Advocacy and Public Policy Newsletter ~ July 2011
Changes to the "Broader Impacts" Merit Review Criterion at NSF
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has historically set the bar for federal agencies with regard to initiatives that broaden the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The “broader impacts”
component of NSF’s merit review criteria adopted in 2008 highlights the agency’s commitment to diversity and mentoring, encouraging research proposals to address issues of underrepresented groups, teaching, and outreach. NSF is currently considering big changes to these guidelines, and AWIS has submitted a response to their request for comments to ensure that the proposed changes in NSF’s merit review criteria do not result in a loss of focus on the important issues:
The proposed national goals to “increase [the] economic competitiveness of the United States” and “develop a globally competitive STEM workforce” are commendable. Unfortunately, such goals are unlikely to be accomplished without increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities who are recruited and retained in STEM fields. Although women and minorities of both sexes comprise 68% of the United States population, only 45% of scientists and engineers are women or people of color. This statistic (from NSF data, 2006-2008) indicates that the future of our STEM workforce and our nation’s ability to compete globally in technology and innovation depends on the recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups.
- While we recognize that many NSF grant applications for basic research do not necessarily have a component dedicated to broadening participation of underrepresented groups, the presence of this “broader impacts” criterion specifically dedicated to diversity may have brought these issues to light among NSF grant applicants who otherwise were unaware of their importance.
- Although there are currently no data that show the effectiveness of NSF’s “broader impacts” criteria in increasing the proportion, status or recognition of women and underrepresented groups in STEM, the criteria have only been in effect for three years. More time is needed with these or similar standards in place, so that researchers in statistics and social sciences may conduct a rigorous study of their impact.
- The elimination of comprehensive language about women and underrepresented groups from the “broader impacts” criterion sends a message to groups dedicated to diversity that NSF no longer considers this a top priority. AWIS recognizes that the inclusion of the following statement, “Increased participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM” as one of the “national goals” is an attempt to maintain focus on this issue, but it is less comprehensive than the language adopted in 2008 and may indicate to reviewers a weakened commitment to the cause.
Whereas, broadening participation of women and underrepresented groups is a means to achieving NSF’s proposed “national goals” we strongly recommend that NSF consider the inclusion of the following question under the “broader impacts” component of its new merit review criteria:
“How well does the proposed activity address national goals for a robust STEM workforce by broadening the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?”
AWIS will be carefully and publicly monitoring how the changes in NSF’s merit review criteria impact the agency’s commitment to broadening participation of women and underrepresented groups, and we encourage NSF to take precautionary steps to ensure that the changes to do not send an implicit message to reviewers that NSF is lessening its commitment to diversity in its funding programs.
Women in STEM -- Common Misconceptions Fuel Advocacy
The latest issue of Metro News asks the most common question in our field: “Why aren’t there more women in science and engineering?” Although we have research-based answers to this question, many individuals (even in academia) who are not familiar with the issues women face have their own ideas about why there are so few. Common assertions include: “Women are just not interested in math and science the way men are,” “Women can’t handle the rigorous work environment,” and “Academia isn’t suited to women, who need to take time off to raise a family.” But the tone of these assertions does not fault academia or the lack of family-responsive policies in the United States – instead, they focus on the inability of women to fit in.
AWIS Executive Director, Janet Bandows Koster rejects this notion, emphasizing that it is the under-recognition, unequal pay and benefits, as well as discriminatory promotion and hiring practices that discourage women from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She asserts, “action must be taken at the federal and institutional level to alleviate the challenges impeding women’s access to [higher level] positions, including gender biases in the workplace and outmoded institutional practices.” One of the primary goals of our advocacy initiatives at AWIS is working at the federal and institutional levels to raise awareness about these issues, and we are also engaging scientific disciplinary societies in a campaign to increase the number of women receiving awards and recognition for research.
Metro News pontificates, “It might not be long before [women] become front and center in the world of math and science…” but to be clear, we have not come this far by chance. It has taken 40 years to get where we are today, through the tireless efforts of advocates for women in science at every level of engagement, and AWIS will continue to work for gender parity in STEM until people are no longer asking, “Why aren’t there more women in science?”
Funding for Basic Research on the Chopping Block?
