proposals upon the request of our members who are primarily sponsored programs officers.
I am writing to request a copy of your NSF IRES funded proposal; Fire, Carbon and Climate Change in Australia. A [redacted] member from [redacted] would like to review a copy of this in preparation for a future submission.
I do understand that this request can be made through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but that is a lengthy process. [Redacted] Program Advisors always prefer to contact funded PIs directly. Please contact me with any questions and/or concerns.
Thank you in advance for considering this request. I hope to hear from you soon!
So, what did I do? Obviously, I’ve written a blog post about it. I did not reply to the email. If I did reply, this is what I’d write:
Students who did their undergraduate work at elite universities are dominating access to federally funded graduate fellowships in the sciences. I pointed out this obvious fact at the beginning of this month, which to my surprise caught quite a bit of attention. I also got a lot of email (which I discuss here — it’s more interesting than you might expect).
A common response was: Okay, that’s the problem, what about solutions? Hence, this post. First, here are some facts that are are germane to the solutions.
I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.
I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.
In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships.
I started this morning with tremendous news: a student of mine, who left my lab for a PhD program last year, let me know that his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was funded!
I had two other former students who put in applications. I downloaded the big list from NSF, and — alas — they did not have the same fortune. So, I was 33% happy.
The PECASE awards from NSF were announced as a Christmas present for 19 scientists.
These Presidential Early Career Awardees are picked from the cream of the crop of the CAREER awards. The CAREER award emphasizes an integrated research and teaching career development plan. Hearty congratulations to all recipients! This should make the holiday even nicer.
This year’s recipients of NSF PECASE awards work at the following institutions. Undergraduate institutions are in bold.
Univ. Puerto Rico at Cayey (classification here)
Selection for this award is based on two important criteria: 1) innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and 2) community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach.
This year, if you round up, then 11% of these PECASE awards from via NSF went to scientists at primarily undergraduate institutions. If you browse the institutions with CAREER awardees, it’s clear that this nonrandom subset has a bias against the awardees from teaching institutions. There are far more than 11% CAREER awardees from teaching institutions.
Is this bias based on merit? That’s an interesting question. How is merit quantified by NSF when picking PECASE awards from among the CAREER awards? I have no idea how to answer that question.
I don’t find any of this surprising, but thought that I should put this fact out there. Those of you are applying for CAREERs from teaching institutions have a good shot at getting one, but, well, don’t make the mistake of thinking you have a fair shot at the PECASE. For the two of you who cracked that very hard nut this year, congratulations!