White House Event on NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative

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Publication date: 
27 September 2011

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“If we’re going to  out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors  to everyone.  We can't afford to leave  anyone out.  We need all hands on deck.  And that means clearing hurdles for women and  girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”   So explained First Lady Michelle Obama yesterday  afternoon at a White House event promoting a new “NSF Career-Life Balance  Initiative.”  Designed to be implemented  during the next ten years, the plan entails a series of policy changes  increasing work-related flexibility to female and male researchers supported by  the National Science Foundation.

The East Room event was preceded  by a telephone briefing with White House Council on Women and Girls Executive Director  Tina Tchen, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, and  National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh.  They stressed the importance of science,  technology, engineering and mathematics to the economic competitiveness of the  United States, and said the nation can no longer afford to neglect half of the talent  pool.  Compounding the problem of too few  female researchers entering the STEM workplace are conflicts between career and  family, resulting in many women leaving their positions.   

A major component of the new foundation-wide  policy is the ability of a researcher to postpone or suspend a NSF grant for up  to one year to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child, or another family  obligation.  The While House described  the policy changes in the initiative as follows:

“Allow postponement of grants  for child birth/adoption – Grant recipients can defer their awards for up to  one year to care for their newborn or newly adopted children.

“Allow grant suspension for  parental leave – Grant recipients who wish to suspend their grants to take  parental leave can extend those grants by a comparable duration at no cost.

“Provide supplements to cover  research technicians– Principal investigators can apply for stipends to pay  research technicians or equivalent staff to maintain labs while PIs are on  family leave.

“Publicize the availability  of family friendly opportunities – NSF will issue announcements and revise  current program solicitations to expressly promote these opportunities to  eligible awardees.

“Promote family friendliness  for panel reviewers – STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their  peers will have greater opportunities to conduct virtual reviews rather than  travel to a central location, increasing flexibility and reducing  dependent-care needs.

“Support research and  evaluation – NSF will continue to encourage the submission of proposals for  research that would assess the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women  in the STEM pipeline.

“Leverage and Expand  Partnerships -- NSF will leverage existing relationships with academic  institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual  hiring opportunities.”

One measure of the success of  this initiative will be the degree to which the disparity between the  percentage of women having doctorate degrees in STEM fields and tenure-track faculty  is reduced.  Currently 41 percent of PhDs  in these fields are awarded to women, yet they constitute only 28 percent of  such faculty.  In discussing this goal,  Suresh characterized it as “a national target to shoot for,” and added “NSF  cannot do it alone.”