NSF's Premier Graduate Grant Program Gets an Overseas Expansion

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

Erica Staaterman, a Ph.D. student in marine science at the U. of Miami and an NSF research fellow, greets audience members at an event celebrating the fellowship program's 60th anniversary.
December 05, 2012

To celebrate its diamond anniversary, one of the nation's top graduate research fellowships is going global.

Over the past 60 years, the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program has helped finance thousands of doctoral careers, including 40 Nobel laureates. Through it, top-ranked students get three years of tuition, salary, and some travel expenses.

Now, in a new arrangement with at least eight countries, some fellows will be offered a fourth year working at a university lab overseas, with the costs covered by the host nation.

The idea reflects the growing realization, both in the United States and elsewhere, that scientific prowess and ambition is spilling beyond traditional borders, and that cooperation between countries may be the best way for any one country to keep a share of the economic benefits.

For the United States, the expansion of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program is an acknowledgment that the quality of foreign universities and foreign science facilities is beginning to rival or exceed that of their American counterparts. "Increasingly," the director of the National Science Foundation, Subra Suresh, said of American graduate students, "we want to give them access to some constructive engagement with leading scientists from around the world, especially in countries that invest very heavily in science."

And for the partner governments, like France, the decision to pay American students to work in their countries for a few months, even though such top-ranked students will most likely return home at the end, is a bet on the value of long-term relationships. Even if an American student does not return to France after completing the Ph.D., said Annick Suzor-Weiner, counselor for science and technology at the French Embassy in Washington, the experience will hopefully set the stage for future partnerships.

"Most of them keep a very good memory, and they will do things with France later on," Ms. Suzor-Weiner said of American students.

Ms. Suzor-Weiner has some experience with the idea. Through their Chateaubriand Fellowship, the French have played host to about 90 American doctoral students in the past 15 years, Ms. Suzor-Weiner said. Of those, at least 10 have come back as postdoctoral students, one married to a French citizen, and at least 30 have gotten or will get a double degree, earning Ph.D.'s from both an American and a French institution, she said.

Along with France, the first eight countries to participate in the expansion of the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program are Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, and Sweden. The countries have agreed to pay stipends and provide free access to scientific facilities to the NSF fellows for periods ranging from three to 12 months, a benefit the NSF estimates to be worth at least $30-million a year.

'Relationships Matter'

Other than expansions over the years in the number of eligible fields, and a more recent doubling in the annual number of awards, the form of the Graduate Research Fellowship has proved remarkably stable over two generations. It's a testament, program leaders and participants say, to the many benefits it provides and the results it has produced.

"It's pretty amazing," said Erica R. Staaterman, a Ph.D. student in marine physics and marine biology at the University of Miami, describing the amount of additional attention she has been able to devote to her research as a result of being freed by the grant from the traditional graduate-student job grind. Many of her classmates, Ms. Staaterman said, have had to spend about 20 hours a week working either as a teaching assistant or a lab assistant, jobs that usually don't relate to their degree projects.

Ms. Staaterman, by comparison, has been able to focus almost exclusively on her thesis, which involves the study of how young fish use sounds in the ocean to track their way back to the reefs where they were spawned. She even used a small travel stipend from her NSF grant to visit Panama, where she took measurements that let her write a journal article comparing its soundscapes with those of Florida.

Just that brief overseas experience, Ms. Staaterman said, hinted at the benefits that future grant winners can expect from the newly expanded Graduate Research Fellowship Program. "Meeting people—it goes a long way," she said. "Science is just like anything, where connections matter, people matter, relationships matter."

Another grant recipient, Jennifer Wang, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, said the evolution she's seen in her own field illustrates the value of the grant program's international expansion. In China, for example, psychology programs were rare just a couple of decades ago and now number in the hundreds, Ms. Wang said.

For Ms. Wang, who won her Graduate Research Fellowship in 2008 while at the University of Washington, the financial freedom meant the ability to work with experts beyond her assigned advisers. One of her advisers specialized in the intersection of emotion and health, while another focused on research methods. She wanted to explore more directly questions of how different cultural groups experience positive and negative emotions, and the fellowship let her spend time with scientists who could help. The doctoral experience would have been valuable even without the NSF grant, but "a lot of the ideas would be coming from my advisers," she said.

Stretching the Budget

Such benefits and experiences have been the backbone of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program since its founding, in 1952, just two years after the NSF itself was created, Mr. Suresh said. Other program alumni include Steven Chu, the U.S. secretary of energy, and Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, both of whom joined Mr. Suresh for the NSF board meeting on Wednesday where the expansion was announced.

The grants now cost taxpayers well in excess of $100,000 apiece, and about 2,000 students are selected each year—fewer than a fifth of those who apply. The NSF doubled the number of recipients about two years ago, around the time Congress was still promising to double the NSF's budget over about 10 years. Congress has backed away from that pledge, but Mr. Suresh said the NSF is determined to maintain and even expand the fellowship program, identifying student training as one of the most central elements of its mission.

The new agreement with the eight foreign countries—and with additional partners expected to join in the future—is helping to stretch that budget while giving American students invaluable international experience, he said.

France is more than happy to help, Ms. Suzor-Weiner said. Already, she said, even among its former Chateaubriand students, the French are hearing anecdotal tales of American scientists now in their 40s who are eager to repay the kindness of Chateaubriand through actions such as hosting French students in the United States.

That kind of help is an example of why many of the most important long-term benefits of France's investment in American students might not be easily quantifiable, Ms. Suzor-Weiner said. "You never know exactly why," she said. "But it is good."