Image of the Document The Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education


DR. RICHARD N. ZARE (Chairman), Professor, Department of Chemistry, Stanford University
DR. DIANA S. NATALICIO(Vice Chairman), President, The University of Texas at El Paso
DR. JOHN A. ARMSTRONG, IBM Vice President for Science & Technology (Retired)
DR. F. ALBERT COTTON, Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemistry, Texas A&M University
DR. MARY K. GAILLARD, Professor of Physics, University of California, Berkeley
DR. SANFORD D. GREENBERG, Chairman & CEO of TEI Industries, Inc., Washington, DC
DR. M.R.C. GREENWOOD, Chancellor, University of California, Santa Cruz
DR. CHARLES E. HESS, Director of International Programs, University of California, Davis
DR. JOHN E. HOPCROFT, Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, Cornell University
DR. STANLEY V. JASKOLSKI, Vice President, Eaton Corporation, Cleveland, OH
DR. EAMON M. KELLY, President, Tulane University
DR. JANE LUBCHENCO, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology, Oregon State University, Corvallis
DR. SHIRLEY M. MALCOM, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science
DR. EVE L. MENGER, Director, Characterization Science & Services, Corning Incorporated
DR. CLAUDIA I. MITCHELL-KERNAN, Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs and Dean, Graduate Division, University of California, Los Angeles
DR. JAMES L. POWELL, President & Director, Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles
DR. FRANK H.T. RHODES, President Emeritus, Cornell University
DR. IAN M. ROSS, President-Emeritus, AT&T Bell Laboratories
DR. VERA RUBIN, Staff Member, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC
DR. ROBERT M. SOLOW, Institute Professor Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
DR. BOB H. SUZUKI, President, California State Polytechnic University
DR. RICHARD TAPIA, Professor, Department of Computational & Applied Mathematics, Rice University
DR. WARREN M. WASHINGTON, Senior Scientist and Head, Climate Change Research Section, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
DR. JOHN A. WHITE, JR., Chancellor, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

DR. NEAL F. LANE, Member Ex Officio, Director, National Science Foundation*

DR. MARTA CEHELSKY, Executive Officer

*As a matter of general principle, the Director of the National Science Foundation abstains from clearance and approval of NSB reports on national research and education policy that may affect other agencies.

The Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education

February 26, 1998

NSB 97-235


Task Force on
NSB October 1997 Meeting

Dr. Eamon M. Kelly, Chairman

Dr. F. Albert Cotton

Dr. Diana S. Natalicio

Dr. M.R.C. Greenwood

Dr. Richard Tapia

Ms. Jean M. Pomeroy
Executive Secretary to the
Task Force



Table of Contents


I. Introduction

  1. Principles of the Federal/University Partnership in Graduate Education
  2. Current Status of the Partnership
        Changes in the Federal/University Relationship
        The Changing Higher Education Context

II. The Government/University Partnership in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education: Principles and Practices for the Future

  1. Federal Support to the Enterprise
  2. Breadth vs. Narrowness of Graduate Education
  3. Human Resource Policies
  4. Impact of Federal Regulatory and Funding Practices on the Culture of

III. Issues to be Negotiated Between the Partners


  1. Current Issues with Regard to the Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate/Postdoctoral Education
  2. Agenda of the Convocation on Graduate and Postdoctoral Education: The
    Federal Role, Houston, Texas, October 9, 1997

The National Science Board

The Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education1


In response to the request from the President’s Science Advisor, John Gibbons, for a National Science Board contribution to the Presidential Review Directive on the Government/ University Partnership (GUPPRD), the Board offered to provide its views on the role of the Federal government in graduate and postdoctoral education. In this paper, the Board examines the general framework of the partnership in graduate education established after World War II, affirms that the partnership has been highly successful for the Nation, and concludes that the Federal role in the partnership remains critical. The Board urges that the general principles of the partnership be maintained, but offers some recommendations on adjustments to increase the effectiveness of Federal policies and programs in advancing the objectives of this partnership.

The Board identifies some troubling issues that have emerged as a result of changes over the last fifty years, and offers recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the partnership for all concerned. The Board suggests new opportunities, particularly those offered by advances in communications technology, to expand the benefits of the partnership to a wider range of institutions in the academic research and engineering ecosystem, and to broaden the options for graduate students to experience environments outside the research university to supplement their core Ph.D. training. In addition, the Board draws attention to serious stresses in the partnership arising from administrative and accounting changes implemented by Federal funding and regulatory agencies. The Board provides recommendations in several areas: Federal support to the enterprise, breadth versus narrowness of graduate education, human resource policies, and impact of Federal regulatory and funding practices on the culture of institutions. Finally, the Board comments on outstanding issues to be negotiated between the Federal and university partners.

