Nurturing the Next Generation

U.S. House panel debates what the National Science Foundation can do to support young researchers with risky ideas.
March 30, 2007

Efforts to bolster the country’s scientific enterprise -- and notably the National Science Foundation -- are moving ahead on several fronts in Congress at the moment. As lawmakers prepare to move aggressively into the 2008 budget season after they return from the Easter recess that starts this weekend, they will consider a budget from President Bush that would increase spending for the NSF by 8.7 percent, to $6.4 billion.

And Thursday, members of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing to discuss various ways to bolster the agency as Congress works to renew the law that authorizes it.

The proceedings of the subcommittee were held in the context of a growing consensus over eroding American dominance in those fields. As a result, the sobering findings of the National Academy of Sciences’ report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" hung over the proceedings both in spirit and allusion.

As is often the case with hearings at this stage in the legislative process, plenty of ideas were presented without necessarily signaling the direction of final policy.

One of the main issues discussed at Thursday’s subcommittee hearing involved how to better aid young scientists applying for their first grant. The general consensus is that “young investigators” tend to take more risks in their proposals, which could bring benefits in the long run but make the proposals sometimes fare less well in the traditional peer review process.

In 2005, the National Science Board found that just 17 percent of proposals from “new investigators” were successfully funded, compared to 28 percent for those who had already won grants, which it characterized as a “major gap”; the overall average is 23 percent. (In another reauthorization hearing held by the House panel last week, the NSF’s director, Arden L. Bement Jr., said that while new investigators may be less likely than other researchers to see their proposals funded, their share of all NSF research funds awarded "has remained stable, at 27 percent in 1997 and 28 percent in 2006.”)

The NSF already supports a number of programs intended to boost the chances of those applying for their first grant. CAREER grants use somewhat different criteria in awarding funds to young scientists and last longer than average. From among CAREER grantees, the science agency nominates candidates for the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). And Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER), part of a pilot program, avoid the more formalized review process and are intended for preliminary work that might lead to more concrete proposals later.

One witness who testified before the subcommittee, Carlos A. Meriles, an assistant professor of physics at the City University of New York’s City College, spoke from experience: As a young scientist, he won a CAREER award. “Unfortunately, from my anecdotal experience with other young scientists, many of them truly outstanding, the CAREER program appears to suffer from significant lack of resources, leading many worthy applicants to submit proposals two or three times before they achieve success,” he told the committee. “Proposal writing is arduous and time-consuming, and having to wait two or three years to land a CAREER grant, while the tenure clock is ticking, can put an end to a promising career.”

He also suggested that NSF program managers “identify and nurture the most inventive ideas,” which recalls the SGER program as well as a National Science Board recommendation for a “transformative research” initiative.

Another panelist, Dr. Phyllis M. Wise, provost of the University of Washington, suggested funding the top 10 percent of proposals but favoring junior researchers and assistant professors for the next 10 percent -- an idea that would not, she seemed to suggest, have a negative effect on research quality.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), the subcommittee’s chairman, responded by referring to the bill he introduced in January, the “Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act,” which “supports outstanding researchers in the early stages of their careers” through funds to NSF and other agencies. Baird said the bill, which the full science committee approved last month, contains language intended to shift some funding to younger researchers, but was unclear on how this could be done.

Baird was full of other ideas, too. He wondered aloud if it made sense for the NSF to try funding some proposals that were not actually selected, and to track the difference.

The hearing covered a number of other issues pertaining to the NSF’s goals and priorities. They included:

  • Strengthening science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education from K-12 on through community college, and examining what the NSF’s role should be in guiding undergraduate curriculums.
  • Enhancing and promoting partnerships between science and industry.
  • Emphasizing interdisciplinary research, and whether that might divert funds from more traditional, single-discipline work.


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