White House Touts NSF's New Family-Friendly Policies

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) hopes that a new set of family-friendly policies will reduce the number of young women who abandon scientific careers because of responsibilities outside of the workplace.

The White House today announced a series of steps that NSF will take to keep women from having to make a choice between work and home. "Too many women give up because of conflicts between their desire to start a family and their desire to ramp-up their careers," said John Holdren, the president's science adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He said that flexible workplace rules are good for the economy because they attract better workers, reduce turnover, and increase productivity. "It's not just the right thing to do, it's also the smart thing to do," noted Tina Tchen, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and head of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

The changes include allowing both male and female grant recipients to defer an award for up to 1 year or to get a no-cost extension of their existing grant. NSF also hopes to increase its use of "virtual reviews" of grant proposals so that scientists don't need to travel as often to the agency's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. NSF will also begin to offer supplemental awards to investigators to pay for a technician to keep their lab moving forward while the investigator goes on family leave.

NSF Director Subra Suresh said "small pockets of NSF" are now offering these and similar options but that the new policy will "elevate those practices" across the entire agency. He did not estimate how much the supplemental awards would cost NSF, but said that most of the changes could be implemented "regardless of NSF's budget."

Suresh predicted that the changes will have a significant effect on the academic community that NSF serves." Among the initiative's long-term goals is "increasing the ratio of women in tenured faculty positions to a level that reflects their prevalence in the general scientific community," he said. In particular, by 2021 or so, Suresh said he hopes that the proportion of newly-tenured positions in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields held by women matches the percentage of Ph.D.s awarded to women in STEM fields, now about 40%. Suresh later clarified that goal by calling it "a national target" and said that "NSF cannot do it alone."

Scientists who work on gender equity issues generally applaud what NSF is trying to do. Lisa Wolf-Wendel of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, especially likes the fact that a major federal research agency is weighing in on practices that are shaped largely by the cultures of individual campuses. "It gives everybody the opportunity to do the right thing," says Wolf-Wendel, who has found that stop-the-clock policies regarding tenure can also carry a stigma that reduces their usage among women who face the conflict between family obligations and their careers. "And it's nice to see the message coming from the government."

Meg Urry, an astrophysicist at Yale University, notes that many young scientists may not be able to take advantage of no-cost extensions and delayed grants because they don't have the luxury of going without a salary for any significant length of time. What's really needed, she says, is a family-leave policy that also provides an income. But she says NSF should still be congratulated for taking a leadership role on the issue.

"I give NSF a lot of credit," she says. "These changes should help. I just don't think that it takes us all the way to where we need to be."

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