With frustrating “news” about the budget talks inundating national airwaves, viewers are likely to shy away from reading any more about deficit reduction and slash-and-burn campaigns. But scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) should be informed about the most recent attacks on basic research. Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma has just released a new version of his recycled report about the need to cut investments in the National Science Foundation, citing important research as “fraudulent and inappropriate expenditures.” As the drop-out member of the bipartisan “gang of six” Senator Coburn has been known to radicalize issues, but his report is full of misleading statistics and misguided assertions that have gone too far.
His two major recommendations of relevance to researchers are to 1. Eliminate the Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) Directorate and 2. Reduce funding for Education and Human Resources (EHR). The main arguments for cutting these programs in Coburn’s report is that other agencies are already doing this work, and the work that is being done is “low-priority”. Some of the projects he is attacking are directly related to women, and phrased in such a way as to diminish their significance. For example, the report calls into question the value projects with titles such as: “Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls” and “How much housework does a husband create for a wife.” But this cutting-edge social and behavioral research gets at the heart of underlying gender inequalities in our society that could help answer the aforementioned question: Why are there so few women in science and engineering? – A question whose answer is critical to the future competitiveness of our nation.
Overlooking grammatical and factual errors, the most harmful aspect of Senator Coburn’s report is the outright misrepresentation of “basic research”. Citing the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) definition of basic research as expanding scientific knowledge “without regard to commercial applications,” he intends to cast a negative light on this notion. However, this simply means there is no biomedical research done at NSF. In other words, research grants are not intended to translate into medicine or other marketable products for pharmaceutical companies. The value of basic research is that the outcomes are often unknown – the benefits to a project can be limitless, open-ended, and potentially more rewarding than anyone could have imagined. Ronald Regan said it best in his 1988 Radio Address to the Nation on the Federal Role in Scientific Research: “The remarkable thing is that although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does.”
Basic research lies at the very heart of science – exploring an idea to see where it will lead. And for such an essential part of our nation’s ability to study new areas of thought, NSF receives only 4% of our total federal investment in research and development. This is one slice of the pie we cannot afford to cut.
M3 The Maddening Monthly Mention
* 11 Hottest Female Professors in the Country *
As if it weren’t damaging enough for gender parity to have commercials that objectify women constantly airing on television, one media outlet that is supposed to be a woman-friendly resource for college students is now treating university professors like profiles on match.com. HerCampus: A Collegiette’s Guide to Life has recently published a list of the “11 Hottest Female Professors in the Country.”
Yes, that’s right – rating professors based on their appearances. This is precisely the behavior that we admonish at AWIS, because it perpetuates the social stereotype of women as sexual objects to be admired rather than recognized as successful scientists. Harking back to the days when women were told university professorships were not open to them, the prevailing sentiment was that women belonged at home. Now that the labor market in our country has changed and women represent roughly half of all working people in America, that cultural expectation is slowly dissolving. But one thing that has remained pervasive in our society (and most others in the world, partially as a result of our international media exports) is the image of woman as sex symbol.
This unfortunate portrayal is so perfectly illustrated by the selection of 11 “hot” and highly successful female professors highlighted on HerCampus that the descriptions speak for themselves:
A. [This] is a woman who is serious about her work, but also finds a way to look impeccable every day.
B. This busy physicist manages to be the one of smartest and hottest physics professors out there.
C. Hailing from Italy, [her] naturally curly hair and exotic look put her on our list.
These descriptions are indeed outrageous, but strangely they are not the most disturbing part about the whole debacle. What is striking is the discrepancy between these captions, and the the student descriptions of each professor. In fact, they are not related to appearances at all – but praise the women’s academic achievements and favorable teaching styles:
A. “[She] is the best teacher that I have ever had. I have always hated English and she made it fun and interesting, and helped me learn.”
B. “World's most cited Physics Professor. Quite a big thing for any lady. But this lady deserves it all.”
C. [This professor] was recently awarded the 2010 SIGRAV Prize, which is given every two years to an Italian astrophysicist below the age of 40 who has distinguished himself/herself for work related to gravity.
So maybe there is hope after all. These students obviously regard their professors as successful academicians in their own right, and do not mention appearance as their most admirable features. But until the mainstream media and society as a whole can accept that women should receive recognition for their excellence – regardless of social stereotypes – we cannot hope to obtain gender parity in this (or any) country.