Pipeline Grants Competition Fosters Diversity Among Early Career Scholars

October 9, 2020

In 2019, the Russell Sage Foundation (RSF), in partnership with the Economic Mobility & Opportunity program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched a new pipeline grants competition designed to support early- and mid-career tenure-track scholars who are underrepresented in the social sciences and to promote diversity broadly, including racial, ethnic, gender, disciplinary, institutional, and geographic diversity. RSF announced the inaugural eighteen grants in March 2020. This article explores the program’s evolution and celebrates its continuing goals.

The pipeline grants program developed in response to an idea put forward in March 2019 to the RSF board of trustees by trustee Michael Jones-Correa (University of Pennsylvania) about facilitating diversity in the social sciences. Conversations ensued between RSF president Sheldon Danziger, RSF program officer Stephen Glauser, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation staff, including Kosar Jahani and Ryan Rippel, program officer and director, respectively of the Economic Mobility & Opportunity program. The program was also informed by Danziger’s experience mentoring doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows during his tenure as Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan.

RSF invited a diverse group of scholars to join the program’s Advisory Committee, including RSF trustees political scientists Michael Jones-Correa and Cathy Cohen (University of Chicago), psychologist Mesmin Destin (Northwestern University), sociologist Jennifer Lee (Columbia University), and economist Rucker Johnson (University of California, Berkeley). The committee members worked with RSF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program staff to develop a request for proposals and establish eligibility guidelines, such as reserving project awards for tenure track assistant and associate professors who have been in the rank for less than seven years, and to those who have not previously received grants from or been visiting scholars at RSF.

Jennifer Lee, an RSF author, grantee, and former visiting scholar describes her experience on the advisory committee as a highlight of her career and praised both foundations for their proactive stance on facilitating diversity in social science research. Lee writes: “While many institutions tout the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, few make a genuine commitment to achieving these goals, and even fewer take the necessary steps to realize them...It has been a pleasure to see what is possible when commitment is paired with opportunity and resources. That I have had a small part in this endeavor is one of the professional accomplishments about which I am most proud.”

The response to the RFP was overwhelming, underlining the critical need for initiatives that proactively address diversity within the social sciences. RSF received 199 applications that underwent intensive review by RSF program staff and more than 50 external reviewers, all scholars in the social sciences. The Advisory Committee  recommended funding for 14 projects from assistant professors and four projects from associate professors. These grants, supported by funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represent a funding rate of about nine percent. Several grantees teach at universities that have rarely received RSF funding. Principal investigators who self-identified as racial/ethnic minorities or mixed race/ethnicity were 68 percent of all applicants and 83 percent of grantees.

Committee member Mesmin Destin, a former RSF visiting scholar, spoke to the high quality and the number of applications received: “The first round of applications were impressive in both their quality and in the quantity of proposed projects from assistant and associate professors from underrepresented groups. To me, this opportunity is another example of how thoughtful investment can help to expand the perspectives that are represented and amplified across the social sciences. I hope to see more gatekeepers take active steps to support these types of efforts toward meaningful transformation of our fields.”

Each assistant professor grantee was matched with a mentor in their area of expertise. The process of mentor matching was a collaboration between staff and grantees, not simply an assignment of a mentor by RSF.  Throughout the grant period, mentors provide comments on grantees’ research projects and offer career advice. Mentees will present and receive feedback on their research findings and network with peers and senior scholars, including mentors and advisory committee members, at a Summer 2021 conference.

Also, in Summer 2021, Michael Jones-Correa and several colleagues are planning a Proposal Development Summer Institute for another group of early career scholars who are underrepresented in the social sciences. It will be modeled on other summer institutes supported by RSF that seek to develop a new generation of social science scholars and will be designed to develop participants’ research ideas into completed proposals.

Advisory committee member Rucker Johnson,  a former visiting scholar, was himself mentored by Sheldon Danziger when he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. He noted the importance of mentorship in the pipeline grants program: “...I can attest to the critical importance of mentorship for academics at all stages of their research and career development. Whether providing advice on negotiating appointment terms, offering perspective on curriculum design and student engagement, illuminating publication considerations, coaching junior faculty on balancing work and family, or simply creating a safe community where the mentored can relax and socialize outside the walls of academia, mentors are essential. All mentors play a special role in shaping the next generation of scholars--and mentors of color play an especially unique role in the lives of scholars of color.” Johnson went on to say that “the spirit [of this mentorship program] is encapsulated by a quote of Sheldon I’ve heard him say numerous times: ‘I consider the success of my mentees one of my greatest career accomplishments...The best way to show your appreciation is to pay it forward to your students.’”

The RFP for the second round of the Pipeline Grants Competition is now available; applications are due at 2 pm ET on November 4, 2020, for funding beginning in Summer 2021. Prospective applicants can view a recording of a recent grant writing webinar here.

The experience this year highlights the need for institutions and communities to thoughtfully respond to the persisting problems of social inequality and systemic racism in the United States. The success of the first year of the pipeline grants competition demonstrates the potential of innovative grantmaking that intentionally fosters diversity in the social sciences. The Russell Sage Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation express their renewed commitment to this collaborative endeavor to support a wide range of innovative research on economic mobility and access to opportunity in the United States.





RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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