I. Introduction

The education of graduate and post-doctoral students in a discovery-rich university research environment is at the heart of the post-World War II compact between the Federal government and universities. Federal support of U.S. graduate education in science and engineering has insured the global leadership of the United States in science and engineering and contributed robustly to our country’s innovation and economic growth. In a time of extraordinary political and economic changes worldwide since the end of the Cold War, understanding the current status and clarifying the principles of Federal support for graduate education in science and engineering are matters of high priority.

This paper responds to the request of the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology that the National Science Board provide its views on the status of graduate and postdoctoral education and the Federal role. It contributes to the ongoing review of the Federal/university partnership being conducted by the National Science and Technology Council in response to the Presidential Review Directive of September 26, 1996. In developing the views presented in this paper, the Board benefited greatly from a "Convocation on Graduate and Postdoctoral Education: The Federal Role," held at the October 8-10, 1997, NSB meeting in Houston, Texas. This symposium, which included presentations by a number of invited speakers, provided rich insights for the development by the Board of the comments and recommendations that follow.

Principles of the Federal/University Partnership in Graduate Education

At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Vannevar Bush argued persuasively in his report, Science--the Endless Frontier, that the Federal government should continue to support science and engineering research and post-secondary education in peacetime and that this investment would contribute to national security, economic growth, health, and the quality of life. The principal instruments of the Federal investment in research were to be colleges and universities, which would generate new knowledge in an environment of free and open inquiry and at the same time develop science and engineering talent. The proximity and integration of the two functions of research and education would insure a process of continuous mutual enrichment between them.

Bush argued that the Nation could not rely on government agencies, the private sector, or foreign nations to produce the fundamental knowledge necessary for the continued improvement of the quality of life in the United States. Bush approvingly quoted James B. Conant: "We shall have rapid or slow advance on any scientific frontier depending on the number of highly qualified and trained scientists exploring it...So in the last analysis, the future of science in this country will be determined by our basic education policy." In short, Bush’s report defined a national education policy for university- and college-trained science and engineering personnel that:

The Federal/university partnership in research and graduate education has been an extraordinary success for the United States. Public investment in academic science and engineering research and education in an environment of free and open inquiry has indeed been a major contributor to U.S. economic growth and quality of life.


Current Status of the Partnership

Since the Bush report, U.S. society has become larger, more diverse, and more urban and the economy has become increasingly global. With the end of the Cold War, greater national attention can be devoted to other concerns, such as environmental and social needs. Once the privilege of a small elite, post-secondary education responded to a changing marketplace. Market demand for higher-level training and the decline in the value of a high school diploma, both to the employer and high school graduate, have resulted in expansion of the share and diversity of the working age population who pursue college-level and graduate education. The Federal responsibility to insure, in partnership with the universities, "constantly improving quality at every level of scientific activity" has become broader and more varied as science and technology have become more central to the economy and society.

Universities confront stresses that result from increasing demands and associated rises in costs without offsetting increases in revenues. These stresses reflect the impact of more and broader-based demands from an expanding group of stakeholders; budget constraints on traditional sources of funds, including Federal sources; globalization of advanced education; the need to respond to technological changes, especially to advances in communications and information technology; and unintended consequences of Federal policies. The Board has identified several broad areas of concern in the Federal/university partnership in graduate education that deserve special attention.

Changes in the Federal/University Relationship

Agencies of the Federal government support research in universities through a variety of mechanisms, including grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts. Regardless of purpose or mechanism, the research activities serve to enrich the learning environment and expand opportunities for graduate student and postdoctoral participation in frontier research. Some Federal research funding to academic institutions is public investment in the advancement of fundamental knowledge and in the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers. This kind of relationship may be described as an "investigator-initiated" activity performed by the university. Other Federal research funding responds to an objective related to an agency’s mission. This activity, also performed by a university, may be described as "agency-initiated." Federal funding falls along a continuum between these two poles.

As the research and education enterprise has grown and as the Federal investment has increased, emphasis on accountability for public funds has also increased, resulting at times in unintended but serious stresses on the university partners. The growing Federal focus on accountability tends to emphasize short-term research "products" and to deemphasize benefits to graduate education from engaging in research at the frontiers of knowledge. Increased emphasis on accountability also may result in an increase in the perceived value of postdoctoral researchers compared with graduate students on research grants, thus reducing options for cutting-edge research experience during graduate training.

