Obama Wants Big Money for Science Students

26 January 2009 3:39 pm

In his first presidential radio address on 24 January, Barack Obama announced that the Administration's proposed stimulus package working its way through Congress would "triple the number of fellowships in science to help spur the next generation of innovation."  Universities and scientists love the concept, and more fellowships is something that researchers have long called for.

But the tripling is a fuzzy goal.

The White House provided a bit more clarity about the objective in an online fact sheet: tripling the number of undergraduate and graduate fellowships. What's not clear, however, is precisely how Obama wants to achieve that goal. Different U.S. agencies award thousands of fellowships to graduate students every year, in addition to a multitude of scholarships for undergraduate students. The National Science Foundation, for example, supports about 3000 Graduate Research Fellows; each fellow receives an annual $30,000 stipend for 3 years. The National Institutes of Health award about 15,000 doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships. The House of Representatives version of the draft stimulus package does not specify how much money NSF, NIH, and other science agencies will be expected to carve out from their portions of the boost the House wants to give them for scholarships and fellowships, besides $60 million for NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which is aimed at getting undergraduates majoring in science and engineering fields to become teachers.

Regardless of the details, the announcement “is an encouraging sign,” says Debra Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools. “It shows that the Administration gets what it takes to be competitive in this new economy.” Is she worried that more fellowships will lead to a glut of master's and Ph.D. holders who won’t find jobs if the current labor market woes continue into the future? No, says Stewart, pointing out that the supply-demand equation “varies hugely by field.” She says she “routinely talks to people in industry who tell me that they are having trouble filling technical positions.”

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