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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Keynote at the 54th Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools
Washington, DC
December 5, 2014
Revisiting Graduate Education

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703)292-8070.

[Slide #1: Title Slide: Revisiting Graduate Education]
Use "Back" to return to speech.

Good morning.

The spouses are off to Mt. Vernon -- and you are here for your third day of talks. Your participation is a testament to your commitment to improving education.

According to Council of Graduate Schools tradition, the new NSF Director is invited to speak at the CGS meeting, and I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you. I plan to share some thoughts about challenges and change for science and society and what we might do to adapt graduate education to meet them.

[Slide #2: How Government Can Promote Research]

Vannevar Bush's report Science: the Endless Frontier formed the basis nearly 70 years ago of what was to become the NSF. Bush called for the Government to "aid in the development of scientific talent." Bush wrote:

"The most important ways in which the Government can promote industrial research are to increase the flow of new scientific knowledge through support of basic research, and to aid in the development of scientific talent."

Part of that focus was a wartime response in which our country benefited from the knowledge and work of scientists and engineers. After the war, needs changed, and both the President and universities wanted to continue to invest in science and scientists to 'secure the national defense' and to ensure health and prosperity.

[Slide #3: NSF Investment in STEM Workforce]

Today, prosperity for individuals and the competitiveness of our country globally demand that all of us--government, business, academia, and the private sector--invest in the full spectrum of the development of an S&E literate workforce, investing from youth through a full lifetime--"from cradle to gray." Workforce opportunities and societal needs continue to change--think of the impact of information technology alone--and the training of students needs to evolve in response.

[Slide #4: Sorcerer illustration]

Here is what we are grappling with at NSF. The primary model of graduate education that NSF supports is to fund Principal Investigators who support their research through hiring graduate students. It's a kind of "sorcerer's apprentice" model, and for some students it works very well.

But we know that not every graduate student goes on to become a professor. So the question becomes: How can graduate education be re-framed to meet the needs of society and the needs of the students?

We know that investing in graduate students pays off. NSF funded the BackRub project of graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page that later developed into the Google search engine. There are many, many such stories (our recent past Energy Secretary and Nobelist Steve Chu was an NSF-funded graduate student!).

Yet, the many changing factors on the social and scientific landscapes challenge us to re-examine our investment in graduate education, so NSF is developing a new Strategic Plan for Graduate Education.

The goal of this plan is quite simple: to ensure that the various NSF investments in graduate education form a coherent agency strategy that is relevant to our rapidly evolving national and global landscapes.

The task group is to review the impact of training support and policies and practices related to graduate research and education. The group will look carefully at recommendations from relevant national reports on graduate education, particularly those that are pointed to the federal sector. An important component of the group's work is to examine research on graduate education, graduate learning, and evidence-based practices.

In addition to collecting information that characterizes the current state of graduate education at NSF, it will be critically important to obtain input from key stakeholder groups. That's where you come in. We need your input to inform the development of the strategic plan.

To give an overview of NSF's graduate education investment--NSF directs the majority of our education resources to the graduate level. NSF invests close to one billion dollars a year in graduate students, reaching 44,000 graduate students annually through individual fellowships, traineeships, and graduate student involvement in the research of individual investigators.

[Slide #5: NSF Invests in Graduate Students Primarily in Three Different Ways]

The percentages on the chart here refer to numbers of students, not allocation of dollars.

The biggest piece of our investment in graduate students is through graduate research assistants on individual investigator grants--this is the apprentice model I mentioned, and about 80 percent of the students we fund are in this category. Making up a smaller part of our funding portfolio are other models of graduate education, such as training grants and fellowships. I will talk more about each of these.

The three modes of funding have different advantages and tradeoffs. Fellowships offer independence, autonomy, and prestige. Traineeships offer cohorts, more interdisciplinarity, and special professional development opportunities. Research Assistantships offer the opportunity to work on the highest quality, NSF-funded science.

We are starting to look carefully at the impact of these different ways of investing in graduate education and will be tracking the students coming through these multiple pathways. We will need your ideas and help as we do this.

We also need to hear directly from graduate students who have completed their programs and now hold a range of jobs about whether graduate school actually prepared them and about changes that could have improved their training.

We have a changing climate of expectations in which science and engineering are expected to solve a range of problems--and to solve them quickly. We need people well prepared to perform both the basic research, which is the foundation of innovation, and the development of the basic research.

We believe our current programs successful, but we are reviewing and revising them with the goal of increasing their impact.

[Slide #6: Graduate Research Fellowship Program]

One of NSF's longest-running programs is the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program (GRFP), which started in 1952 and has awarded 48,500 fellowships. 450 fellows are members of the National Academies. 42 of them have been awarded Nobel prizes, the most recent Laureate being William Moerner for Chemistry.

Recent Fellows have done research ranging from archaeological work on the largest land dinosaur to work on the transmission of the Ebola virus. This program continues to be a critical part of NSF's overall strategy in developing the globally-engaged workforce necessary to ensure U.S. leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation.

A high priority for NSF is to increase the diversity of the science and engineering workforce by broadening the participation in the GRFP. That goal can be achieved not only by broadening the student base from which applications are received, but also by expanding the set of institutions that prepare students to apply for the fellowship.

Recently, the GRFP joined forces with the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program to increase the number of applications from students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

24% of African-American science and engineering doctorate recipients received their bachelor's degrees from HBCUs. Partnering with these institutions is an effective way to increase the numbers of applicants and recipients of NSF graduate research fellowships.

