Parents will not push their children to learn science if they themselves cannot see the value of it. Why is the New York Times one of the only newspapers in the country to have a science section? Why is “Mr. Wizard” (or an equivalent) no longer on television? The power of such a simple concept as the Mr. Wizard show in influencing the career choices of the population should not be underestimated. TV shows like NOVA and Newton’s Apple, etc., are very good, but they do not create the image of a scientist as a role model, a person, as someone to become.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to ask scientists to re-evaluate their societal worth and to spend more time speaking to the public at a time when they must spend nearly every waking moment writing grant applications that probably will not get funded. It is difficult to ask graduate students and postdocs to address these issues when they are in constant fear as to both their future job prospects and research funding in the basic sciences. This is not an issue that you have asked for an opinion on, but it is an issue that must be addressed before we can expect to entice good people into science. The easy answer is: give more money to NIH, NSF, USDA, NASA, etc., for basic research. The more realistic answer, I believe, is to define basic research as a necessary institution in itself, to decide how much basic research we (as a planet) need to be doing, employ enough basic researchers (not too many, not too few--mostly at universities), and then guarantee them the funds to do their work, i.e., to make basic research a “national goal. ” The only limitation on basic research should be the inherent ability of the scientist.
In my opinion, expansion would be the biggest improvement in the NRSA program in the coming years. The figures I have indicate that there are a total of about 2200 individual NRSAs for all of NIH. This attaches a nice prestige to getting an NRSA fellowship, but if the goal of the program is “to assure a continuing supply of skilled investigators in the biomedical and behavioral sciences,” then the program must be made less of an honor and more of a general career route. This of course means “more money,” which is always the solution which is easiest to propose and the hardest to enact. There are, of course, a much larger number of institutional NRSAs.
Personally, I have had very few complaints regarding my own NRSA. The problems that I do see are mainly administrative and seem to be “par for the course” for NIH funding. The amount of paperwork involved in applying for the NRSA fellowship far exceeds that required for any other postdoctoral fellowship. If other awarding institutions make decisions based on a more streamlined application process, then it seems that NIH could. Even the continuation applications are longer than the initial applications for most other fellowships.
A possible improvement to the program that would not involve a lot of extra money is to have yearly national meetings of individual NRSA recipients, divided by research areas, and to have NRSA recipients present their work to each other and to the study section members and NIH officials who coordinate the program. Such meetings might be held a day before or after large national meetings such as ASBMB, ACS, or FASEB, in order to cut costs and save time. Not only would this serve to initiate possible future collaborative relationships, but would allow one on one communication between NRSA grant givers and recipients. The NRSA recipients would get to present their research results to a highly receptive audience while NRSA and NRC officials would gain information to help them evaluate the NRSA program at very close range.
The problem in recruiting women and (“underrepresented” or non-Asian) minorities into scientific careers is a signature symptom of the deeply ingrained white male dominance of the scientific profession. It is no secret that the civilized world is male dominated, but the dominance of the white male in science is one of the most explicit cases of this world order. Unfortunately, changes in the NRSA program will only have limited impact in this area. This is because the majority of discrimination relative to the scientific professions happens at levels higher than the postdoctoral level (as well as at levels much lower--at the preschool level, etc.). I believe, however, that any impact is good, and can always be the start of, or a part of a larger change toward gender and racial equity in the sciences. Even though the application process for individual NRSA is presently theoretically “color-blind” and “gender-blind, ” the entrenched white male approach to research serves to make applications by white males automatically more attractive. I contend that, without any overt intent to discriminate, proposals by white males merely seem to be “more on track” and are ranked higher by study sections because of the strong