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“It’s a chance to explore all the nooks and crannies, and who knows what they might discover.
A grants program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that has helped launch the careers of thousands of U. biologists and environmental scientists is ending after becoming a victim of its own popularity.
On 6 June, NSF’s biology directorate shocked the scientific community by announcing it would no longer fund Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs).
Biology’s decision to pull out of the long-running program—the funding mechanism remains in place for students in the social and behavioral sciences—has raised a hue and cry throughout the ecological community.
“This program generates one of the greater returns on investment of anything NSF does,” says Casey Dunn, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University.
At roughly $20,000 each, dissertation awards are much smaller than bread-and-butter research grants, which average $230,000 a year across the entire directorate.
But they require the same level of scrutiny by NSF’s vaunted peer-review system, meaning program officers must put in the same effort in selecting reviewers, running panels, and processing the paperwork for every grant that’s made.The need to preserve the grants should be obvious, he says, calling them “one of the most cost-effective ways for NSF to foster the next generation of ecologists.” But Adams worries that losing the NSF imprimatur could reduce their value.“The grants might take a hit in terms of prestige,” he says.“I’ve had nine students who have had them,” says Hoekstra, who boasts that at one point her lab enjoyed a “100% success rate” in nabbing the awards. As a graduate student, she recalls, she explored the evolution of sex chromosomes in mammals while her adviser worked with birds.Although both were doing population genetics, she says, “My project was completely independent of his work.” A DDIG gives students the freedom to chart their own scientific path, says Hoekstra, who studies the genetic basis of adaptation in wild mice and other vertebrates, “and that’s a big part of what makes doing science so much fun, right?Despite their budget of less than million a year, the biology DDIGs have made a remarkable impression on the community over the decades they have been awarded.Hopi Hoekstra, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, says that applying for a DDIG is practically a rite of passage in her lab.His 2003 DDIG laid the groundwork for research that, 8 years later, helped him win NSF’s top award for young scientists, and he now encourages his students to apply.“They may be small amounts of money, but they can have an extraordinary impact on someone’s career.” In a letter yesterday to directorate officials, the 10,000-member Ecological Society of America, based in Washington, D.C., asks the Arlington, Virginia–based NSF to preserve the dissertation grants within biology and offers to help it find ways to “reduce high workloads and meet changing program priorities.” The letter highlights the multiple benefits of the dissertation grants: They not only allow graduate students to go beyond their adviser’s research expertise, but they also teach them important career skills, including how to write a grant proposal and manage a budget.Senior managers in the biology directorate said they terminated the program reluctantly, with the hope that it will ease a growing workload on program officers in the two divisions—environmental biology (DEB) and integrated organismal systems (IOS)—now offering them.