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A Modest Proposal

June 13, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 24

This guest editorial is by Ronald Breslow, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University and a former president of the American Chemical Society.

During the “golden years” of academic chemistry, 1960 to 1990, funding for research was not the challenging problem it is today. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows readily received fellowships from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Research grants from federal funding agencies then mainly supported the costs of doing science, not the living costs of students. The fellowships were limited to U.S. students, so academic chemists tried to convince the best U.S. students to go into chemistry, and winning the fellowships helped convince them to do so. As a result, more of our chemistry students were U.S. citizens who wanted to stay in this country, rather than foreign students who might want to return to their native countries. The past fellowship system also enabled young faculty to get off to a running start, with plenty of self-funded graduate students and postdocs—who were not dependent on the faculty member’s grants—available to join their research teams.

We know we can’t return to that past system. The federal funding agencies are underfunded relative to the need, and diverting some of their funds to fellowships would not increase the total amount of money available. Instead, a new source of funds is needed.

I propose that this funding come from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), in a significant expansion of what it currently does. The best plan, and one that is easiest to start, would expand and somewhat change a program DOE currently operates called Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN). This program specifically supports graduate education in chemistry and other science and engineering fields, but it is not optimal. It sends funds to science and engineering departments, which then use them to support graduate students.

However, few chemistry departments receive GAANN funds. The chemistry department at the University of Illinois has had such funding, for example, but the department chair says that it is far from a perfect substitute for support from grants. One major problem is that the students supported by GAANN funds must take the equivalent of an oath of poverty, which is not consistent with how graduate students are supported in the world at large or how they are supported on grants or on other fellowships. Also, the funding levels are too small to make much of a difference. Finally, the program is not even functioning in 2011; DOE says it will resume in 2012.

I propose that chemists urge ACS, perhaps with other scientific societies, to meet with the officials at DOE to reformulate the GAANN program with a major increase in total funding and removal of disincentives to students, so it meets the real needs of our nation. GAANN currently requires that students receiving support be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, or noncitizens who make a convincing case that they intend to stay in the U.S. This reflects an enlightened view of how our national needs can be served.

This is not a radical proposal—in many other countries the support and education of scientists is the financial responsibility of education departments, not science departments. The minimum an expanded fellowship program in GAANN would achieve would be to bring additional money into science by emphasizing that our graduate programs produce educated scientists as well as advances in scientific knowledge. We need those scientists to help the U.S. remain a leader in advanced science and technology. Such support would let academic scientists use the available grant money for other costs, including support of postdocs or of noncitizen students.

Is it feasible? President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget requests only $41 million for the GAANN program spread over all fields in a total education budget of nearly $50 billion. Congress and the Administration realize how important it is to retain our scientific and technical strength. Our best chance to do so is to educate graduate students who will stay here and contribute to that strength. Expanding and modifying the GAANN program is one way to achieve that goal.

Ronald Breslow


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