The Fulbright Program At 43: Prestigious But Not Perfect

Last July, James Fallon, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, traveled on a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Nairobi, Kenya, to build a neuroscience laboratory on the campus from the ground up. "I hadn't taken a sabbatical in 12 years," Fallon says, "

By | July 22, 1991

Last July, James Fallon, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, traveled on a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Nairobi, Kenya, to build a neuroscience laboratory on the campus from the ground up. "I hadn't taken a sabbatical in 12 years," Fallon says, "and I could have gone to some high-profile place like Cambridge. But I thought, `Why not go to a completely different culture?' And the lure of starting something from scratch and making a lasting impact was absolutely irresistible."

Fallon's enthusiasm for helping his African colleagues build their lab captures the essence of the 43-year-old, federally funded Fulbright Scholar Program, the venerable system of grants bringing together researchers from different countries for scholarly exchanges.

Since the first "Fulbrighters" began their travel in the fall of 1948 in exchanges with China, Burma, and the Philippines, the Fulbright program has mushroomed into a globe-girdling enterprise. More than 186,000 Fulbright scholars--about 56,000 students and professionals from the United States and 130,000 from other nations--have journeyed to 130 countries around the world on grants that range from two months to an academic year.

It's impossible to quantify how much the Fulbright grants have contributed over the decades to enhancing international understanding and breeding a worldwide community of scholars. One gauge of the program's impact, however, is the impressive roster of Fulbright alumni, both in the U.S. and abroad, which reads like a Who's Who of the 20th century. Included in this group are such Nobel Prize-winning scientists as Joshua Lederberg, Emilio Segre, Charles Townes, James Watson, and Rosalyn Yalow.

Their prestige notwithstanding, in recent years the Fulbrights have encountered some pitfalls. Budgetary problems have forced program officials to reassess the way the grants are administered, resulting in a proposed modification that observers fear would eliminate or sharply reduce awards for travel to developing countries like Kenya. And within scientific circles, the program has lost some of its luster. While Fallon and other scientists who have traveled on Fulbright grants rave about the experience, other researchers are reluctant to apply for the program, fearful of taking too much time from their labs at home.

A Controversial Proposal

Fulbright administrators say the program is undergoing a crisis because funding for the grants--which vary from covering travel, housing, and other expenses, to simply paying for travel--has not kept pace with the Fulbrights' growth. In real dollars, the budget for the Fulbright program, which now stands at $95 million annually, has doubled since 1949, but the number of participating countries has ballooned from 10 to 130.

A white paper recently issued by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, a presidentially appointed panel that oversees the program, suggested changes in the way its resources are used--recommendations that have stirred up some controversy. Among the key suggestions were to increase the number of awards for students and to operate in fewer countries while increasing the stipends for scholars who receive the grants.

"We're fighting for more money from Congress, and we've asked them to double our funding," says Charles Dunn, chairman of the scholarship board and a professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina. "But in the meantime, the white paper report was designed to generate and be a catalyst for constructive dialogue. We need to redirect and focus more of our resources where we can have greater impact." Program officials are now evaluating the report's recommendations.

The board proposed that stipends be increased to make the grants, according to Dunn, "commensurate with the name `Fulbright.' " Many Fulbright scholars have found that grant amounts are insufficient to cover their expenses; Fallon, for example, had to pay to rent a house in Kenya, among other things, and ended up in debt upon his return to the U.S.

In the absence of increased funding, cuts have to be made in some aspect of the program in order to enable the stipends to be raised. Concentrating awards in fewer countries, rather than scattering the program's limited resources, would be a good way to accomplish this, some program officials believe. They say that it would be a more prudent allocation of resources to send grantees to some countries only every two or three years, or to award grants on a regional basis, rather than country by country.

Others fear that this change in policy would ultimately mean that Fulbright grants to developing countries would be sharply cut or abandoned altogether. "I think the charge that people are being sent to places willy-nilly is unfair," says David A. Cornell, a professor of physics at the Principia College in Elsah, Ill., who spent six months teaching astronomy and electronics at a university in Harare, Zimbabwe. "We have a limited understanding of people in Africa, and the only way we're going to change that is by being there."

