National Research Council’s Evaluation of VIGRE Program Released
William E. Kirwan, Mark L. Green, and Neal D. GlassmanThis article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of the American Mathematical Society’s newsletter
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was concern within the mathematical sciences community that postsecondary education in the mathematical sciences was in trouble. A series of challenges was identified in important national reports, including in particular the following:
- “Renewing U.S. Mathematics: Critical Resource for the Future” (1984), also known as the David Report after the chair of the committee, former presidential science advisor Edward David
- “Educating Mathematical Scientists: Doctoral Study and the Postdoctoral Experience in the United States” (1992), also known as the Douglas Report after committee chair Ronald Douglas
- The report of an international panel convened by the National Science Foundation, “Report of the Senior Assessment Panel for the International Assessment of the U.S. Mathematical Sciences” (1998)(PDF), also known as the Odom Report after panel chair General William Odom
Members of the Committee to Evaluate the National Science Foundation’s Vertically Integrated Grants for Research and Education (VIGRE) program were:
William E. Kirwan (chair)
John A. Burns
C. Herbert Clemens
Dona L. Crawford
Cristine M. Cumming
Lawrence Craig Evans
Charles L. Fefferman
Mark L. Green
Leo P. Kadanoff
Daniel L. Solomon
Lynn Arthur Steen
Karen L. Vogtmann
Eric W. Welch
Together, these reports painted a picture for the mathematical sciences that focused on three major challenges: inadequate funding, insufficient numbers of students interested in mathematics, and shortcomings in the shape and direction of postsecondary mathematics education.
These reports raised four issues concerning students: (1) the number of students receiving degrees, (2) the lack of racial and gender diversity among the mathematics graduate student body, (3) the declining fraction of U.S. citizens receiving advanced degrees in mathematics, and (4) the lack of sufficient postdoctoral fellowships for new doctorates.
Four issues were identified with respect to the structure of training in the mathematical sciences: (1) increasing the breadth, (2) providing a better balance of education and research, (3) decreasing the time to degree, and (4) creating a more positive learning experience.
In response to all these concerns, Donald Lewis, then director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) at the National Science Foundation (NSF), wrote a “dear colleague” letter to the mathematical sciences community, based on recommendations of a DMS special emphasis panel, which introduced and justified the Grants for the Vertical Integration of Research and Education in the Mathematical Sciences (VIGRE) program.
The panel recommended that the VIGRE program enable departments to carry out innovative educational programs at levels beyond then-current department resources. The panel also saw the program achieving a change of culture in departments, resulting in broadening opportunities through new curriculum development and research experiences. Although the goals of the VIGRE program have changed from year to year, they have consistently included
- integration of research and education
- enhanced interaction across undergraduates, graduates, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty
broadened educational experiences of students to include workforce and early research opportunities
- more students motivated to study mathematics and statistics
VIGRE has been a continuing DMS program since 1999, but it had not been externally evaluated until NSF, in 2007, requested the appointment of a committee of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Board on Mathematical Sciences and Their Applications. The charge to this committee included the evaluation of past and current practices for steering and assessing the VIGRE program and recommendations on how to improve it.
At about the same time, NSF also commissioned a report, “Increasing the Quantity and Quality of the Mathematical Sciences Workforce Through Vertical Integration of Cultural Change,” by Margaret Cozzens. This report recounts some successes of the VIGRE program but is not meant to be a formal evaluation.