That’s a proposal that appeared today on Citizen’s Briefing Book, the digg-style section of the Obama transition website where interested citizens can post, and vote on, suggestions for the new administration.
On first glance, this sounds good to me! Currently, the NSF has a successful graduate fellowship program, which each year awards a few dozen students full support for their Ph.D. study, along with a $30,000 annual stipend. These students are the very strongest math undergraduates in the country, and the large majority go to one of the top 5 programs.
What if, instead, the NSF gave ten times as many students a much smaller package? Say, enough to supplement a TA salary by $5,000 per year, and to offer one or two semesters of full support to be used during the dissertation year? That would make a big difference to a lot of students at state universities, who otherwise have limited time off from teaching.
The argument for using the money to fund a small number of full-tuition fellowships, I guess, is that budgets are limited even at Harvard and Princeton, and the NSF fellowships allow more students to train at top departments than otherwise would. From running graduate admissions at Princeton I know very well that many, many students who would succeed at Princeton get rejected in favor of even stronger applicants. But graduate admissions are limited by things besides money — primarily the time and attention of the faculty.
The justification for the huge stipend is even harder to imagine. It’s more than doubled since I was a grad student fellow in the mid-90s. If a student is deciding whether to go to grad school on financial grounds, $30K is the same as $15K — bubkes next to what a star math major can make in industry.
So what would happen if the NSF gave many small fellowships instead of a few big ones? The students at Harvard and Princeton would still be fully supported, maybe teaching one semester to get some classroom experience. Maybe some students who otherwise would have gone to Harvard and Princeton would go to Chicago or Columbia instead. And a lot of U.S. students at good places like Wisconsin would write better dissertations faster.
Of course, the effect would also include a big transfer of wealth from the top-5 math departments to my graduate students; so maybe my self-interest is showing here.
See also: I. Laba’s thoughtful post on Canada’s NSERC Discovery Grant program, and whether it should switch from it’s current “many small grants” model to a “few large grants” model like the current NSF Graduate Fellowship.