NSF grants for doctoral dissertations have helped researchers address a wide range of questions, including how land use affects insects that pollinate economically important cotton plants.

Credit: Richard January/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ecologists protest sudden end of NSF dissertation grants

A grants program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that has helped launch the careers of thousands of U.S. biologists and environmental scientists is ending after becoming a victim of its own popularity.

On 6 June, NSF’s biology directorate shocked the scientific community by announcing it would no longer fund Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs). The small awards help support work, typically field studies or large-scale data analyses, by students pursuing graduate degrees. The agency said managing the program had become too labor intensive and was making it harder for program officers to do other parts of their job.

Biology’s decision to pull out of the long-running program—the funding mechanism remains in place for students in the social and behavioral sciences—has raised a hue and cry throughout the ecological community. “This program generates one of the greater returns on investment of anything NSF does,” says Casey Dunn, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University. His 2003 DDIG laid the groundwork for research that, 8 years later, helped him win NSF’s top award for young scientists, and he now encourages his students to apply. “They may be small amounts of money, but they can have an extraordinary impact on someone’s career.”

In a letter yesterday to directorate officials, the 10,000-member Ecological Society of America, based in Washington, D.C., asks the Arlington, Virginia–based NSF to preserve the dissertation grants within biology and offers to help it find ways to “reduce high workloads and meet changing program priorities.” The letter highlights the multiple benefits of the dissertation grants: They not only allow graduate students to go beyond their adviser’s research expertise, but they also teach them important career skills, including how to write a grant proposal and manage a budget.

Senior managers in the biology directorate said they terminated the program reluctantly, with the hope that it will ease a growing workload on program officers in the two divisions—environmental biology (DEB) and integrated organismal systems (IOS)—now offering them. At roughly $20,000 each, dissertation awards are much smaller than bread-and-butter research grants, which average $230,000 a year across the entire directorate. But they require the same level of scrutiny by NSF’s vaunted peer-review system, meaning program officers must put in the same effort in selecting reviewers, running panels, and processing the paperwork for every grant that’s made. In the last 2 years DEB has handed out nearly the same number of DDIGs as full awards, roughly 130 a year in each category.

The time needed to manage the DDIGs has impinged on the other things program officers are expected to do, say NSF senior managers, including staying abreast of developments in their field, developing new research initiatives, and remaining active scientists. Something had to give, they concluded, and the ax fell on DDIGs. “Nobody doubts the value of this program, but it was a necessity,” says Heinz Gert de Couet, head of IOS.

Rite of passage

Despite their budget of less than $3 million a year, the biology DDIGs have made a remarkable impression on the community over the decades they have been awarded. Hopi Hoekstra, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, says that applying for a DDIG is practically a rite of passage in her lab. “I’ve had nine students who have had them,” says Hoekstra, who boasts that at one point her lab enjoyed a “100% success rate” in nabbing the awards.

She, too, is a former recipient. As a graduate student, she recalls, she explored the evolution of sex chromosomes in mammals while her adviser worked with birds. Although both were doing population genetics, she says, “My project was completely independent of his work.” A DDIG gives students the freedom to chart their own scientific path, says Hoekstra, who studies the genetic basis of adaptation in wild mice and other vertebrates, “and that’s a big part of what makes doing science so much fun, right?”

Dunn worries that ending the DDIG program could have a negative impact across the entire field of biology. “Now, when a student says to their adviser, ‘I want to do this new thing that you’re not doing,’ they can apply for a DDIG,” he says. “It’s a chance to explore all the nooks and crannies, and who knows what they might discover. Without the program, the acorn will have to stay closer to the tree.”

NSF’s directorate for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences has run a nearly identical program for decades and administrators remain pleased with the results. “We think it’s a very sound investment,” says Thomas Baerwald, a senior science adviser within SBE’s division of behavioral and cognitive sciences. “It has allowed us to support high-quality work, and we see top-notch papers appearing soon after the students complete their dissertation.” Baerwald says that he’s made grants to “four generations” of scientists in the 29 years he’s worked at NSF, which he regards as testament to their lasting value.

Looking for help

With a fiscal storm brewing—the 2018 budget submitted last month by President Donald Trump proposes an 11.3% cut to NSF—some scientists have speculated that the biology directorate is battening down the hatches. But senior managers say the president’s budget request played no part in their decision. “In a word, it’s a workload issue,” says Paula Mabee, head of DEB.

At the same time, they acknowledge that the additional work stems in part from insufficient resources. “The number of proposals in DEB has doubled over the last 10 years, and there’s been no growth in staffing for more than 20 years,” Mabee notes. “We’ve done all the streamlining we can do without compromising the quality of merit review.”

NSF’s abrupt announcement has left the ecological community scrambling to find a way to address the workload problem without sacrificing the dissertation grants. “It’s important for us to recognize the constraints on NSF and then think about how to step up,” Dunn says. “Maybe this is an opportunity to think about new strategies for reviewing across NSF.”

One idea being floated would have professional societies manage the DDIG peer review through a grant from NSF, which would continue funding the actual dissertation projects. “You’d need some type of NSF support, plus the collaboration of several major societies to ensure there would be sufficient breadth of scientific expertise to review all the relevant proposals,” says Dean Adams, executive vice president of the 670-member Society of Systematic Biologists.

Adams, an evolutionary biologist at Iowa State University in Ames who studies phenotype variation in salamanders, says the society is still reeling from this week’s NSF announcement, but that he expects its governing council to discuss ideas for responding later this month. The need to preserve the grants should be obvious, he says, calling them “one of the most cost-effective ways for NSF to foster the next generation of ecologists.”

But Adams worries that losing the NSF imprimatur could reduce their value. “The grants might take a hit in terms of prestige,” he says. “Right now it’s a huge feather in their cap for a student to get a DDIG.”