Officials don’t prioritize social science research, students say

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Sarah Espinel, a junior majoring in psychology, is one of more than 10 social science researchers who said in interviews that officials often grant more funds and resources to science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors than social science students.

Updated: May 14, 2018 at 11:32 p.m.

Despite increased University-wide efforts to boost GW’s research profile, students conducting research in social science fields said they often feel secondary to science researchers.

In interviews, more than 10 social science researchers said officials often grant more funds and resources to science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors than social science students. At a time when GW is working to enhance its reputation as an international research institution, students said funding disparities make them feel like the social sciences are undervalued.

Sarah Espinel, a junior majoring in psychology who completed research on the effects of sexually explicit internet materials, said resources like lab spaces are more difficult to acquire for students researching non-STEM disciplines – which makes students feel like the University favors STEM researchers.

Espinel said the $275 million officials poured into the Science and Engineering Hall – which opened in 2014 – exemplifies students’ concerns that the University doesn’t attempt to provide equal opportunities for both social science and STEM students. She said officials are trying to make STEM students feel as equally valued as political science or international affairs majors – a move that leaves other social science majors behind.

“I don’t think that type of care is put into giving social science majors opportunities like they give STEM,” Espinel said.

Research has been a top priority for the University’s last two presidents, Steven Knapp and Thomas LeBlanc. LeBlanc, who stepped into his role last summer, has repeatedly highlighted his desire to make GW a “global research university” and this academic year restored faculty research funding and changed the reporting structure for the vice president for research.

Maggie Benda, a senior and research assistant in the psychology department, said STEM research garners more attention from donors because projects about topics like cancer or protein functions sound more interesting than social science research, which generally focuses on behavioral community patterns.

“Everyone sees that research and really latches onto that, whereas social sciences – and especially with our psych department here – it’s a lot of researching trends in the population,” Benda said.

Ilana Creinin, a senior majoring in political communication who conducted research on media coverage of doctored Planned Parenthood videos, said over the past several years, the University has been honing its resources on STEM majors. Creinin said the University’s desire to cater toward STEM is apparent in actions like selecting Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, as this year’s Commencement speaker – a move that garnered student backlash.

“Given that GW is right in the heart of D.C. and has so many politically-based opportunities, I don’t think GW is making a smart move to emphasize research in other areas of study,” she said. “They are missing out on something that is unique to GW.”

Irissa Cisternino, a senior majoring in sociology and psychology who researched parent-child conversations about sexual assault, said she had trouble securing funding to travel to two conferences over the past two years and was only able to attend one with University funding – a problem she said her STEM counterparts do not face when they need equipment.

“STEM positions have expensive equipment, but when it comes to things like conference funding, I don’t think it’s justified to give more money to STEM,” she said.

Leo Chalupa, the University’s vice president for research, said “stark” disparities in funding can be attributed to unequal funding from external donors, which “tilts in favor of STEM researchers.”

He said the National Institutes of Health provides $37 billion and the National Science Foundation allocates $6.3 billion to schools nationwide, but the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities only contribute $153 million each to researchers.

But Chalupa said it is a “misperception” that the University only supports STEM research, and the Office of the Vice President for Research has “made it a policy” to equally support research in both social science and STEM fields. He said the office provided funding for a new Humanities Facilitating Fund this year, and the University Facilitating Fund – a major source of faculty research funding – will support 15 research projects in STEM and 16 research projects in social sciences and humanities in fiscal year 2019.

“We are open to constructive suggestions about putting forth an inclusive research message and providing meaningful support to student and faculty researchers across all disciplines,” he said.

Anastasia Carr, a biomedical engineering major who will spend the summer as a Clare Boothe Luce scholar – a scholarship fund for women in STEM research – said the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences advertises research opportunities to its students, but the University would benefit from emphasizing student research in all scientific disciplines to alleviate underrepresentation.

“They’re really trying to build the engineering program right now,” Carr said. “It can overshadow different fields, which is really unfortunate only because I think science as a whole needs to grow.”

Meredith Roaten and Lizzie Stricklin contributed reporting.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Irissa Cisternino had trouble securing funding for two conferences earlier this year. She actually attended one of the conferences two years ago. We regret this error.

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