The Effect of the NSF Grant on Future Academic and Career Outcomes
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Joseph Price, Economics
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 with the stated mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare.” This institution supports scientific research in various scientific fields primarily by funding promising research and researchers.
Our investigation focused on the NSF grant for prospective graduate students in the field of economics. Specifically, we examine those who won the award and those who received an ‘honorable mention’. The applicants who only received an ‘honorable mention’, have very similar qualifications to those who were offered the grant. The applications are reviewed by two panelists, and the best applications are sent to a third reviewer who then decides who receives the grant and who receives an ‘honorable mention’. This means that those who won the grant and those who receive an ‘honorable mention’ were grouped into the same elite category, meaning that both grant recipients and ‘honorable mention’ recipients are similarly qualified. Since these two groups have extremely comparable qualifications, we are provided with an interesting ‘natural experiment’ from which we can draw causality between winning the grant and future success by comparing the two groups. Using this strategy to identify the effect of winning the grant, we examine the ranking of each applicants’ graduate program, their likelihood of completing a PhD, and their likelihood of becoming a professor.
In order to examine this effect, we downloaded data the list of winners and honorable mentions from the National Science Foundation’s website, then we looked up each individual’s curriculum vitae to gather information about where they attended graduate school, what level of education they attained, and where they are working. Data on graduate school rankings were collected from the US News and World Report rankings. The final data set includes 482 observations, 166 award winners and 316 honorable mentions, spanning the five-year period from 1998 to 2003. We then compared the entire group of award winners to the group of honorable mentions in a regression analysis, as well as running a specification where we matched award winners to the most similar honorable mention and then ran the analysis only including those matched observations.
We found that award winners are slightly more likely to complete a PhD and that they go a school that is ranked three places higher on average than their honorable mention counterparts. Since the average graduate school rank for our whole sample was seven, this represents a bump into the top five. These effects are present both in the unmatched analysis and when we match individuals. We do not, however, find an effect of becoming a professor for award winners when we consider the effect of which graduate school the individual attended.
Our results suggest that the NSF grant awarded to a prospective graduate student boosts their likelihood of completing a PhD and helps them attend a higher ranked graduate school. This effect likely comes through a number of mechanisms. First, a graduate with research funding is likely to produce more and potentially higher quality research than a student without, helping them to complete a PhD more readily. Winning the NSF grant may also signal to top schools that a candidate is of higher quality.
We also find that winning the NSF grant means that an individual is more likely to become a professor, however, if we control for graduate school, this effect dries up. This suggests that winning the NSF grant only contributes to a person becoming a professor through which graduate school is attended.
Since the National Science Foundation’s goal is to promote the progress of science, it is important to know whether their research funding results in more researchers, and we find that winning the NSF grant in the field of economics does result in a higher completion rate of PhD programs and a higher number of professors because of students attending higher ranked graduate schools.
While our data exploited the similarity in award winners and honorable mentions, we were limited in the amount of information that we had to compare the two groups. Because of this fact, further research is warranted though to explore a number of other questions, specifically the following:
1. Does this result extend to fields other than economics?
2. Are the two groups truly comparable, or are some of the award winners much better than the honorable mention group?
3. Does winning the grant extend to other graduate school outcomes, such as GPA and number of publications?
We are working further to explore these questions by collecting more information on each of the NSF grant winners and applicants.