Whose problem is it?

Small Pond Science reminded us all some years ago that “disadvantaged students come from disadvantaged universities” and recently contended that NSF graduate fellowships are part of the problem of underrepresentation of minorities in sciences. The post (which is worth reading, along with the comments) continued on to excoriate NSF: “If the Graduate Research Fellowships aren’t a genuine part of the solution, than where the heck can we expect a solution to come from within the NSF?

OK, so this is where GG got grumpy.

Now don’t misinterpret: there is a huge problem in getting minorities into earth science (GG cannot speak for other sciences) and it makes sense for there to be efforts to get minorities and disadvantaged students (these are not always the same people) into the field.  Where things start to go off the rails is in assigning this task to NSF, the National Science Foundation.  Why? Because the main goal of NSF, the main goal of the scientists who help by participating in the review process, is to get the very best science funded.  And trying to expand the pool of potential scientists probably involves investing in a lot of not-so-great science and not-so-strong universities, investments people working at the highest levels of the field may be loathe to make.  Demanding, as the Small Pond Science post does, that NSF take the lead on this asks a community to try to balance a duality of interests, one side of which is relatively foreign to many in that community.  Maybe tasks like this should be shifted to the Department of Education at the federal level, an agency with 10 times the budget of NSF. Kicking NSF in the shins because your undergrads didn’t get grad fellowships may not be the most useful response.

It isn’t even clear to GG that satisfying Small Pond Science’s desire for NSF to pump more money towards 4-year college students would succeed.  Like many walks of life, children of scientists are more likely to consider science as a career (next time you watch a professional sports match, see how many times a player’s parents come up in the commentary; sports stars, too, tend to follow in a parent’s footsteps), perpetuating economic and racial inequities in the field.  Science is not, by and large, a particularly remunerative calling; many disadvantaged but capable students will find fields with higher salaries and a shorter path to financial security far more attractive, while students from financially stable backgrounds are more apt to risk years of relatively low income (grad school and postdoc purgatory) to pursue a scientific career. After all, spending six years getting a PhD doesn’t guarantee anything other than six years not earning a living wage. And there is the issue of “do I see myself in that community”? Earth science in the US remains depressingly lacking in many minorities; jump starting minority participation will probably require a set of students who don’t care as much about what the community looks like at present. So it seems unlikely that the percentage of students getting grad fellowships will be the same for graduates of Harvard and CSU Dominguez Hills anytime soon.

So how might we solve this problem?  As Terry McGlynn (the author of the Small Pond posts and a CU graduate) notes, “If we want to diversify STEM, we’ve got to cultivate a broader foundation. If we want to diversity STEM, we can’t expect that the next generation of graduate students will come from the same elite undergraduate institutions.” Here’s the problem: you won’t solve this by trying to make every undergrad institution into a top-flight research school.  There simply isn’t the cash. That’s the path many of the CalState schools have tried to blaze, but between the limited dollars at NSF or NASA for research and the different demands on the faculty at such schools, it is hard to get much more than a watered down mess across the board.  (That said, some individuals in earth science who have simply required very little money have both managed to conduct capable research careers and foster students who have gone on to success at the bigger name places; these folks should be celebrated. But these are unlikely to be the main solution). Terry works far closer to the real issues than GG, but it sounds like a lot of the problems he sees are capable undergraduates not being steered into graduate programs.  If this is truly the problem, then some of the weight might be taken by partnerships of research universities pairing themselves with 4 year schools to provide mentoring and guidance.  Students interesting in earth science, for instance, can come out of a 4 year school with no idea of the breadth of the field or the different specializations out there simply because there is nobody at their school who knows any of that.  They might apply to schools that simply are terrible matches because, well, they simply don’t know any better. Such students–who might be very successful in the right places–might back away from a graduate education simply because they were knocking on the wrong doors. Similarly, 4 year schools might be unaware of the qualities graduate programs look for in potential students, and some kind of more effective pairing might help to inform them so they can better advise their students.

A problem GG has seen from the other side are disadvantaged students pushed towards graduate school by some well-meaning programs when those students are simply unprepared to succeed at the next level.  This is poison in multiple forms: we certainly don’t want to admit students only to have them fail, and failure at this level can be more devastating than not trying at all. Furthermore, such failures discourage faculty at research schools from risking the admission of similar students. There are two possible paths forward.  One is to have at the graduate level the resources necessary to bring such students up to the academic level necessary to complete a degree; the other is to better insure that students depart their undergraduate school with the skills and preparation necessary to succeed.  The first really requires the acquisition of skills and capability at a level where the expectation would be that you’d see some such students frequently enough to justify the cost and specialization.  There are such programs (GG’s is not one); it would probably benefit many 4 year schools serving underprivileged students to identify such programs as likely targets for their graduates. The second puts a greater burden on poorly financed undergraduate schools which might already have struggled to overcome educational deficiencies for students when they entered college.

Would changing NSF graduate fellowships solve all this?  No.  If anything, the statistics in the Small Pond post argue that the grad fellowships are a symptom more than a cause.

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7 responses to “Whose problem is it?”

