NSF recently awarded the latest round of the NSF GRFP, aka the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. These awards are given to graduating anthropology undergrads or first year graduate students. To make a long story short, they are very prestigious, pay for most (or all) of graduate school, and prove to grad schools and future funders that you are For Real. These awards set you up for success. So who got them and who didn’t says a lot about our discipline and where it’s going. So: what do they tell us?
You can view the full list of awards here. The first thing these awards tell us is that anthropology is underfunded. Around 2,000 NSF GRFPs were awarded, and 48 of them went to anthropologists. This just underscores the point I’ve made before: Anthropology fails to be a ‘real’ science ‘like biology’ just because the discipline is full of fuzzy-headed postmodernists, but because we’re radically underfunded compared to other sciences.
Over at Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn has argued that NSF graduate fellowships are part of the problem. That is, despite the program’s goal of leveling the playing field for students of non-elite colleges, it still ends up giving more awards to elite students. Is this true in anthropology? And — more important for me — how well does the NSF GRFP do in achieving the NSF’s goal of increasing gender and ethnic diversity?
Let’s look at gender and ethnicity first. I am not going to go down the list of awardees and profile them. But a brief gander down the list of names reveals that probably around 30 of the 48 recipients — maybe 62% — are women. And maybe about 50% have Probably Non-Anglo Names. That’s pretty good. I lose track of what percent of AAA members are women, but it’s over 50% and has been for some time. Ethnically, the AAA is (iirc) less diverse. So to me it looks like the NSF GRFPs are holding the line on gender and moving forward on ethnic diversity. Let me know if you disagree, but I think this is good news.
What about privileging elite versus non-elite institutions? Only six institutions received more than one NSF GRFP: Berkeley (4), NYU and University of Chicago (3 each), Duke, University of Oregon, and UC San Diego (2 each). Roughly a third of the awards went to these institutions. What about the others? Well, Barnard, Cornell, and Brown (and Sciences Po!) are on there. But so are San Jose State and UT Arlington. Are elite schools over-represented? Probably. But I think this may reflect the candidate pool — many people at regular schools have not heard of the NSF GRFP the way people at, say, elite liberal arts colleges have.
Of course, the real elites are not on this list because they don’t need to be. They form their own world — funding their own graduate students, and hiring the graduates of other elite schools. This world is buffered against the broader economy because of its wealth and status. They just don’t need the NSF GRFP. I imagine the Chicago students, for instance, who received the award were marginal admits to the program, or MAPSS students looking to make themselves attractive to a Ph.D. program. Unlike a lab-based discipline, anthropology’s artisanal, field-based research methods basically mean that you can run a discipline on intramural funds.
So in the case of anthropology at least, I don’t think the NSF GRFPs are ‘part of the problem’ as McGlynn claims. Really, by the time you are handing out golden tickets to graduate school the candidates have already been through two-decade long exposure to America structural forces. I mean, it’s an important part of the process of broadening the role of under-represented groups in science, but it’s also one of the final stages of that process.
In American anthropology at least, the biggest issue is the existence of two systems: a public, increasingly imperiled one, and a more insulated elite one. For a discipline of our size and shape, change really comes from the admissions and awards committees of a few key schools.