NSF IGERT: Transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries to advance career opportunities in science

This year’s 2014 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) winners, (left to right) Brittany West Marsden (University of Maryland), Sarah Anderson (Washington State University), Amber Childress (Colorado State University), Johanna Varner (University of Utah), and  Andrew Bingham (Colorado State University) participated in policy training at ESA’s Washington, DC office on April 9. Credit/ESA file photo
This year’s 2014 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) winners, (left to right) Brittany West Marsden (University of Maryland), Sarah Anderson (Washington State University), Amber Childress (Colorado State University), Johanna Varner (University of Utah), and Andrew Bingham (Colorado State University) participated in policy training at ESA’s Washington, DC office on April 9. (Credit/ESA file photo)

In April, 60 biologists and graduate-level scientists stormed Capitol Hill as part of the annual Biological and Ecological Sciences Congressional visits, co-organized by the Ecological Society of America.

One of the central goals of the annual visits is to urge Members of Congress to support funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the only federal agency whose mission includes support for all fields of science and engineering, except medical sciences. The regionally divided teams met with staff in House and Senate offices, relaying the importance of their research with personal narratives and advocating for $7.5 billion for the NSF for upcoming Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, which begins October 1, 2014.

Later this spring, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees unveiled their respective Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bills for FY 2015. Both bills include increases for the NSF, a small triumph given current fiscal restraints. However, the Senate bill would increase funding for NSF by $83 million to $7.255 billion, level with the president’s FY 2015 budget request, but not meeting inflation needs. Meanwhile, the House bill includes $7.4 billion for NSF, a $237 million increase over FY 2014. Ultimately, House and Senate appropriators this fall will compromise on determining the final NSF budget for FY 2015. The ability of key science programs to provide vital resources to researchers in their career development will rest on the outcome of these bicameral negotiations.

One important NSF program is the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT). The program works to compliment a graduate student’s developing disciplinary expertise with a more diverse set of professional skills that transcends their traditional learning experience. The program expands students’ skill set with training in bioethics, research ethics, business innovation, and improves their capacity to communicate science to an array of public audiences. Since 1998, the IGERT program has funded nearly 5,000 graduate students at over 100 educational institutions in 41 states across the US.

During the most recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, 2014 Graduate Student Policy Award recipient Sarah Anderson details her experience with the IGERT and how it advanced her career:

“It allowed me to do my research very intensively in my field of study, but it also let me get training [in my case] in public policy and think about my research in a much broader context of a policy setting and how it would be applicable to different policymakers…”

Anderson with Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Credit/ Sarah Anderson)

Anderson with Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Credit/ Sarah Anderson)

Anderson elaborated that her IGERT helped her secure a policy fellowship with the US Global Change Research program. The experience helped her further apply her Ph.D. research into atmospheric nitrogen deposition to policy while allowing her to work with other sectors and fields of study impacted by climate change.

As Congress negotiates a final conference report bill this fall to fund NSF, lawmakers should work to ensure NSF receives the funding necessary to continue to equip future job seekers in the US with the skills necessary to secure jobs that advance scientific knowledge. NSF programs like IGERT are critical in advancing career opportunities for young innovators.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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