Science Directions

Among the most prized sources of support for graduate training is the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. It is a prestigious award, and carries with it very generous financial support toward the expenses of graduate education. As of this year, clinical and counseling psychology students — even those who are conducting just the kind of basic research NSF purports to value — are no longer welcome to apply.

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program is one of the oldest at NSF and has always been intregral to the support of graduate training in the sciences.

This program supports graduate study in all fields of research supported by NSF, including psychology. The latest NSF program announcement (NSF 10-604) is quite clear about this:

“Fellowships are awarded for graduate study leading to research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in the fields and programs of science and engineering supported by the National Science Foundation.”

Indeed, among the fields of study within psychology listed as eligible are cognitive, developmental, industrial/organizational, experimental, comparative, perception, personality, social, quantitative and computational.

Certain exceptions and exclusions have always applied. Research and programs of study with disease-related goals are not eligible. This is old NSF policy, and applies to all of the agency’s funding programs. Also excluded is support for students enrolled in practice-oriented professional degree programs.

These policies have functioned to exclude a certain subset of students pursuing graduate education in psychology, specifically those who seek graduate degrees in disease-related areas or solely in pursuit of careers in professional practice.

Beginning with the program announcement for the 2001–02 fellowships (NSF 00-128), an important footnote was added:

“Warning: Clinical and counseling psychology are generally not supported in this program; some applicants in this field are judged ineligible because their Proposed Plan of Research focuses on mental disease, abnormality or malfunction.”

Fair enough. It was a warning, not an absolute exclusion. The following year (the 2002–03 fellowships), another interesting sentence was added to the program announcement (NSF 01-146), which also remained until very recently:

“Basic research in fields supported by NSF is usually eligible notwithstanding the fact that it may lead to long-term disease-related implications.”

The exclusions, exceptions and qualifications have always made it challenging for students in clinical and counseling psychology to qualify for the NSF fellowships. Challenging, but not impossible. If the case could be made that a student’s research plan and specific area of training fell within the scope of one or more of the standing NSF research programs and focused on basic research, then the student could qualify. We have seen many instances of this qualification over the past decade, and all perfectly consistent with longstanding NSF policy in this area.

Now, NSF has decided to close this option for students pursuing graduate training in clinical and counseling psychology. This year’s program announcement (NSF 10-604, for the 2011–12 fellowships) drops the footnoted warning, and introduces a new all-out exclusion:

“Applicants in clinical or counseling psychology graduate programs are ineligible even if the proposed graduate research may be classified under one of the NSF-supported fields of psychology.”

It is difficult to reconcile this new language with the continuing assertion from NSF that the graduate research fellowships provide support for graduate study in all fields and programs of science and engineering otherwise supported by NSF. Except for psychology, where a special exception has now been applied. Equal, but not equal. Valued, but not valued.

APA has expressed its concern to NSF, and will continue to press the agency to support psychology in the same way it supports all other fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.