National Science Board December Meeting Focuses on COVID-19 Impact and Equity in STEM
National Science Board December Meeting Focuses on COVID-19 Impact and Equity in STEM

December  2020

On December 8 and 9, the National Science Board (NSB) held its quarterly meeting, covering a range of topics surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting women and underrepresented groups in STEM education and the workforce. NSB establishes policies for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and also serves as an independent body of advisors to the president and Congress on science and engineering policy. Videos of the first day and second day of the meeting are on available on YouTube.

NSF Director Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan provided an update on his vision for NSF, discussing his engagement with industry and federal agencies to place NSF as a key partner in advancing scientific knowledge. NSB members then heard from a panel discussing the impact that COVID-19 has had on women in STEM. Overall, panelists noted that women were more likely to experience a loss in research time and decreased research productivity. Women of color also devoted more time to service as they supported students who were seeking out faculty of color for support. Universities have responded by suspending tenure clocks; however, panelists argued better access to affordable child care and elder care and more options for remote work would further support women in STEM.

NSF Chief Operating Officer Fleming Crim gave an update on the agency’s response to grantees during the pandemic, detailing that requests for no-cost extensions increased by 50 percent and requests for supplements by 10 percent. Crim provided several estimates of additional supports for NSF grantees, with particular attention to those facing significantly greater challenges due to the pandemic—those at minority-serving institutions and less affluent institutions; women; early career faculty; postdocs, trainees, fellows; and others at critical transition points. A proposal with modest additional supplemental support for graduate, postdoc, and early career applicants would cost $166 million, or 2 percent of the current NSF budget. Crim estimated that an ambitious influx of support would cost $910 million, or 11 percent of the NSF budget.

The NSB Committee on Oversight heard from C. Suzanne Iacono, head of the NSF Office of Integrative Activities, about work on merit review, including data on broader impacts in proposals, and next steps the agency is pursuing around merit review. These steps include making video training mandatory for all reviewers, funding more pilots on collective impact, and potentially reframing intellectual merit as “knowledge creation” and broader impacts as “knowledge mobilization” so that criteria are more dynamic and prospective.

The second day of the meeting included several discussions on broadening participation in STEM. Jose Fuentes and Alicia Knoedler of the NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE) updated NSB on the committee’s recent biennial report and recent meetings. CEOSE plans to release a series of reports to help make those often invisible work in STEM visible; the reports will focus on leadership, intersectionality, and recognition and valuing of underrepresented groups.

Karen Marrongelle, assistant director of the Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate, discussed efforts that NSF is undertaking, including ongoing grants and initiatives, to broaden participation by underrepresented populations, in line with NSF Director Panchanathan’s vision to address the “missing millions” in STEM. NSF is looking at where to partner, but also considering actions that NSF can and cannot do on its own. For example, Marrongelle noted that NSF cannot change K–12 policy or transfers of credit at universities, but it can play a role in increasing STEM teacher diversity or encouraging community colleges to partner with industry. Next steps include identifying areas of greatest impact, reallocating resources, and developing metrics to measure progress.

Robin Wright, director of the EHR Division of Undergraduate Education, updated the NSB Committee on Strategy on the recent EHR report STEM Education of the Future. Wright noted that the report highlights several areas of focus for a research agenda: diversity, equity, and inclusion; online/virtual learning; lifelong learning; and professional development for faculty and teachers. Wright also described several ongoing activities, including two recent events with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: a forum on the postsecondary response to COVID-19 and a symposium on imagining the future of undergraduate STEM education.

NSB will hold its next meeting on February 23–24.