But, counters Ralph Vogel, the staff director for the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the board's proposals offer a "way of concentrating the funding and making it more effective." Says Vogel, "We want to do more in Eastern Europe--we just signed agreements with Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. We also want to bring in more undergraduates." Vogel says that program administrators are trying to obtain money from agencies outside the federal government: "We are reaching out to other funding sources, such as private philanthropic foundations. In the meantime, we need to figure out how to stretch our dollars."

While scholars in other fields are clamoring to take advantage of the available Fulbright funds, scientists seem to be letting the opportunity to apply for a Fulbright pass them by. According to Thomas Farrell, vice president, exchange programs and regional services, of the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright Student Scholar Program, less than 10 percent of the student Fulbright applicants are studying science. "We would like to up that number," Farrell says, "but we cannot come up with enough applicants to satisfy the need around the world."

In the science community, there seems to be a feeling that the Fulbrights are not as appealing as other types of grants. "The major scientific achievements demand a good deal more interaction than what a Fulbright year abroad can afford, so the most preeminent scientists don't participate in the program," says Walter A. Rosenblith, a biophysicist who is Institute Professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Rosenblith adds, "Of course, the Fulbrights never aimed for research breakthroughs--they emphasized cultural exchanges. But here again, scientists don't have the time to be goodwill ambassadors and do science, too, which demands more than a 40-hour work week. And as tenure becomes more difficult to achieve, scientists are more hesitant to take time off and go abroad."

Those scientists who opt to take time out for Fulbright travel, however, say their work is richer for the experience. David Mulcahy, a professor of botany at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, received a grant that covered his travel expenses to Milan, Italy. He spent six months there in 1989, learning molecular biology techniques from a colleague in the department of genetics and microbiology at the University of Milan. "I had worked with these people for a number of years on collaborative research, and they were quite anxious for me to give lectures on my own research," says Mulcahy. "In exchange, they taught me techniques using messenger RNA that are now an essential part of my research."

Mulcahy adds: "The Fulbright grant made it possible for me to be away from the distractions and daily requirements of academia. This was really well worth doing, and it fulfilled the whole idea of an international community of scholars."

Neurobiologist Fallon, who helped his African colleagues build a neuroscience lab along with two technicians from Irvine, recalls that they started out "with an empty room and bare light bulbs." Eventually, he says, "we managed to cobble together a fairly well-stocked laboratory by culling equipment from other departments on campus. Everything was very rudimentary, but the students were geniuses at jury-rigging things together and making do with the least amount possible."

Fallon first decided to go to Africa when he heard through the scientific grapevine that the chairmen of the neuroscience department at the University of Nairobi wanted to make the facility the center for neurosciences in Africa. "They already had started an embryonic science society, and they sounded like they wanted to make a commitment," he says.

One dividend was that he was able to do some basic research in neuroanatomy on primates, which are plentiful in Kenya but at a premium in the U.S. Another benefit was that he established cooperative links at universities in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

Birth Of An Institution

The Fulbright program was conceived in 1945 by J. William Fulbright, who was then an obscure freshman senator from Arkansas; legislation establishing the program was passed in 1946. Fulbright, who is now retired, envisioned the program as a cultural and educational Marshall Plan, emerging from the ashes of World War II, that would promote international good will and understanding through the exchange of scholars from the United States and those from other countries. "The immediate stimulus for this program was the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan," says Fulbright. "It impressed me very deeply that it was perfectly ridiculous to have wars continue. The progress of the human race is very slow. But I thought if we could take the best graduate students, who would later become influential citizens and leaders, and introduce them to the way other people do things, it would be the beginning of a way to avoid disastrous conflicts."

