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A group of graduate students funded by the National Science Foundation at a workshop near Alaska's Mendenhall Lake in 2011.

In training. A group of graduate students funded by the National Science Foundation at a workshop near Alaska's Mendenhall Lake in 2011.

NSF IGERT/Natalie Parker

NSF Plans Changes in Graduate Fellowships, Traineeships

Within a 2015 budget request that is nearly flat, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has proposed beefing up its signature Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and reworking its approach to graduate traineeships. The twin goals are in line with the Obama administration’s approach to training the next generation of scientists and engineers.

In budget documents unveiled Monday at a media briefing, NSF officials describe their plan to raise the annual GRFP stipend to $34,000 in 2015. That would be an increase of $2000 over the current level. NSF gave students a similar $2000 boost in 2013 after holding the size of the stipends steady at $30,000 for a decade.

Those two increases would require an 11% hike in NSF spending on the GRFP, to $333 million. That growth points to the high status of GRFP within NSF’s education directorate, which is seeking an increase of 5%. It also dwarfs the 1.2% increase for the agency as a whole.

And that’s not all. The 2015 boost, if endorsed by Congress, would follow a 23% jump in the program this year, to $300 million. That large increase was needed to accommodate both the previous bump in stipends and the final year of a 5-year program expansion. Students are allowed to use the 3-year fellowships over a 5-year period, and 2014 marked the first year every class was at NSF’s target size of 2000.

Although four of five graduate students receiving NSF support are funded through grants to their mentors, the fellowships are seen as especially prestigious. That’s because they are portable—students can use them at any academic institution—and because the program is highly competitive.

In 2008, the outgoing Bush administration endorsed a tripling of the GRFP, to 3000 new fellows a year. The Obama administration quickly embraced the idea, which draws upon the work of Harvard University economist Richard Freeman in demonstrating the program’s value in attracting and retaining top scientific talent.

NSF last year considered further expansion, says acting Director Cora Marrett. But agency officials balked after they tallied up the cost of both a larger and more generous program. “Our initial request for 2014 was for something like 2500 [fellowships],” Marrett explains. “But when we looked more closely, we realized that it would be nearly impossible to sustain the program at that level. It’s just not workable under the current budget conditions. So we worked with [White House budget officials] to bring the size back down to 2000.” The 2015 request would maintain that level for the next class.

At the same time that NSF is pumping up the existing GRFP, it is retooling its traineeship grants, the agency’s third—and smallest—mode of support for graduate students. Traineeship grants are awarded to universities, which select the students to participate. For the past 15 years, NSF has used its flagship traineeship program, called IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), to attract students into particular fields where there were a dearth of candidates—or a sudden demand for graduates—and where interdisciplinary training would be especially valuable.

But in last year’s budget request, NSF proposed converting IGERT into the more broadly named NRT (NSF Research Traineeships). The change was part of a hastily crafted effort by the Obama administration to streamline and reshuffle science education programs across a dozen federal agencies.

Although Congress rejected the reorganization, NSF has soldiered on within its areas of expertise, in particular undergraduate and graduate science education. Thus, its 2015 request includes a plan to launch what Marrett calls “a new model of research training,” with a solicitation about NRT expected to hit the streets shortly.

“IGERT has been very successful,” she notes. “But IGERT had to be attached to particular topics, such as sustainability. We intend to use the NRT model to address whatever happens to be the most significant challenges facing graduate education right now. That could include preparing students for a very different work experience than in the past.”

The transition has initially meant a smaller investment in traineeships. IGERT’s budget dropped from $64 million in 2013 to $55 million this year, and NSF has requested $58 million in 2015 for NRT. Within that amount, however, is $7 million for universities to propose novel ways to carry out graduate training. The program, called Innovation in Graduate Education, won’t directly support graduate students; instead, it is intended to allow schools with traineeships to test out new ideas that will reach a larger student audience. “We want to have a broader impact on campus,” explains Jim Lightbourne, acting deputy assistant director for the education directorate. “That might include master’s-level students as well as Ph.D. students.”

As is the case for the agency as a whole, NSF’s plans to improve graduate education will be affected by the reaction of the congressional spending panels that oversee its budget. And this year, those plans may get additional scrutiny from members of the House of Representatives science committee.

On Thursday, the committee’s research panel is expected to mark up a bill authorizing NSF programs that includes a requirement that GRFP cannot grow any faster than IGERT (or its successor). That language seems incompatible with the disparity in NSF’s 2015 request for the two programs. So how those differences get worked out could have a major impact on NSF’s graduate programs.