Panel Paper: Developing International Research Collaborations: Findings From the Evaluation of the International Research Fellowship Program

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 8:50 AM
Chesapeake (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Alina Martinez, Carter Epstein and Amanda Parsad

Over a decade ago, the National Science Board (NSB) highlighted the importance of international collaboration and called for increased government commitment to promoting international science and engineering (S&E) research and education. The NSB identified the National Science Foundation (NSF) as having an important leadership role in international S&E research and education activities. Through its International Research Fellowship Program (IRFP), NSF awards merit-based postdoctoral fellowships for research, lasting 9 to 24 months, to be conducted in a foreign location. Thus, IRFP aligns closely with the NSB’s call for NSF to support the international science engagement of scientists and engineers. NSF has over a dozen sources for funding postdoctoral fellowships. Policy decisions about this portfolio of programs require information about whether the specific programs are meeting their goals, and what role they play in the career development of early-career scientists. This paper describes the evaluation conducted by Abt Associates to examine the effects of IRFP on the scientific preparation and international research collaborations of IRFP fellows.  The evaluation findings are relevant to decisions for both NSF’s policies supporting international S&E as well as postdoctoral fellowship programs.

Evaluating this merit-based program posed challenges related to identifying a comparison group that would represent the appropriate counter-factual. To control for self-selection, or the inclination to engage in research overseas and collaborations with investigators in foreign locations, the evaluation used as its primary source of comparison the unfunded applicants to IRFP. To reduce the risks associated with selection bias, the study incorporated propensity score analysis to construct groups of awardees and non-awardees that were statistically similar across a number of pre-existing characteristics, and applicants’ qualifications and experiences before award decisions. We applied PSM to estimate the impacts of program participation on subsequent international engagement and professional outcomes.  A secondary set of comparative analyses between IRFP applicants (and fellows) to a nationally representative sample of S&E doctorates from the Survey of Doctoral Recipients (SDR) was used to situate the outcomes of IRFP program participants and applicants within the national S&E context. The evaluation also used descriptive analyses to explore the motivations and experiences of IRFP fellows and their foreign hosts.

The evaluation is now complete and offers a basis for decision-making. The evaluation found evidence that the IRFP program is meeting its goals, which are to: introduce early career scientists and engineers to opportunities for international research collaboration; build research capacity and global perspective of participants; and forge long-term relationships between U.S. and foreign S&E researchers.  Specifically, statistically significant differences were found in the number of international postdoctoral fellowships held, the number of publications with a foreign co-author and the percentage of publications with a foreign co-author. Importantly, this international focus did not come at the expense of research productivity or professional advancement. Fellows and their peers were equally likely to hold multiple postdoctoral appointments, and were equally productive researchers, equally likely to hold a faculty rank of assistant, associate, or full professor, and equally likely to be tenured.

Full Paper: