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Fewer Minorities Under New NSF Rules


From the 16 April issue of Science magazine.

Last month the National Science Foundation (NSF) selected 900 aspiring young scientists to receive its prestigious graduate research fellowships. But the news was tempered by the fact that the number of minorities chosen had dropped by more than half from last year's total, from 175 to 76. The decline, following the cancellation of a separate competition for underrepresented minorities begun 20 years ago, is the latest fallout from legislative and judicial rulings prohibiting the use of race as a selection criterion in education.

"I'm not surprised," says biologist Joel Oppenheim, head of the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at New York University, which aggressively recruits minority students. He notes that the elimination of affirmative action programs has also had a chilling impact on minority enrollment in college and graduate schools.

The drop comes in the midst of declining interest in the fellowship program, which received 13% fewer applications this year (from 5548 to 4796). For minorities, however, the decline was an even steeper 20%--from 697 to 559--despite an increase in NSF's outreach efforts to schools with sizable minority populations. "There is a feeling among minorities that they didn't stand as good a chance once NSF dropped its sheltered fellowship program," says Rice University mathematician Richard Tapia, a member of NSF's oversight National Science Board.

NSF has traditionally used targeted programs to accomplish its congressional mandate to increase participation in science by members of all segments of society. But officials are reviewing some two dozen programs to see if they still satisfy both the law and the current political climate. They revamped the 47-year-old graduate fellowship program last year after being sued for discrimination by a white student who was denied the chance to apply to the minority component of the program ( Science, 2 January 1998, p. 22). The agency paid $95,400 in a pretrial settlement and soon after announced that it would no longer set aside 15% of the total number of slots for a competition reserved for African-American, Hispanic, and native American students. Under the new rules, all applicants for the 3-year, $15,000 a year awards were funneled into one competition.

Hoping to minimize any negative impact of the new rules, NSF officials dispensed with an initial numerical rating of each applicant--based on such quantitative factors as Graduate Record Exam scores, undergraduate grade point average, and a ranking of the baccalaureate institution--that was thought to put some minority candidates at a disadvantage. The change was designed to give more weight to less tangible factors such as persistence and commitment. Officials also ended the practice of assigning only one reviewer to applications that had received a low rating. "This year we heavily emphasized that reviewers needed to look at all the material in the application," says Susan Duby, head of NSF's division of graduate education. Every application was read by at least two reviewers, she says. But these measures apparently weren't enough to avert the sharp drop in awards to minority students.

Duby says NSF plans to be even more aggressive next year in spreading the word about the fellowship program and counseling potential applicants on how to improve their odds. But Tapia, who has successfully boosted minority participation in graduate programs at Rice, cautions that NSF should not expect to see the number of minority awardees return to previous levels anytime soon. "It's a very complicated problem, and it takes time to learn how to do it right," he says. "I don't do anything right the first time, but I keep learning."

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