Scientists Oppose NSF’s New Graduate Fellowship Priority
Scientists Oppose NSF’s New Graduate Fellowship Priority

Scientists Oppose NSF’s New Graduate Fellowship Priority

More than 3,000 researchers have signed on to a petition that expresses concern over the agency’s 2021 application for the funding program, which emphasizes three areas of computational science and might further disadvantage underrepresented groups.

Kerry Grens
Kerry Grens
Aug 7, 2020

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This summer, the National Science Foundation announced three priorities areas for its Graduate Research Fellowship Program in 2021: artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and computationally intensive research. In previous years, the grant has not focused on particular research topics, and thousands of scientists have signed a petition to remove the emphasis on these disciplines, saying that it runs counter to the mission of the program and could edge out students from underrepresented groups, Times Higher Education reports.

“Creating preferred research areas limits efforts to diversify science and will ultimately hamper scientific discovery and student development,” reads the petition, which was posted a couple of weeks ago. It was started by Chelsea Catania, a former recipient of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and current postdoc at MIT. As of August 7, nearly 3,400 signatories had joined Catania’s petition. 

Hundreds of scientists have also signed on to an open letter to the National Science Foundation (NSF) expressing concerns about pushing specific fields of study through the fellowship, and computational disciplines in particular.

“Preferring certain research areas will mean a movement away from the GRFP’s unique purpose in identifying and supporting the best scientists in any field and towards giving priority to one field over others,” states the letter, penned July 30 by Jason Williams of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “The change will also further contribute to the disproportionate awarding of the GRFP to students who attend schools with the most resources—a small handful of predominantly white, exclusionary undergraduate institutions.”

Around 2,000 graduate students are awarded the GRFP each year. It provides three years of funding and has not required students to commit to the research project they propose in their applications.

On July 28, the NSF noted on Twitter that fellows will still be selected by individual merit and that the emphasis on the three areas of research are “not intended to exclude any areas of science.” 

Nature notes that 80 percent of fellows between 1994 and 2004 were white. Computational fields are likewise predominantly white and male, with roughly 19 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees going to Black and Latinx students and 19 percent going to women in 2016.

“The last thing anybody wants to see is for a really stellar young scientist to look at this new solicitation and say, ‘That’s not me,’” Margaret Byron, a mechanical engineer at Penn State and former GRFP recipient, tells Nature.

Times Higher Education reports that the NSF has not clarified how the emphasis on the three disciplines will factor into selecting fellows. Such a lack of clarity “will discourage deserving applicants from fields that now appear to be de-emphasised,” Stephanie Correa, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells the news outlet.