Shutdown Story: NSF Graduate Fellowship Program Reviewer's Concerns

by Heather Thorstensen | Mar 11, 2019

In response to the partial United States government shutdown earlier this year, Sigma Xi called for members to send in stories about how the shutdown was affecting them and others in the research community. 

A Sigma Xi member serving as an application reviewer for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program raised concerns that the program’s review process won’t be carried out as intended, the announcement of who will receive a fellowship may be delayed, and reviewers won’t be compensated for their time as usual. 

The program recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period— a $34,000 annual stipend to the Fellow and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution. That support is for graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in a STEM field. NSF especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, persons with disabilities, veterans, and undergraduate seniors to apply. 

The member writes:

The recent federal shutdown has severely impacted the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).  I know because I am a reviewer this year. Here is how the reviewer program is supposed to work.

  1. We receive applications in December.

  2. We review the applications by ourselves and submit the reviews online.

  3. Afterward, submitting our initial reviews, we meet in two four-hour video conferences, compare reviews when a candidate is judged differently by different reviewers, and then normalize our standards so that that judging is as uniform as possible. This is a very important step to keep the quality of the program. This requires reviewers to schedule their calendar and not accept assignments on those days.

This year I realized that there could be a shutdown so I downloaded all of my assigned applications. I then judged all of my assignments. It took me maybe 30 hours to complete my assignment. As soon as the shutdown was finished, I uploaded all of my reviews, hoping for the conference call.

Unfortunately, NSF decided to cancel Step 3. Step 3 is vital for the program. It helps set a uniform standard for judging. It maintains the quality of the program. Sometimes, a reviewer misses an important characteristic of a candidate. The online meeting enables us to make sure that the best candidates are awarded fellowships. 

The results of NSF’s actions are three-fold.

  1. This year judging will be very random. It is not clear that candidates will get even three qualified reviewers to assure their application will be treated fairly or that qualified personnel will evaluate the candidates.

  2. The review submission deadline has been extended to March 17. Announcements of the fellowships are too late. The advantages of getting a fellowship for entrance into graduate school are delayed and may be even too late for admission.

  3. Reviewers are not getting any compensation. Even though the burden of time of reviewers is reading the applications, they will not be paid. The reason is that NSF only pays for the video meetings and will not pay for the really hard work of reading the applications.

Read more member stories about the government shutdown in Sigma Xi's letter to Congress and President Donald Trump. 

Update from 4/11/2019: The 2019 Graduate Research Fellowship Program selections for Fellow candidates and Honorable mentions have been announced. 

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