Monday, March 20, 2017

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

This piece was originally posted on my personal blog, and was written in response to the annual conversations I have with students of color facing a remarkably common variety of microaggression following major accomplishments like winning awards or earning fellowships. 

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!

This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:



It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic." 


This is also the time of year for me to reiterate the following point: These comments are as stupid as they are cruel. I mean, what sort of person would even think such thoughts, much less say them out loud to a person of color? Oh! Right. An American. Because American's don't care much for history.

For more than 150 years, scientific funding was strictly tied to demographics. If you wanted funding and subsequent success in science, the singular best thing you could do is start out as a white man. That long-standing and highly effective affirmative action program actively forced everyone else to the curb, artificially reduced competition, and established huge advantages that continue to pay off today (the word of mouth of a white man is gold). Of course, the reduced talent pool means that the low-performing tail of the distribution of white male talent has been mined pretty deeply over the decades, to the detriment of STEM as a whole.

In an attempt to correct for this major inefficiency in utilizing our national talent pool, the NSF fellowship was established. Is there a desire to award these fellowships to women and men of color, white women, and other underrepresented (minoritized) groups? Yup, it's right there in the NSF Diversity and Inclusion Plan. It is documents like these that are the only thing standing between people of color and (even higher levels of) active discrimination. Does this mean that women and men of color, and white women get the fellowship only because of who they are? Well, anyone who as ever served on an NSF panel can attest that, nope, that's just silly. As if the NSF convenes large selection committees for them to sort piles of paper based on reported skin color or X-chromosome count. F'real? 

In the real world, there still exists an extremely high bar to cross. Applicants much supply a thoughtful and compelling research statement, broader impacts statement, and strong letters of recommendation. Weak packages simply do not win. So how is it that it seems that such a large fraction of women and men of color, and white women win these awards? Well, it's because they aren't being actively excluded (as much), and as such their talent is being drawn from previously untapped pools (they're really damn good). And here's the amazing thing: white guys still win. Frequently! 

The soccer flop is not about white dudes being actively excluded (actual hard contact). It's that they aren't being privileged as much as they have in the past and no longer enjoy as much of an over-representation relative to other talent pools (opposing player ran by them and brushed their shirt). Which makes their flops all the more silly and infuriating.

So you know what those haters can do? They can go ahead and flop on. We see the truth in the instant replay (history) and their actions look ridiculous. Let's brush that dirt off our shoulders and move on to the next round: the NSF AAPF, CAREER, and AAS awards announcements!

[Update] Also, for those students who didn't get The NSF this time around, keep applying! There's enough variance to make it worth your while. Also, ask for examples of successful applications from peers. Most people are willing to share their previous applications and offer advice. 

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