There are also unintended consequences of some of the new cost accounting methodologies and standards which, with the best intentions of fully accounting for taxpayer money, are resulting in serious stresses on the academic research and education enterprise. There is a growing tendency to treat all research activities equally for accounting purposes, whether for an agency-initiated product or for investigator-initiated research that provides cutting-edge research experience for graduate students. This trend has been marked by the adoption of adversarial administrative procedures inconsistent with the trust and cooperation that should characterize the Federal/university partnership in research and education. Moreover, relationships between faculty researchers and the university administration may be adversely affected by such procedures, resulting in stresses within the university community.

In addition to the lack of coherence between objectives of the Federal/university partnership and Federal cost-accounting practices, there is an inconsistency in administrative and regulatory requirements of different Federal funding agencies. This inconsistency results in a mushrooming of paperwork for the administration of federally-funded research. Some portion of the paperwork burden falls on faculty, absorbing time that could otherwise be devoted to teaching, mentoring, and research. Unnecessary costs for administrative overhead may also mean less money available to support valuable research and education activities, equipment, and physical facilities.

The Changing Higher Education Context

Stresses on the universities represent pressures that are a product of growth and change in the research enterprise and its environment over the last fifty years. One area of stress comes from the diversity that is a strength of our system of higher education. The academic science and engineering research and education system is an ecosystem, differentiated along functional lines to meet a wide variety of education and research needs. Within this system, research institutions produce, in addition to a share of science and engineering undergraduate degrees, the great majority of Ph.D.s in science and engineering. Liberal arts colleges, state universities, and two-year colleges that provide undergraduate preparation for scientists and engineers employ as faculty Ph.D.s trained at research institutions.

The Ph.D. is and should remain a research degree. The most important function of a Ph.D. program is to educate talented students to a level of mastery of a chosen discipline and its methods of research and scholarship. Graduates of the Ph.D. program, as members of their disciplinary communities, are prepared to make independent contributions to the store of human knowledge through research, information exchange with colleagues, and educating the next generation of scientists and engineers. Nonetheless it has always been the case that many Ph.D.s who pursue academic careers fill faculty positions that are primarily teaching positions, often involving little or no research. Moreover, Ph.D.s who pursue research positions in industrial or government laboratories may well move into non-research positions over time. These are by no means inappropriate outcomes of Ph.D. education: Ph.D. recipients have broadly applicable skills; and the problem-solving abilities they acquire enrich their capacities in teaching, research and management positions.

Those who take faculty positions following completion of their education, regardless of the type of institution, have an obligation to remain current in and to contribute to their fields of specialization. The research university offers the greatest opportunities for fundamental research within the field of specialization. Today, however, rapidly advancing communications and information technologies are opening and expanding opportunities for inter-institutional cooperation in research and education within the academic sector, and also between academic institutions and other sectors. These opportunities for expanded collaboration, in addition to increasing faculty opportunities to contribute to fundamental knowledge, promise to enrich graduate and postdoctoral education by broadening options to experience a range of educational and research environments in preparation for a variety of future careers.

II. The Government/University Partnership in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education: Principles and Practices for the Future

1. Federal Support to the Enterprise

Federal support to research in the academic environment may contribute to fundamental knowledge and enrich the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers, regardless of funding mechanism or agency objective. The Federal role in support of broad-based fundamental research and graduate education in universities, medical schools, research institutes and colleges remains crucial to the national interest. Graduate education is a long-term commitment, requiring substantial investment of time and money by the student, institution, and other funding sources.

A major objective of the Federal/university partnership in research and education historically has been to attract high-ability youth into science and engineering careers by providing significant multiyear financial support that is competitively allocated and based on the student’s past achievement and future promise. This policy insures the quality of the science and engineering workforce and offers opportunities for careers in science and engineering to all individuals of high ability.

The Board recommends that:

2. Breadth vs. Narrowness of Graduate Education

The core training for the Ph.D. requires the candidate to acquire the knowledge base and tools in a chosen area of science and engineering and to make an original contribution to the base of knowledge through an in-depth investigation in a specialized area. With this experience the candidate develops skills as a creative problem solver. In addition to this core training, universities can offer a range of opportunities for the student to consider in preparation for careers outside the research university, including those within the academic sector in primarily teaching institutions, and in government and industry.

The Federal government and universities are responsible for developing relevant experience and training to meet expanding workforce needs and to prepare the student for his or her chosen career. More should be done to inform graduate students of the full range of employment opportunities and careers and to offer a choice of options for expanding career-related training.

The Board recommends that:

3. Human Resource Policies

In spite of Federal and university efforts to increase the participation of underrepresented populations in graduate education and academic careers, the participation of these groups in graduate programs and on university faculties remains low, particularly in science and engineering fields.

