Panel reviewers and anyone submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) via FastLane, grants.gov, or research.gov, are familiar with the routine request to voluntarily supply demographic information. But the reason this information is collected and how it is used is less well understood. Perhaps as a reflection of this uncertainty, a significant number of reviewers and principal investigators (PIs) do not provide this information in their responses to the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB). The editorial team of the MCB Blog interviewed Basil Nikolau, Division Director, MCB, to get a sense of why MCB encourages the community to provide demographic information.
Why is this demographic information collected?
We collect this information on a voluntary basis for two reasons. First, it can help us improve our processes for recruiting and selecting highly qualified reviewers and panelists who reflect the Nation’s diversity – this goal is cited in NSF’s Strategic Plan for FY 2018-2022. Second, the information helps us to accurately report on trends in broadening participation, both internal to NSF, such as our Division and the National Science Board, and externally to Congress and other interested stakeholders.
How is demographic information used?
The information is aggregated to monitor demographic trends in proposal submissions, proposal awards, and review panels. By tracking demographics, we can develop outreach strategies. This information also is used to guide our efforts to broadly engage the entire research community in the proposal and review process.
As mentioned earlier, a significant number of participants choose not to provide demographic information. How big a problem is this, and why?
Recent analyses indicate that nearly 30% of reviewers and funding applicants do not self-identify their demographic information. This makes it difficult for MCB to assess the degree to which communities are or are not proportionately represented. Without this information it’s difficult to identify and address cultural or other barriers to participation in NSF programs. While MCB does engage in outreach projects aimed at broadening participation, diversity, and inclusion, we’d like to be able to take more focused actions and this data is key to that goal.
Any parting thoughts on this topic?
We would like reviewers and applicants to provide the demographic information at every opportunity. This would be very helpful in developing a realistic, quantitative assessment of the MCB community. This would enable the division to formulate actionable strategies for building a community of researchers reflecting the general population.