National Science Foundation discontinues research grant, leaving U grad students disappointed

Ecologists all over the U.S. are sending letters to the NSF, asking the organization to rescind the decision.

Sydney Baum-Haines

Earlier this month, University of Minnesota graduate student Tyler Imfeld went to an informational meeting for a biology grant.

He was hoping to use the research funding to make 3D models of songbirds and mentor an undergraduate student.

The following week, Imfeld, a student in the department of ecology, evolution and behavior, received bad news.

The National Science Foundation was discontinuing the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant over the high workload required to review proposals and monitor active projects.

“I try to remain optimistic about this stuff as best as possible, but I do worry that the cancellation of the DDIG is just a symptom of a larger problem, the constant struggle in the ever-dwindling pool of funding available for science at a national level,” Imfeld said.

The National Science Foundation cancelled the $13,000 per student grant on June 6, which focused on fields like organismal and environmental biology. The DDIG offered Ph.D candidates, like Imfeld, a chance to expand on their dissertations by funding an extra project.

Seven University graduate students received the grant in the past two years. Last year, the organization also cut back its Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which funds living costs for researchers.

Last fiscal year, the NSF awarded 136 students about $2.55 million through the DDIG.

The grant was an opportunity for young scientists, like John Benning and Leland Werden, University graduate students in plant biological sciences, to pursue uncommon and novel research.

Benning used the DDIG to fund a project looking into manipulating precipitation and soil microbes in the wild.

“No one that we know of has manipulated soil microbes this intensively in a field experiment before, which is kind of one of the novel aspects of it,” he said.

Werden received the DDIG in 2016 and used the funding for an expensive DNA sequencing process on fungi.

“For me, it’s been really helpful to kind of add this really cutting edge, exciting project on to my work,” he said.

Compared to other grants, the DDIG had a high acceptance rate and was one of the largest sources of funding for graduate students, said Sarah Hobbie, professor in the department of ecology, evolution, and behavior and a 1990s recipient of the DDIG.

Benning said most graduate student grants range from $500 to $2,500.

Graduate students can receive funding through their advisers grants if the research is very similar, but the DDIG was one of a few grants that allows students to do independent research, Hobbie said.

“There’s a high value in evolutionary biology and ecology and organismal biology to be able to demonstrate independence in research and so that’s one of the reasons that the DDIG was so important in those disciplines,” Hobbie said.

The grant was also a way for young scientists to learn the process of applying for NSF grants, she said.

Imfeld said it would have been a great way for him to show potential employers he is capable of receiving funding from the NSF.

“It shows that you are a very competent, intellectually merited scientist,” he said.

As a response to the DDIG’s discontinuation, Hobbie and other scientists started sending letters to the NSF suggesting ways to minimize the administrative workload.

A social media campaign also started on Twitter, with researchers sharing stories of how the DDIG helped them in their research.

“It’s been heartening to see the response and just the willingness of people to give more of their own time … to ensure that future graduate students have this opportunity for intellectual freedom in their dissertation,” Benning said.

Scott Lanyon, vice-provost and dean of graduate education, said in an email he received from the DDIG and it was “a significant event in my career.”

“It is very unfortunate that the NSF finds itself in such dire financial straits that it has been found necessary to end this program,” he said. “Perhaps the ending of such productive programs will eventually convince the federal government to properly fund the NSF and allow the US to regain its position of leadership in the sciences.”