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An Uneven Distribution

The National Science Foundation's graduate fellowship, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), is a pretigious award that many early-career scientists would love to have, ScienceInsider says. It comes with three years of funding and looks good on a resume. 

Unfortunately, the majority of the 2,000 fellowships awarded every year are being overwhelmingly given to students from the same few institutions, ScienceInsider adds.

According to a Science Careers analysis of this year's recipients, the 10 schools with the most grad student awardees received 31 percent of all the grants, ScienceInsider notes. The top three schools alone received 14 percent of the grants: the University of California, Berkeley, MIT, and Stanford. Further, in 2017, 86 percent of awards went to students at R1 institutions, while only 0.3 percent went to historically black colleges and universities, and none went to tribal colleges or universities.

The same holds true for undergrads. According to an analysis of GRFP winners between 2011 and 2018 by statistical geneticist Natalie Telis, UC Berkeley, MIT, and Cornell University got 10 percent of the awards during those years, ScienceInsider reports. The top 10 schools got about 25 percent of awards, and the top 30 made up about 50 percent of the entire pool. 

The most obvious explanation for these disparities is that more students from these universities apply, but that's only a theory, ScienceInsider says. The NSF doesn't publicize applicant information and schools like UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, and MIT didn't provide data about their applicants to Science

But ScienceInsider quotes 2018 GRFP recipient Jason Chang, a biomedical engineering graduate student at Cornell, who said the GRFP was "emphasized from the beginning in my program's required first-year seminar course," where students completed prompts and exercises to prepare them for crafting their applications. The article also refers to a GRFP awardee who studied astronomy at Columbia University and who said they attended a campus essay feedback workshop with GRFP recipients and a writing consultant.

"More broadly," ScienceInsider says, "18 of the 20 schools with the most GRFP awardees are also in NSF's top 50 schools for R&D expenditures, and NSF's top 10 R&D schools generated 20 percent of this year's awardees. ... Smaller or less well-funded schools, in contrast, may not have administrators to send out application deadline reminder emails, writing tutors available for essay workshopping, or the funds for pizza-fueled advice panels."

To help students at schools with fewer resources, CSU Dominguez Hills biology professor Terry McGlynn has a proposal pending with NSF to build a cross-institutional mentoring program, which would match students with mentors across schools, ScienceInsider reports. Such opportunities could help applicants in crafting competitive GRFP applications.

But there are additional problems: students with family responsibilities, a job, a disability, or other responsibility may not have the time or energy needed to fully complete the long and complicated application. 

And there may also be bias among the application reviewers, ScienceInsider says. NSF mandates that all GRFP reviewers undergo bias training, but since they're assessing individuals instead of research, the possibility for bias is greater. 

Further, the NSF announced in 2016 that graduate students would only be eligible to apply for the GRFP once during their graduate career. Applicants were previously allowed to try twice. The idea is that undergraduates or postbaccalaureate applicants would stand a better chance at winning an award if they weren't competing against second-year graduate students, ScienceInsider says. But according to Telis's analysis, the top 10 institutions attended by awardees as undergraduates garnered more winners after the switch than before, and the overall number of undergraduate winners remained the same.

Some people are suggesting other solutions, like a cap on the number of applicants per school, ScienceInsider says. Universities could vet applicants and decide on a certain number to advance to NSF. But whatever the NSF decides to do, it must acknowledge the inequity and work to fix it.

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