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The National Science Foundation is looking for ideas about how to make the U.S. science community more diverse. Here, students try out some lab tools at a U.S. Army event at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

The National Science Foundation is looking for ideas about how to make the U.S. science community more diverse. Here, students try out some lab tools at a U.S. Army event at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

U.S. Army RDECOM/Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

NSF launches long-awaited diversity initiative

The National Science Foundation (NSF) wants to make the U.S. scientific community more inclusive. And the more ideas, the better.

This week NSF announced its intention to hand out small grants later this year to dozens of institutions to test novel ways of broadening participation in science and engineering. Winners of the 2-year, $300,000 pilot grants will be eligible to compete next year for up to five, $12.5 million awards over 5 years. NSF is calling the program INCLUDES. (The acronym stands for a real jaw-breaker: inclusion across the nation of communities of learners of underrepresented discoverers in engineering and science.)

The underrepresentation of women and minorities in the scientific workforce is a problem that has persisted for decades despite many well-meaning federal initiatives. NSF Director France Cordova has spoken repeatedly about her intention of moving the needle on the issue since taking office in March 2014. And this initiative, totaling roughly $75 million, could well be the signature program of her 6-year term.

A “Dear Colleague” letter from Cordova dated 22 February sets a 10-year goal of “transforming [science and engineering] so that it is fully and widely inclusive.” But it is deliberately vague on how NSF plans to accomplish that goal except to say that NSF expects grantees to be an alliance of researchers at universities, schools districts, businesses, local and regional governments, and the nonprofit sector. “We leave the specific nature of each alliance and the ambitious goals it will aim to achieve to you to define,” Cordova writes.

The accompanying solicitation offers a few hints of what she has in mind. One is offering advanced placement courses in calculus, computer science, and engineering in every high school in a state. Another is improving the diversity of those earning Ph.D.s in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. A third—and most general—example is fostering “success for students from underrepresented and low socio-economic groups” through broad community partnerships.

Applicants for the pilot grants must identify “a specific goal and measurable objectives,” according to the solicitation, and explain how their team “includes all who are needed to successfully address the objective.” Although the project may start locally, it must be capable of being expanded to cover the entire country.

The new initiative dovetails with the recommendations in a 2012 report by an outside committee that advises NSF on diversity issues. The panel called for “a bold new initiative, focused on broadening participation by underrepresented groups in STEM.” It said the initiative should be similar in size to NSF centers, a mechanism by which NSF gives large, university-based teams of researchers $3 million to $4 million annually for up to a decade to explore an emerging area of interdisciplinary research. Each project should have clear benchmarks to measure its progress, the data should be freely available, and some of the researchers should be members of the underrepresented groups being served, the committee said.

Groups interested in getting an INCLUDES pilot grant must first send in a preliminary proposal, which is due 15 April. NSF officials expect to receive more than 250 of them—“the community has been asking us to issue a solicitation for quite a while,” says NSF program officer Bernice Anderson in Arlington, Virginia—and then will give roughly 100 applicants the green light to submit a full proposal.

NSF has $15.5 million in its current budget to fund the pilot projects, and has requested $16 million for the next fiscal year as a down payment for the first year of the larger, alliance awards. Anderson said it’s possible that NSF could fund a second round of pilot projects in 2018 if there’s enough money in its 2017 budget.