Bidding a Woeful Farewell to NSF’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) Program

On Tuesday, the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences announced it would be ending its Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant Program, which provided crucial research funding to Ph.D. students for their dissertation work.


Established nearly 50 years ago, the program was designed to support graduate students like me, who were pursuing projects independent of their thesis advisor’s existing funding and expertise. DDIGs disproportionately supported ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and other non-medical disciplines where a culture of graduate student autonomy is common, but funding is often scarce.

I was lucky enough to be among the last recipients of this funding, which has helped me to pursue my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and ornithology at the University of Washington. But news of the program’s demise has provoked dismay and outrage among biologists nationwide — including many here at UW, which relies heavily on DDIG funds for independent graduate research. “I don’t even know where to start,” said Adam Leaché, an associate professor at UW studying the evolutionary relationships of reptiles. “All of my students do independent research for their dissertations, and none of that will be possible without the DDIG.”

Lamentations like this one were echoed across social media, where scientists and graduate students around the country cited the program’s high return on investment relative to its low cost (about $1.6 million annually). Under the hashtag #DDIGstory on Twitter, thousands of students, faculty members, and postdoctoral researchers described how the program’s funding helped to facilitate research, disseminate knowledge to the wider culture, and even launch careers.

“Funding allowed us the flexibility to perform riskier experiments for this study, featured on the front page of the @nytimes,” wrote Andrew Gehrke, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, referencing a New York Times story by Carl Zimmer published last August. Others highlighted the grant’s influence on graduate education more broadly. “$8K allowed me to afford two years of field work that got my career started (and still appears in textbooks),” wrote Butch Brodie, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Virginia. “What better [return on investment]?

The announcement comes during a period of heightened uncertainty for publicly funded research in the United States. While President Trump’s budget request has yet to be reviewed by Congress, it proposes significant cuts to all scientific funding bodies, including an 11 percent reduction to the National Science Foundation’s 2017 operating budget of $7.4 billion.

For its part, the agency suggested in a blog post (and via emails to concerned scientists) that the decision to terminate the program was less about anticipated cuts, and more about the burden of reviewing grant applications. “DDIGs are small budget awards; they are generally less than $20,000,” the agency wrote, “but DDIGs still demand all the same oversight, management, and approval processes as standard grants.”

In response, some scientists have begun scrambling to find ways to streamline or augment the review process, but no clear path to salvaging the DDIG program has surfaced. That means that the cascading effects of austerity will fall heaviest on the shoulders of early career scientists like me, who are already facing a grim academic job market.

Ana Maria Bedoya, a friend and second-year Ph.D. student at UW studying the evolution of aquatic plants in South America, had been planning to apply for DDIG funding to support her research in the fall. “I’m depressed and frustrated,” she said when asked how the decision would affect her.

“I know I might not have gotten funding,” she added, “but I’m sad I didn’t even get the chance.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post provided an incorrect title for Adam Leaché. He is an associate professor at the University of Washington studying the evolutionary relationships of reptiles, not an assistant professor.

Ethan Linck is a Ph.D. candidate in the Klicka Lab at the University of Washington’s Department of Biology, and a freelance writer with bylines in Jacobin, The Stranger, and High Country News, among other publications.