The NSF and career-life balance

The NSF recently announced some new policies concerning work-life balance. There seems to have been a publicity push about it on the part of the White House, as it made the regular news. The main changes seem to be adding flexibility to grant rules for new parents. Mostly pretty obvious stuff like letting people delay the use of their grant if they go on parental leave. Good ideas to be sure, but mostly just catching up to what they already should have been doing.

This reminded me of one of my favorite ideas I’ve heard for an NSF policy change which would help career-life balance. Currently the MSPRF postdoc policy reads:

Changes in the host institution will be approved only under extremely unusual and compelling circumstances… Securing a position at an institution other than the proposed host institution is not considered an “extremely unusual and compelling circumstance.”

The suggestion is to change this by adding the line:

Nonetheless, if the fellow has a partner who is unable to procure a job near the sponsoring institution, and both the fellow and their partner have job offers in other city, that will be considered compelling circumstances.

3 thoughts on “The NSF and career-life balance

  1. I’m sympathetic here, but I am not sure if it is feasible as you posed it. What would be the method to ensure that the partner has been unable to find a job near the sponsoring institution? It seems like anyone with a significant other could lay this claim without much in the way of accountability.

    Since the NSF apparently puts a priority on the sponsor institution in determining recipients, it seems like opening up such a large loophole would be detrimental.

    Perhaps one might suggest that it should be simply changed to a free-floating offer that people can take with them where they will (as it is after the first year of support). However, I think that would result in more of a delta-distribution in terms of which institutions get NSF post-docs, which is presumably part of what they are trying to avoid.

  2. I think the enforcement issue is moot. The NSF would just trust that people weren’t lying. After all, there’s currently nothing really to stop you from saying you’re at one school while actually living in another city (or say, holding a non-academic job).

    Certainly the NSF has an interest in people going to the sponsoring institution that they applied to, but this is not their only interest. Currently it’s somewhat easy to change institutions *after a year*, just not immediately. I don’t think this would be a bigger loophole than that.

    I actually doubt this loophole would apply to that many people. Many fellows are not in serious relationships, many fellows have partners whose careers are location flexible (me, for instance), and many fellows who have partners with geographical constraints know those constraints in advance. Furthermore, many schools want NSF fellows to come to their school, and are willing to make accommodations for the partner.

    In fact, I think much of the positive affects of the rule I’m proposing is that it would strengthen some fellows negotiating position and more often result in both people getting an offer at the sponsoring school in the grant.

  3. Of course, if the NSF actually cared about geographical distribution, they would just award money for postdocs to people through their normal grants (of course, that would have the issue of facilitating the university taking an enormous cut of the money which the direct NSF postdoc system circumvents).

    I’ve always wondered how much the NSF ends up weighing geographic diversity; I’m sure they would love to have every fellow in a different congressional district (unfortunately, MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, BU and BC all have the same congressman), but certainly they happily approve lots of NSF applications to the same schools. I have to wonder if much would change if they just removed that component of things.

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