  1. Terry McGlynn says :

    “Because the main goal of NSF, the main goal of the scientists who help by participating in the review process, is to get the very best science funded” – I couldn’t find a link or reference for this. Aren’t broader effects also as important in the mission? I’m really curious if you can find anybody running things at NSF to agree with your narrow vision of its mission, much less such a narrow construction in its charge or mission statement.

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    • cjonescu says :

      Thank you for your comment. If you read what really amounts to the founding document of NSF, the *main goal* is to foster a first-class scientific research capability . [Yes, this is not the organic act creating NSF. It is a far clearer vision that led to that act]. However, that said, this document also clearly intended to nourish scientific talent throughout the population:

      “To encourage and enable a larger number of young men and women of ability to take up science as a career, and in order gradually to reduce the deficit of trained scientific personnel, it is recommended that provision be made for a reasonable number of (a) undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships and (b) fellowships for advanced training and fundamental research. The details should be worked out with reference to the interests of the several States and of the universities and colleges; and care should be taken not to impair the freedom of the institutions and individuals concerned.

      “The program proposed by the Moe Committee in Appendix 4 would provide 24,000 undergraduate scholarships and 900 graduate fellowships and would cost about $30,000,000 annually when in full operation. Each year under this program 6,000 undergraduate scholarships would be made available to high school graduates, and 300 graduate fellowships would be offered to college graduates. Approximately the scale of allowances provided for under the educational program for returning veterans has been used in estimating the cost of this program.

      “The plan is, further, that all those who receive such scholarships or fellowships in science should be enrolled in a National Science Reserve and be liable to call into the service of the Government, in connection with scientific or technical work in time of war or other national emergency declared by Congress or proclaimed by the President. Thus, in addition to the general benefits to the nation by reason of the addition to its trained ranks of such a corps of scientific workers, there would be a definite benefit to the nation in having these scientific workers on call in national emergencies. The Government would be well advised to invest the money involved in this plan even if the benefits to the nation were thought of solely — which they are not — in terms of national preparedness.”

      However, in the 1940s there was no Department of Education. In the modern framework of government, there are perhaps 3 places where fundamental scientific research is funded, and two of those (NASA and NIH) are limited in scope (we can consider separately the military’s R&D programs, which sometimes allow for fundamental work). In contrast, there are multiple federal and state agencies and organizations charged with education. When NSF was formed, it was thought that the main limitation on a prospective scientist was having the financial means to attend college. Hence awarding the fellowships could be based on merit, which is what NSF is good at doing. What you were suggesting in your post was that this was intrinsically unfair because the quality of the proposal was affected by the quality of earlier preparation, a perfectly valid point. How then is NSF to judge these proposals? Is it to scatter fellowships at random upon the whole population? This is my issue: NSF has been built on peer-review, on identifying-as best as humanly possible-the scientific strengths and merits of competing proposals. Certainly it fails (every scientist who has gotten a rejection has felt it isn’t perfect :-)), but the goal is laudable. It is highly unusual in government for such a process to exist, and it is one worth protecting. It is not well equipped to introduce social equity into the equation; the best way is to have a separate merit-based competition for those who are disadvantaged (e.g., EPSCOR), but of course if you perceive different levels of advantage, then this too is impractical. I would argue that the better place to implement a structure designed to level a bumpy playing field is within an organization whose mission is not to seek out the best but is to try to make things equitable.

      GG is not looking for buy-in from NSF personnel but is stating an opinion. You are saying NSF is equipped to help fix the problem by better distributing fellowships; I am disagreeing. NSF is unique within the federal government and is not, IMNSHO, best suited for cleaning up the social and financial inequities that plague modern society. We agree such inequities need to be dealt with, but here we are disagreeing with the means.

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      • Terry McGlynn says :

        I agree that it is the NSF’s mission to build and support the best research possible. It is NOT their job to fix social inequities, but when social inequities are limiting research capacity, then fixing social inequity is a part of building the best research community.

        I get that you disagree with me, but please don’t attack a strawman version of the argument.

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      • cjonescu says :

        Sorry, what was the attacked straw man?

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      • Terry McGlynn says :

        The part about making every 4-year institution into a top flight research institution. And the arguments that follow that bit.

        It’s cool, I think we are on the same page for all of the facts. I just want NSF to focus more on funding disadvantaged students and cultivating that pool with GRFP awards. You don’t. We just have different priorities. No big whoop.

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      • cjonescu says :

        Oh, that. Certainly was not intending to imply that was any argument you were making. It was just an end member, one that many 4 year college presidents have dreamed of over the years, and it isn’t quite as much a straw man as it might seem. After all, if there were the bucks flowing in to school serving disadvantaged students, it would make it a lot easier to get them the experience with NSF and plugged into the kinds of things that NSF is apt to fund.

        An interesting question is, what happened to the 6000 undergrad scholarships in the original plan? That seems like something that could really help out if it existed. I don’t think the REU program quite fills the bill.

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  2. cjonescu says :

    Sorry, the “founding document” to which I refer is Vannever Bush’s 1945 report to the President. The URL got eaten, it would seem. It was http://nsf.gov/about/history/nsf50/vbush1945.jsp

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