US scientists protest advanced computing focus for top grants

National Science Foundation’s new emphasis in postgraduate funding seen as backsliding on diversity

August 7, 2020
Changing direction
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Thousands of US researchers have protested against a Trump administration move to prioritise computer skills in the pre-eminent federal grant award for postgraduate science students, seeing a broad threat to research diversity.

More than 4,000 people have signed petitions aimed at stopping the National Science Foundation from treating artificial intelligence and other advanced computer specialisations as favoured elements of its venerated Graduate Research Fellowship Programme.

The protesters said the addition of any preferred field of study “goes directly against” the long-standing intent of the GRFP, a grant meant to be focused on individuals rather than projects that has helped to birth the careers of 42 Nobel laureates since its establishment in 1952.

“Creating preferred research areas limits efforts to diversify science and will ultimately hamper scientific discovery and student development,” a group of 3,300 petitioners told the NSF. Another petition also circulated by scientists with a similar message has collected more than 700 signatures.

The NSF’s move is especially surprising given the agency’s ongoing efforts to improve diversity in its awards programmes, said one of the petition organisers, Jason Williams, an assistant director for external collaborations at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The GRFP typically is awarded to about 2,000 graduate students each year, providing each student with $34,000 (£26,000) a year for three years, plus $12,000 annually for the winner’s academic institution.

For this year’s upcoming round, however, the NSF encouraged applications that incorporate any of its three “high-priority research areas”: artificial intelligence, quantum information science and computationally intensive research.

Those are fields that the Trump administration has repeatedly favoured in its policy and funding pronouncements, from schools through to higher education and into the workplace.

An organiser of the larger petition, Chelsea Catania, a postdoctoral associate in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she had no objection to a federal emphasis on computer science.

But formalising that preference into the GRFP, Dr Catania and the other petitioners said, was a fundamental mistake, because the GRFP asks applicants to outline a study project only as a means of demonstrating their ability to construct one.

Forcing students to choose topics too early in their careers, and in fields for which they have no particular interest, the experts said, could exacerbate inequities in the GRFP awards that relate to race, gender, wealth and academic institutions.

Such imbalances already have been recognised in GRFP awards. An analysis last year by Science magazine of that year’s GRFP fellows found that just 10 universities represented 31 per cent of all the winners.

The NSF has pushed back against the criticisms by insisting that the GRFP will accept applications from students in all fields. “GRFP applicants have always been selected based on their individual merit, and that will continue,” the NSF’s newly installed director, Sethuraman Panchanathan, told a recent meeting of the NSF’s governing board.

Yet NSF officials have not responded to repeated queries aimed at learning why it included the new language promising an emphasis on computer-related fields, and how that prioritisation would be reflected in judging applications.

“Questions like that – there’s no answer to them” from the NSF, said Meryl Mims, an assistant professor of biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The resulting uncertainty, said Stephanie Correa, an assistant professor of biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, “will discourage deserving applicants from fields that now appear to be de-emphasised”.

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