NSF Officials Worry as Number of New Grant Applicants Falls
The Chronicle of Higher Education ( June 9, 2000)
By RON SOUTHWICK (Washington)
Despite its goal of fostering new technology and ideas through its grant-making, the National Science Foundation has seen the
number of new researchers seeking federal funds fall steadily in recent years.
The N.S.F., the government's second-largest supplier of money for university-based research,
The N.S.F. keeps a close watch on the number of first-time applicants because it is regarded as an important barometer of the
energy of the country's young researchers, says Nathaniel G. Pitts, director of the agency's Office of Integrative Activities,
which is charged with implementing new N.S.F. initiatives.
Also gnawing at agency officials is the downward trend of applications from members of minority groups. Those proposals
dropped 5 percent from 1992 to 1999. The report indicates that minority researchers are less likely to win money from the
agency, a factor that may be contributing to the decrease in numbers of minority proposals. Members of minority groups may
not be reapplying after being rejected, Mr. Pitts says.
"I think people get discouraged, especially the younger investigators," says Mr. Pitts.
The N.S.F. is banking that more dollars will draw more scholars. N.S.F. Director Rita R. Colwell is touting a plan to double
the agency's overall budget within five years, and the agency is seeking its largest budget increase ever in the 2001 fiscal year, a
17-percent increase to $4.57-billion. N.S.F. officials hope that the prospect of work in new fields like information technology
and nanotechnology will encourage more researchers to submit proposals.
The number of first-time applicants for N.S.F. grants fell to 11,831 in the 1999 fiscal year, 3,000 fewer than in 1992.
"The N.S.F. is serious about making sure one-third of its dollars go to new investigators," Mr. Pitts says. About one-quarter of
the agency's research funds now go to them.
Some observers, like Shirley M. Malcom, a former member of the National Science Board, which oversees the N.S.F., say the agency's drop among overall applicants and first-time investigators may be the result of researchers applying for money from the National Institutes of Health.
In the 1999 fiscal year, the N.S.F. received 28,504 applications for competitive grants, almost 2,000 fewer than in 1995.
Meanwhile, the N.I.H. budget has grown to $17.8-billion, following a 30-percent budget increase in the last two years. N.I.H.
officials estimate the number of first-time applicants has risen by 37 percent in 1999, but the agency considers the numbers
preliminary because it is still verifying data on all new investigators. The N.I.H. had seen no change in the number of new
applicants in the preceding three years.
"It may be a matter of fishing in a pond where there's more fish," Ms. Malcom says. However, Ms. Malcom says it may take
more than money alone for the N.S.F. to attract young researchers.
Too many applications from young scientists are getting rejected, she says, which may keep other new researchers from
seeking funds. She doesn't see a bias, but says new investigators should be given more consideration if their proposals contain
some promise, even if they also contain flaws.
Researchers who had applied to the N.S.F. for funds at least once before were successful in gaining grants 39 percent of the
time in the 1999 fiscal year; meanwhile, only 23 percent of first-time applicants secured money from the agency. "The first issue is maybe beginning to recognize this is a problem," Ms. Malcom said.
First-time applicants are more likely to fail because they often don't know how to apply, says Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of
North Carolina State University and a former member of the National Science Board. They often propose projects lacking
focus or requiring excessively large budgets, she explains.
People at the beginning of their careers, she says, "don't have the independent record to assure a reviewer" that they can solve
Ms. Fox says the drop in applications from minority investigators, meanwhile, is a more serious and complex problem.
Less than 5 percent of the agency's research proposals came from minority investigators in 1999. Agency officials are also
troubled by the fact that applicants from minority groups are rejected a little more often than proposals from white scientists,
Mr. Pitts of the N.S.F. says.
The agency describes investigators who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian as members of minority groups. On average,
the N.S.F. offered financing to 32 percent of all of its applicants. Applicants from minority groups received awards 30 percent
of the time. Mr. Pitts says the difference, though small, is still a source of concern.
One reason minority researchers are less successful in acquiring grants could stem from the fact that some of their institutions
have fewer resources, Mr. Pitts speculates. Scholars at historically black colleges may have older or inadequate laboratories
ill-equipped for the studies they want to perform, he said. Some minority investigators may have heavier teaching loads and lack the time to even apply for grants, says Mr. Pitts.
The N.S.F. should be offering more grants to historically black colleges so they can build better facilities and compete for funds on a more level playing field than exists now, says Mary Gray, a professor of math and statistics at American University.
Ms. Gray, who holds a law degree and has published articles on affirmative action and on women and minorities in science,
also said the number of applicants from minority groups isn't growing because many members of minority groups aren't going to graduate school after completing undergraduate degrees.
"We're not getting them into the stream of researchers," says Ms. Gray. In the most recent broad-based survey the N.S.F.
compiled on women and minorities in higher education, the agency found that the percentages of black, Hispanic and American
Indian recipients of doctoral degrees still fell well below each group's proportion of the general population.
The N.S.F. should make sure its teams reviewing applications include members of minority groups, Ms. Malcom adds. She
said team leaders have discretion in selecting reviewers and should make sure their panels are diverse.
Mr. Pitts said the N.S.F. works to recruit members of minority groups to serve on review panels, but he said there is no
specific numerical target for the racial composition of those teams.
Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education