Also of concern is the status of postdoctoral researchers in academe. After the Ph.D., many students continue their specialized training in postdoctoral appointments. The training they receive substantially enhances their preparation for careers in research in their area of specialization. These researchers are a significant component of the academic research and graduate education system, serving in some programs as an important component of the mentoring system for graduate students. Nonetheless, these researchers’ status may be ambiguous during the period they spend in postdoctoral appointments, because they are neither graduate student nor faculty member in the institution where they are performing the research. There is a need for institutions to clarify the status of these important personnel.

The Board recommends that:

The Board recommends the attention of universities to the following areas:

4. Impact of Federal Regulatory and Funding Practices on the Culture of Institutions

Federal rules and regulations for the administration of Federal funds for research and education, and the competitive grant system itself, help shape the culture and working environment in universities. The Federal government must recognize in its policies and administrative requirements that research and education are integrated in the academic environment and insure that accounting requirements for academic research support objectives of the Federal/university partnership in advanced science and engineering education.

Negative impacts on education of some Federal regulations and practices for research administration may be cumulative. For example, the administrative separation of education from research may have a growing, unintended negative impact on the university mission in graduate education. At the same time, emphasis on success in research by Federal funders may encourage a parallel emphasis in faculty reward systems in departments and institutions, in some cases to the detriment of education.

The Board recommends that the Federal government:

III. Issues to be Negotiated Between the Partners

Over the last fifty years, some issues in the partnership have emerged as gray areas, whose resolution is not clearly the responsibility of one partner or the other. An issue of particular concern is the broad impact of current funding patterns and practices on the national science and engineering workforce for the future. This consideration includes the responsibility to support a continued, adequate infusion of talented students from across the population spectrum into graduate programs in the broad range of science and engineering fields. There is a need to clarify the roles of the partners so that a strategy to address this and other gray areas can be framed.

The Board recommends that the following areas be explored:

This exploration should include input from a broad range of stakeholders in graduate education and be attentive to maintaining the benefits of graduate and postdoctoral research and education in science and engineering for the Nation.


The National Science Board

The Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education

I. Current Issues with Regard to the Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate/Postdoctoral Education

II. Agenda of the Convocation on Graduate and Postdoctoral Education:The Federal Role, Houston, Texas, October 9, 1997


Current Issues with Regard to the Federal Role in Science and
Engineering Graduate/Postdoctoral Education

Issues that have been raised in other recent discussions of graduate education include:

What are the principles of Federal support of graduate education today?

Does the Federal role in the current partnership encourage the production of highly able scientists and engineers from the broad spectrum of the U.S. population who, in the aggregate, meet national needs for the S&E workforce?

Do Federal programs and policies for support of research in universities enrich the learning environment and support free and open inquiry?


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  1. This report was originally prepared as a contribution to the Government/University Partnership Presidential Review Directive (GUPPRD). It has been revised and issued as a report of the National Science Board.
  2. The agenda for the Convocation on Graduate and Postdoctoral Education: The Federal Role, is attached as Appendix II.
  3. Vannevar Bush. Science, the Endless Frontier, 40th Anniversary Edition (Washington DC: National Science Foundation , 1990) 23.
  4. Bush's proposal was for advancing basic scientific knowledge, which in today's use would include basic research in engineering.
  5. 5 Ibid., 25.
  6. Forty-six percent of Ph.D.s were employed in the academic sector in 1995; of those, 59 percent were employed by non-research institutions.
  7. The COSEPUP report, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (1995), concluded that there is no coherent national policy that guides the advanced education of S&Es today. It suggested a national discussion group-including representatives of government, universities, industries, and professional organizations-should deliberately examine the goals, policies, conditions, and unresolved issues of graduate-level human resources in S&E.
  8. The NSB Task Force on Graduate and Postdoctoral Education (1995) after careful and thorough review concluded there were insufficient data to support a change in NSF policy on the mix of support mechanisms for graduate education, i.e., research assistantships, fellowships and traineeships. It therefore recommended limited studies with defined goals and assessment criteria be conducted on alternative modes of graduate support; and that NSF support data collection and/or research on funding mechanisms and various aspects of graduate student education and employment of Ph.D. scientists and engineers.
  9. "The current graduate paradigm can be characterized best as an apprenticeship, in which the dissertation advisor has significant responsibility for not only the content but as well the duration of the program…stressing specialization and depth of investigation [it] is frequently accused of cloning the current cadre of research faculty." (James Duderstadt, Remarks to the National Science Board, August 1997).

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