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Women in Science: Grants for Women: It's Now a Family Affair


Pati Irish was in the second year of her postdoctoral fellowship when she decided to take 5 years off to raise her four children. Looking to return to academia, she spent 2 years as a technician before finding another postdoctoral position at the University of Washington, Seattle, where her family is rooted.

At the suggestion of a university administrator, she applied to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for a "reentry career development grant," which scientists can use to pay for salary and supplies when they return to research after taking time off to raise a child or care for a sick relative. The application was rejected the first time, but after a grant-writing class, a more focused research proposal, and feedback from experienced grant applicants, Irish received the $250,000 4-year award that covered her salary and equipment.

But 3 years into the grant, Irish decided to leave the lab and is now starting a new career as a grants administrator at a local research institute. "I was at the point in my career where I had to start applying for independent positions and writing grants; I had to make a decision," she says.

Women competing for tenure-track positions in academia (see sidebar) have a particularly troublesome time if their early career coincides with the decision to start a family. "I spend my nights and weekends with family, so I don't stay long hours at the lab. Our nonparent competitors spend more of their time at work," Irish wrote in a newsletter published by the Women in Neuroscience. "When it is a question of numbers of experiments, publications, etc., the nonparent competitor will win."

Realizing that balancing work and family presents major hurdles to women scientists, several funding agencies (see our list of grants for women) have focused on helping individual scientists reenter academia after taking time off to care for their family. Although many of these programs were initially geared only toward women, who still tend to take on a disproportionate share of family responsibilities whether they work outside the home or not, the current crop of programs are not just for women. Partly, foundations are responding to lawsuits that are attacking affirmative action programs around the country (see story on status of affirmative action in science programs). But they also hope the male-inclusive philosophy will help women by bringing more validity and visibility to the society-wide problems their programs were established to address.

These programs, however, have had mixed success. Programs offered by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation are in transition, and two National Institutes of Health programs remain underutilized. But a program offered by the U.K.'s Daphne Jackson Trust comes up a winner.

At the Sloan Foundation, Ted Greenwood says, "We knew any program only geared to women would be marginalized and not taken seriously." The foundation's Pre-Tenure Leave Reentry Program, open to both men and women, supports faculty members while they take time off from academia to tend to family matters. The program requires sponsoring institutions to match the $20,000 stipend per grantee and to postpone tenure decisions.

The 3-year-old program has had a slow start: Only nine fellows (including a new father who wanted to be involved in rearing his child) have applied for and received the award. And although the Sloan Foundation initially invited two dozen universities to participate in the program, only 11 agreed to support fellows. "The program is now just beginning to take off," says Greenwood.

Greenwood hopes that the impact of the program will increase as it comes to the attention of faculty and deans at the participating universities. But making a difference at 11 schools is not enough--the Sloan Foundation is seeking to change the climate for women in academia at a national level, and they are discussing whether or not this program is the best device for achieving that goal. The foundation will decide within the next 6 months whether to expand the program by increasing the number of eligible institutions or discontinue it.

Support for women is also in flux at the National Science Foundation (NSF). In December 1999, NSF accepted the last round of applications to their $13.7 million Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE) grants program. POWRE was intended to support individual women "at a critical stage" in their career, including a return to research after a hiatus. But although POWRE grants "may have been very important in the careers of individual women, there was some concern that the grants didn't have more of a systemic affect," says NSF program manager Alice Hogan, referring to the small numbers of women making it into the senior ranks of academe.

Consequently, NSF plans to announce a new program, tentatively dubbed ADVANCE, which will award grants not for research projects, but for institutional programs that propose to improve the climate at universities for women faculty. On 11 May, U.S. President Bill Clinton referred to the program in announcing a $20 million item in the budget "for grants to universities to remove barriers to career advancement for women scientists and engineers." The program "is important for reasons of fairness and justice. It's also important for our leadership in the global economy, " Clinton said.

Hogan chairs a committee charged with developing the new program and is reluctant to discuss details before they are finalized. But she does say that, unlike POWRE, the new program will be open to men and women. "It makes sense for NSF to open up the program. Women are not going to solve the problems by themselves," Hogan says.

Are Women Better Off in Industry? Do women have it worse in academia than in industry? Graduate students think so, says Ted Greenwood of the Sloan Foundation. When Greenwood toured universities across the United States to develop ideas for what the Sloan Foundation could do to address the imbalance of women in science, the students repeatedly told him they thought industry would be a better place for them if they wanted to have a family.

Alice Hogan of the National Science Foundation concurs. "Industry laboratories are more likely to offer childcare and flexible schedules; they've realized you just can't ignore the problem," she says. "Academia, in contrast, has been less likely to see systemic change."

Working Mother Magazine and Working Women Magazine both compile lists of top women-friendly companies, but Hogan points out that no such analysis exists for comparing academic departments. Two top scorers on Working Mother's list, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and chemical/life sciences company DuPont offer flexible hours, day care, and telecommuting options. Lilly's Web site includes an interactive database that helps workers locate job-share partners, and DuPont offers summer camps for employees' children. "We try to make it easy to keep our employees' minds on their work when they're at work," says Lewis Shumaker, DuPont's college relation's manager. Recruiting and supporting women is a good business decision and nothing more, he says. "You can always hire people who look like yourself, but you won't have much diversity of thought."

ALSO SEE KIRSTIE URQUHART'S ANALYSIS OF JOBS IN INDUSTRY VS ACADEMIA IN EUROPE. Disclaimer: DuPont is a sponsor of Science's Next Wave. None of its employees contributed to the writing of this article, nor did they see the article before it was published.

NSF will be putting together a program announcement--look for it in the fall--that is explicit about the program's goals but open about its methods. "We're hoping people will come in with creative ideas to attack the problem," says Hogan. A university might propose something for dual-career couples or a reentry program for people who have left for family reasons, she says.

At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the situation is still more clouded. Although the NIH has two programs appropriate for women looking to reenter science, program officers at each one weren't sure the other still existed. Although both are officially active, neither receives many applications.

Joyce Rudick, who oversees a program that allows NIH grant recipients to apply for a supplement to support a person in their lab reentering research, responds to almost one call a week about the program, but receives "maybe only four applications a year."

NIH also offers a reentry grant called the Mentored Research Scientist Development Award, for which individual scientists--like Pati Irish--can apply directly. In 1995, the award was combined with awards that allow research scientists to retrain in a different field and others that allow a minority faculty member to gain additional mentored training. Now many people both within and outside the NIH seem not to realize the program exists. And NIH has no mechanism for tracking the career outcomes of the recipients.

One of those recipients, Alison Vigers, took 2 1/2 years out of the lab when her second child was born, returning with the help of an NIH reentry award. When the money runs out this fall, she's supposed to move on to an independent position, but she doesn't expect the transition to be easy. "I feel I do two jobs not very well," she says. Balancing work and family "doesn't seem to get any easier." She's asked for permission from the NIH to extend her award on a part-time basis and is waiting to receive a response from her program officer.

The additional flexibility afforded by part-time work is something Daphne Jackson fellows take for granted. Since 1991, the Daphne Jackson Trust has supported 76 women in the United Kingdom, most of who worked on a part-time basis during the 2-year grant. (The fellowship also welcomes men, but the handful of men who have applied ended up withdrawing their applications after receiving other grants.) Ninety-five percent of the recipients have resumed successful careers within science, engineering, and technology, says program administrator Jennifer Wooley, who adds that providing support for full-time jobs does not necessarily help working parents balance family and career.

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