MEANWHILE IN THE SENATE...
POST DATE May 10, 2007, 4 PM
POSTED BY Geoff Davis
I've just taken a look at the Senate's hefty bill to reauthorize the NSF, S 761. Like the House equivalent, there are some good and interesting things in the bill.
IGERT - Increased funding to the IGERT program, like in the House bill. This would fund provide funding for more graduate students, but IGERT programs appear to be much better suited to providing people with more of a range of career options than traditional PhD programs. The stipends, which are semi-portable traineeships rather research assistantships, are pretty hefty, too. $30K/year is more than some postdocs are paid - perhaps it will stimulate some upward growth in S&E graduate stipends overall.
The Senate's numbers are a lot lower than the House numbers - $22M/year in 2008 to $55M/year in 2011 (as opposed to ~$75M-$150M/year for the House). Since there was pushback from the administration on the way the House was proposing to fund IGERT (as a fixed percentage of the NSF's budget), I imagine something more like the Senate's version will go through.
Graduate fellowships - The Senate bill also allocates a good chunk of money for new old-style fellowships, ranging from $24M/year in 2008 to $60M/year in 2011. The House bill doesn't provide any new money for fellowships apart from the overall budget doubling.
DOE graduate fellowships - $9M/year-$35M/year in fellowships for "students pursuing a doctoral degree in a mission area of the Department [of Energy" - energy and nukes, presumably.
So altogether the Senate is proposing increased funding for graduate fellowships in the amount of $140M by 2011, which translates to about 2,800 new doctoral students per year.
A little digging in WebCASPAR shows that NSF funds about 20,000 full-time graduate students (about 5% of all full-time graduate students). If we make the assumption that the NSF funds primarily doctoral students and that NSF funding is spread over 5 years, we find that NSF funds on the order of 4,000 doctoral students/year.
So the combination of a budget doubling plus the new fellowships, if allocations are held constant, would increase NSF-funded doctoral students by about 4,000+2,800 = 6,800. This estimate is probably on the high side, since IGERT stipends are pretty high, some NSF funding probably goes to master's students, and the new money for fellowships may result in reallocations of other funds away from graduate fellowships; let's say there will be 5,000 new NSF-funded doctoral students per year. In 2005 there were 29,000 S&E PhDs granted, 13,000 of which were in the physical sciences and engineering. NSF's funding is concentrated in the physical sciences and engineering - NSF's existing 4,000 or so fellowships combined with 5,000 new ones would mean that NSF could end up funding most doctorate recipients in those fields.
Will this increase the number of doctorates granted per year? Maybe - Richard Freeman has some interesting work that suggests so - but perhaps not by 5,000. Once a department has its teaching needs covered, the incentive to enroll graduate students is reduced. New money from NSF frees up existing departmental funds that pay TAs for other purposes. Labs will be staffing up once new NSF grants start flowing, and I'd bet that they'll want to hire postdocs, not graduate students. I predict an increase in the total number of postdocs in many math and physical sciences fields. In fields, like CS and engineering, in which most people go to industry after graduating, postdocs will probably be harder to come by, so they'll end up with more grad students.
Professional Science Master's programs were created by grants from the Sloan Foundation back in 1997. I have met several people who have been through PSM programs, and they sound great - they're essentially hybrid-MBA/science degrees. If the country needs more scientists to spur economic growth, this is a great way to get them. The programs graduate people who know enough science to do useful things in theory, but who also know enough about navigating companies to actually accomplish things in practice.
I'm very encouraged to see the possibility of the NSF picking up PSM funding. Once institutions get into the business of bringing real, professional skills into science curricula, it's only a matter of time before the ideas diffuse into more mainstream science programs. There's nothing in the House bill about PSM programs, so I think this is iffy, but since the amount of money is modest ($9M/year in 2008 to $20M in 2011), I'm hoping it will pass.
There is a ton of additional material in both the Senate and the House bills about teacher training. More on that in a future post.