When Ulises Perez skimmed through the reviewer comments he had received on his rejected application for the US National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), he was taken aback by one reviewer’s feedback. Likely in response to a personal statement in which Perez expressed frustration at some of his recent life experiences, the reviewer wrote, “His Hispanic pride prevented him from seeking mentorship and advise from other that would have helped him avoid and lesson some of his struggles and progress further.”
“It just seems like a strange assumption to make,” Perez, a chemistry major at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, says. None of his mentors so far have been Hispanic or Latino, he says. He also says he never stated in his application that he only wanted mentorship from people who belong to a particular race or ethnicity.
Frustrated and unsure how to feel about the situation, Perez posted a screenshot of the comment on Twitter, hoping to hear what the academic community had to say about it. To his surprise, the tweet quickly went viral.
Since it was posted on April 17, Perez’s tweet has amassed 1.3 million views and hundreds of replies and quote tweets. Researchers across disciplines have expressed outrage at the reviewer’s comment. Many have also said they’re not surprised that this happened.
Among the latter group is Arianne Hunter. Now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology, Hunter says she received a racist reviewer comment when she applied to the GRFP in 2016 while attending graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. “They found out that I was African American through my [application] package, and then because of that, they didn’t believe that I wrote my package,” she says of the reviewer.
The reviewer also said Hunter’s broader impacts, or the outreach she was doing to benefit society, were too narrow. “They said that my broader impacts wouldn’t have as great of an impact because I was only focusing on African American girls,” she says.
The NSF GRFP is a highly competitive fellowship that provides 3 years of financial support for graduate students. Each year, the program receives around 13,000 applications, each of which is examined by three volunteers who have undergone NSF’s merit review orientation and have expertise in the student’s area of research.
According to an NSF spokesperson, the GRFP has mechanisms in place to screen for inappropriate feedback. After applications have been commented on, they are discussed in a larger panel of reviewers before final decisions are made and feedback is sent to the applicants.
“However, due to the high volume of applications received it is impossible for NSF staff to read every review for unintentionally biased comments,” the NSF spokesperson says in an emailed response. When biased reviews do make their way to the applicants, the NSF has a process in place to ensure such comments do not impact whether a student is ultimately granted a fellowship, the spokesperson says.
But that provides little solace to those on the receiving end of such a review. Even if the comment doesn’t impact the final decision, “it impacts the mental psyche of trainees,” Hunter says. “It makes you question your whole existence in the field, especially when you’re a young student.”
Since Perez’s tweet, several current and former GRFP applicants have come forward and shared their own experiences with the process. Renee Frontiera, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota and Perez’s undergraduate research advisor, says she has also privately received a number of GRFP reviews that include “awful statements.”
“A lot of students are really scared to go public with it,” she says. “I think it’s way more common than we hear about.”
According to the NSF spokesperson, GRFP applicants who feel they received an inappropriate review can submit comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. However, when Frontiera reached out to the NSF’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights, she was told to proceed through the NSF’s Awardee Discrimination Complaint Case Management System instead.
Frontiera formally filed a complaint on behalf of Perez on April 24. Along with an apology from NSF, Perez wants the foundation to improve its method for screening and soliciting GRFP reviewers.
Frontiera, meanwhile, wants to see NSF revamp the whole GRFP review process. “If they get a lot of applicants and this review process isn’t working, this is their time to change how the review process is done,” she says.