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Policy Updates

White House Event on NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative

FYI: AIP Policy Update Number 119. 9/27/2011

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone.  We can't afford to leave anyone out.  We need all hands on deck.  And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”   So explained First Lady Michelle Obama yesterday afternoon at a White House event promoting a new “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative.”  Designed to be implemented during the next ten years, the plan entails a series of policy changes increasing work-related flexibility to female and male researchers supported by the National Science Foundation.

The East Room event was preceded by a telephone briefing with White House Council on Women and Girls Executive Director Tina Tchen, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, and National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh.  They stressed the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the economic competitiveness of the United States, and said the nation can no longer afford to neglect half of the talent pool.  Compounding the problem of too few female researchers entering the STEM workplace are conflicts between career and family, resulting in many women leaving their positions.    

A major component of the new foundation-wide policy is the ability of a researcher to postpone or suspend a NSF grant for up to one year to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child, or another family obligation.  The While House described the policy changes in the initiative as follows:

“Allow postponement of grants for child birth/adoption – Grant recipients can defer their awards for up to one year to care for their newborn or newly adopted children.

“Allow grant suspension for parental leave – Grant recipients who wish to suspend their grants to take parental leave can extend those grants by a comparable duration at no cost.

“Provide supplements to cover research technicians– Principal investigators can apply for stipends to pay research technicians or equivalent staff to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave.

“Publicize the availability of family friendly opportunities – NSF will issue announcements and revise current program solicitations to expressly promote these opportunities to eligible awardees.

“Promote family friendliness for panel reviewers – STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their peers will have greater opportunities to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel to a central location, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs.

“Support research and evaluation – NSF will continue to encourage the submission of proposals for research that would assess the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline.

“Leverage and Expand Partnerships -- NSF will leverage existing relationships with academic institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities.”

One measure of the success of this initiative will be the degree to which the disparity between the percentage of women having doctorate degrees in STEM fields and tenure-track faculty is reduced.  Currently 41 percent of PhDs in these fields are awarded to women, yet they constitute only 28 percent of such faculty.  In discussing this goal, Suresh characterized it as “a national target to shoot for,” and added “NSF cannot do it alone.” 

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics