Stopping the Clock ... on Grants

Congresswoman wants to use federal research agencies to promote advancement of women in university science departments.
February 27, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The idea of "stopping the clock" on tenure has gained popularity in recent years as a way to help young academics (especially women) who may find themselves needing time off to care for a newborn while on a tight schedule to build a research record worthy of tenure. Policies that allow for stopping the clock (or that make it automatic) say that in a tenure review schedule, a candidate's review will be pushed back by a year or some specified period of time to reflect a leave the person takes, or added family responsibilities after a baby's arrival.

Now one of the senior members of the House Science Committee has introduced legislation to apply that idea -- and a few others -- to the way federal research agencies interact with universities. The bill would require federal grant agencies to specify ways that the duration of grants could be extended for researchers who have care-giving responsibilities. The hope of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, is that the clout of federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and the public focus on certain policies that her legislation envisions could advance the careers of more women in academic science.

"There are obstacles that women have to deal with that men do not. This is about dealing with one part of that," said Representative Johnson in an interview. "We need those female brains" in academic science, and so significant change is needed, she said.

Similar legislation didn't move far last year, but this year the political environment is very different and the Obama administration has highlighted the role of research in promoting economic advancement. So Johnson could have many opportunities to add her legislation to bills that are moving through Congress.

The previous version of the bill concerned some universities, with officials saying that they agreed with the goal, but were worried about unintended consequences of the legislation. In the interview, Johnson said she wasn't particularly concerned about the skepticism she had heard from some in the university world. "Any time there is a call for change, there will be concerns about it," she said. "But when they go on doing what they have been doing, they will have the same problem and we won't have enough female talent."

With regard to research agencies, the bill would apply the same "stopping the clock" philosophy behind tenure review policies. Agencies would be required to "extend" grant support for cases where a researcher is also a care-giver. Further, agencies would need to provide specific ways for researchers to hire "interim technical support" to keep laboratories running while an investigator is on a family leave.

Currently, many research agencies offer some flexibility when an investigator needs to take a family leave. Typically, policies that were written for cases of a researchers' illness are applied, and universities that receive grants can apply for permission to substitute another researcher for one on leave. This policy from the National Institutes of Health, however, shows that this is not an automatic right and must be approved. A spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation said that a similar approach was used there, so that there is not a program as formal as the one envisioned by the legislation, but that there is flexibility.

The bill also would require federal agencies to organize workshops for universities on ways to promote gender equity in science by examining issues related to the hiring of women by science departments and the peer review and grants process. Universities that participate in these workshops -- a group of institutions that would include the top 50 in federal research support for the various agencies, in effect most major research universities -- would also have to provide data to the government for public release. That information would include percentage of female faculty by department, percentage on the tenure track, tenure outcome percentages by gender, attrition by gender, and percentage of women on tenure and promotion committees.

The idea behind the measure is to highlight the departments that succeed in attracting and retaining women in the sciences, Representative Johnson said.

University officials are cautious and a little nervous about the bill, with several declining to speak on the record, stressing that they favored gender equity in the sciences and didn't want to appear apathetic about that issue. But universities have raised concern over whether the data collection would simply produce a new ranking, and one that might not be fair to universities. Others have said that they would like to see as much flexibility as possible when grant recipients become parents, but that they aren't certain about the measure proposed by Representative Johnson. These officials stressed that they would be happy to work on the issue, but that they don't want lawmakers to rush to embrace the bill in the name of gender equity in the sciences.

Other experts on women and academic careers are not the least bit ambivalent about the ideas in Representative Johnson's bill. Cathy A. Trower, research director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, said that it was "wonderful" to see this legislation. The Harvard University-based collaborative, known as COACHE, conducts surveys on the attitudes of young faculty members and a common finding has been a desire -- especially from women -- for more flexibility in work patterns.

Trower said that changes such as those envisioned by Johnson could have a major impact. "Many women do not apply for certain grants, and do not seek as much grant funding because they are worried they will not be able to fulfill the grant" if they need a family leave, Trower said. "This seems like a really wonderful way to help them do that." And applying for these grants is key to the success these women will have rising through the ranks at research universities, she said.

It's also appropriate to consider measures beyond simply urging universities to do better, Trower said. "We've been talking about carrots and sticks for a long time, but the carrots haven't worked."


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