[Slide #7: 2014 NSF Veterans Day Event]

The GRFP has recently turned its attention to another aspect of broadening participation: the inclusion of military veterans among recipients of the graduate research fellowships. The number of fellowships awarded to veterans has increased annually, from 24 in 2012 (the first year of data collection) to 86 in 2014. Last month, eleven Fellows who are veterans were recognized at NSF for their research and military service. They were able to share the current results of their research and their experiences seeking the fellowship. This was a moving ceremony and a reminder that we should seek entry points into the STEM talent pool from all levels and all ages of our population.

NSF is watching and reviewing the many important analyses about the future of science and the needed change in graduate education. Reports from CGS, professional societies, leaders in science providing commentary in major publications, and research about the STEM workforce provide a complex backdrop for NSF as we strive to make wise investment strategies for graduate education in the future.

The National Science Board is preparing to release in the coming months a report on the STEM workforce. The report will emphasize the challenge in making generalizations--the STEM workforce is multifaceted, and situations for students in, say, biomedical sciences may not apply in computer science. In some disciplines, the majority of Ph.D.s go to work in academia; in others, they go to industry. Even within a given discipline, such as computer science, a community college degree may provide good job opportunities in some types of work whereas in other types a baccalaureate or Ph.D. is required.

It is clear that people with graduate degrees in STEM may change their career pathways, so their ability to learn new things, be adaptable, and work across boundaries becomes increasingly critical.

One of our most essential stakeholder groups is graduate students themselves, and we listen carefully to them.

In 2013, the NSF launched the Innovations in Graduate Education Challenge, a contest that asked graduates students to submit ideas to prepare them for tomorrow's opportunities and challenges The entries--more than 500--were directed toward what students, faculty, and departments can do as well as the role of institutions, professional societies, and federal agencies.

The students proposed some outstanding ideas such as a web-based gateway to help students plan degree completion and search for careers, empowering graduate students to communicate science to the public using a variety of audio, video, and web-based tools, and advancing women in the sciences by addressing critical issues of career-life balance. There was a treasure trove of innovation proposed by graduate students.

As a follow up to the inspiring ideas gathered from the Challenge, NSF launched last month a three-month pilot: the Graduate Education Forum--thanks to CGS for announcing the launch. The Forum provides a place for all stakeholders in graduate education to discuss their ideas about the improvement of STEM education in the U.S.

The Forum set up four broad discussion areas: Diversity and broadening participation; From campus to career; Graduate education experience; and Mentoring.

In just a month, the site has had about 10,000 unique views, visitors from more than 40 countries, and more than 60 comments.

[Slide #8: NSF Graduate Education Forum]

Participation in the Forum is coming from around the world, and this slide shows the nations that have contributed the heaviest volume of response.

The discussion has already revealed interesting views on a number of topics--professional training for graduates to prepare for academic and other positions; developing the whole professional through training in teaching, communication, and entrepreneurship; expanded thinking about career possibilities--noting diminishing opportunities for academic positions and exciting options for careers outside the academy in industry, government, and elsewhere.

Exposure to project management is another area that's been discussed in the Forum. The scope and complexity of science and engineering research typically demands a lot of cooperation with partners. There is an increasing reliance on research partnerships among academia, the private sector, and government, and these large, complex projects require skills in project management.

Please lend your voices to the discussions on questions and topics of interest to you by encouraging the students at your institutions to engage with the Forum.

[Slide #9: NSF Professional Growth Opportunities]

We are also trying some new approaches to investing in graduate education at NSF to provide broader professional growth for students. Recognizing that science is global, and wanting a way to provide wider experiences for NSF-funded students, NSF has launched GROW--Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide. This program is to provide professional development experiences to NSF Graduate Research Fellows through research opportunities with international hosts.

The program includes opportunities for partnership in 16 nations and a partnership with USAID that includes 7 nations for a total of 21 unique nations (2 nations, India and Brazil, belong to both partnerships).

This year, we also launched GRIP--the Graduate Research Internship Program--to provide professional development experiences to NSF Graduate Research Fellows through research opportunities with Federal Agencies.

Partners include the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Office of Naval Research. Several other agencies are likely to come on board in the foreseeable future.

The leaders of the science mission agencies are committed to coordinating education efforts. You can learn more about these efforts this afternoon at the session led by NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy and Valerie Wilson.

To better support the changing needs of graduate training, we are also focusing on creating new programs modeled on successful existing programs. Taking what was learned through the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program (IGERT), we launched last March the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program.

[Slide #10: NSF Invests in Graduate Students Primarily in Three Different Ways]

The percentages on the chart here refer to numbers of students, not allocation of dollars.

The goal of NRT is to create and promote innovative, effective, and scalable models for STEM graduate student training in emerging research emphasis areas. NRT will also provide a mechanism for developing a knowledge base about the implementation and impact of innovative graduate traineeship programs and graduate education policies.

The NRT program is distinguished from prior traineeship programs by its emphasis on training for multiple career pathways, rotating priority research themes, inclusion of both master's and doctoral students, a broader definition of trainees, and greater budgetary and programmatic flexibility.

The Innovation in Graduate Education track, included in the President's FY 2015 budget proposal, will support the development and study of innovative graduate education models and the research needed to inform implementation, adaptability, and scalability. Taken together, the NRT and the IGE track will give us a window into the kind of innovation needed for graduate education to prepare tomorrow's scientists and a flexible traineeship program that will respond to national needs.

[Slide #11: Final Slide]

NSF's investments will never reach all of the nation’s graduate students. But the great innovations, best practices, and models that you and your colleagues will create with NSF funding can become models for the preparation of the world’s scientists. I look forward to the ongoing dialogue and great ideas as we work together to further success in developing scientific talent.