Education & Workforce

CHIPS and Science Highlights: Developing a Scientific Workforce of the Future

08.11.22 | 5 min read | Text by Divyansh Kaushik

With the goal of jump-starting American innovation post-pandemic, and building a foundation for the challenges of the future, including in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductor manufacturing, the CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law. The multi-year legislative effort  started as an attempt to build upon Vannevar Bush’s legacy, with a bill titled the “Endless Frontier Act” named after Bush’s famous report, “Science, The Endless Frontier.” But as Congress looked at creating a vision for science in America, almost everyone was focused on how much money the bill authorizes for scientific research. But there are many often-overlooked sections of Bush’s original report that are just as important to today’s scientific enterprise as the overall budget. In particular, what has been missing from the public discussion is his focus on the development of scientific talent.

There is no question that our science-funding institutions need significant investment and reform, but funding is only part of the puzzle. As Bush noted in the Endless Frontier, “the most important ways in which the Government can promote industrial research are to increase the flow of new scientific knowledge through support of basic research and to aid in the development of scientific talent.”

Authors of the CHIPS and Science Act clearly took note. After months of negotiations between the House and the Senate, the hard work of the staff who recognized this imperative was thus reflected in the final text of this legislation. Let’s look at some of these provisions.

Expanded GRFPs

The legislation increases the number of Graduate Research Fellowships from 2,000 to 3,000 per year. The GRFP is the National Science Foundation’s premier fellowship for graduate students in science and engineering, and it provides three years of support for exceptional students to pursue their research. The GRFP has an impressive track record: over forty Nobel Laureates and over four hundred and fifty members of the National Academy of Science started their graduate research with the help of GRFP. Aside from all the good company the award puts you in, the GRFP provides students the flexibility to work with an advisor that aligns with their interests rather than settling for whoever has money available to fund them, potentially stifling their potential. That is a big deal for these graduate students who’re still early in their career and whose interests may evolve over the years. A recent report looking at the success of GRFP recipients found that GRFP participation increased students’ likelihood of PhD completion. Fellows also published more peer reviewed papers, gave more presentations at national or international meetings, and were awarded more grants and contracts as a PI after graduate school. It also found that women who were awarded a GRFP filed more patents in graduate school than non-GRFP recipients.

Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science

In 2018, the National Academies released a report which looked at the factors that contribute to an environment tolerant of sexual harassment and its impact on women’s careers. The negative outcomes students experience when they are sexually harassed include: declining motivation to attend class, greater truancy, dropping classes, paying less attention in class, receiving lower grades, changing advisors, changing majors and transferring to another educational institution or dropping out. Additionally, Gender harassment that is severe or occurs frequently over a period of time can result in the same level of negative professional and psychological outcomes as isolated instances of sexual coercion. Therefore, Gender harassment, which is often considered a “lesser,” more inconsequential form of sexual harassment, cannot be dismissed when present in an organization. This further showed up in a recent survey conducted by the Association of American Universities to study the campus climate across 33 research universities. The survey found that 41.8 percent of all students have experienced sexual harassment since enrolling, and 18.9 percent of students have experienced sexual harassment that interfered with their academic or professional performance, limited their ability to participate in an academic program, or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive social, academic, or work environment. Among women graduate and professional students who were sexually harassed, nearly one in four reported that the perpetrator was a faculty member or instructor. The Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act included in the CHIPS and Science Act addresses key recommendations from the report and builds on steps that have already been taken to address this issue. The legislation will establish a grant program for research into the causes and consequences of sexual harassment, issue policy guidelines for agencies making extramural research awards, convene an interagency working group to coordinate efforts, and assess the progress of these efforts over time. The bill authorizes over $32 million in spending to enact this provision, making it one of the most aggressive commitments by the federal government to combat sexual harassment in science.

A Focus on Good Mentoring and Good Mental Health

The CHIPS and Science Act also increases NSF’s focus on mentorship as a workforce development tool by establishing new programs to promote mentoring relationships between graduate students and PIs, including an expansion of Individual Development Plans for graduate researchers. These programs will help ensure that all scientists have access to quality mentors who can guide them through their careers—a critically important component to ensuring success in science as laid out by a 2019 report by the National Academies. The legislation also directs NSF to support research on graduate education system and outcomes of various interventions including the effects of traineeships, fellowships, internships, the effects of graduate education and mentoring policies and procedures on degree completion, development and assessment of approaches to improve mentorship, and to research, collect and assess data around graduate student mental health crisis and developing strategies to support graduate student mental health. 

These provisions only scratch the surface. The bill includes many more provisions that would ensure we develop a scientific workforce that will be ready to tackle the challenges of the future. If we want to keep America at the forefront of scientific discovery, we need to make sure that we are constantly replenishing our pool of scientists with the best and brightest minds. The investment in future scientists contained in the CHIPS and Science Act will pay dividends not just for those individuals but for our country as a whole. By nurturing the next generation of scientific talent, we can ensure that America remains a world leader in science and technology for generations to come.