Fulbright experienced the benefits of international travel and study firsthand when he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in 1925. Fulbright came from a small town in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and had never been east of the Mississippi prior to making the trip to England to spend a year studying modern history. "It was the most profound experience of my life, and I have been indebted ever since to Cecil Rhodes [who launched the Rhodes scholarships]," the former Democratic senator recalls. "I've always had quite a different attitude towards other countries after being acquainted with them. I envisioned the Fulbright program as the same as the Rhodes Scholarship, only bigger."

Today, the Fulbright program, which operates under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (USIA), has become an umbrella for a variety of exchange programs.

Two administrative agencies are under contract to the federal government to operate branches of the Fulbright program. The Washington, D.C.-based Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) administers the American Scholar Program, which sends in excess of 1,000 people annually to more than 100 countries, where they lecture or conduct research in a variety of academic and professional fields.

The New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE) administers the Student Fellowships, which are offered each year to about 450 graduating college seniors and graduate students from the U.S., as well as 2,000 from other countries.

Through the Visiting Scholar Program, administered by USIA, grants are awarded to bring international scholars to the U.S. to lecture or conduct postdoctoral research. Nearly 1,000 visiting scholars come each year for an academic year or term. They are chosen either by U.S. officials and cultural attaches in the sponsoring country or by a binational commission. (Forty-five countries are served by binational commissions, composed of a panel of distinguished national educators and cultural leaders as well as Americans from the U.S. Embassy. Many participating countries fund or make contributions in kind--provide housing or tuition waivers--to help support the program.)

"There are layers upon layers of administration," says Steven A. Blodgett, director of recruitment and liaison, Fulbright Scholar Program, for CIES. Referring to all the binational committees and administrative agencies involved, Blodgett says, "In a sense, the Fulbright Program is really 125 different programs under the rubric of the Fulbright Scholarship program."

Although the layers of bureaucracy have thickened over the years, what hasn't changed is the intensity of the competition for the prestigious Fulbright grants. This year, for example, Blodgett says, CIES received 3,167 applications from Americans seeking research and teaching grants. Out of that pool, 958 people were awarded Fulbrights. On the student side of the equation, there were 3,333 proposals submitted to the IIE from students at 400 schools across the U.S. Only 530 people actually received Fulbright Student Scholar grants.

And even those numbers can be deceptively high in terms of the chances of receiving an actual award, because awards are given on the basis of what's available in each country. For instance, this year there were 423 applications for 27 grants available for travel to Great Britain, and 127 applicants for 15 grants available in Japan. The flip side is that there may be only one or two applications for grants in less popular areas, like Burundi. Although comparatively few scientists apply for Fulbright grants, it is no easier for scientists to receive awards than it is for others, Blodgett says, if they are applying to the most popular countries.

No matter what changes are ultimately implemented, the essence of the Fulbright program is still embodied by the experiences of people like Catherine Duckett. Duckett, who is finishing up her Ph.D. in entomology at Cornell University, spent a year at the Universidad Central Venezuela in Maracay, Venezuela, about 75 miles west of Caracas. She went to Venezuela to continue her studies of the leaf and flea beetles, rare insects that are indigenous to South America. Duckett says she learned a great deal in the field trips she took around Venezuela and Brazil. But equally important, she adds, were the ties she forged with other scientists. "There was a real cross-fertilization, and I solidified my relationship with the faculty and the graduate students at the university. I also learned techniques I couldn't have learned otherwise that will help my career. And overall, it was definitely worth it as a personal experience."

Linda Marsa is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


For information on Fulbright grants for faculty and professionals, contact:

Council for the International Exchange of Scholars 3007 Tilden St., N.W., Suite 5M Box NEWS Washington, D.C. 20008-3000 (202) 686-7877

Although the application deadline for the Southern Hemisphere, South Asia, and the Soviet Union was June 15, applications for the rest of the world are being taken until August 1.

For information on Fulbright grants for graduate students and graduating college seniors, contact:

Institute of International Education U.S. Student Program Division 800 United Nations Plaza New York, N.Y. 10017 (212) 984-5330 Competition for 1992 closes on October 31.

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