After more than 60 years of sending American scholars overseas, the U.S. State Department's Fulbright International Educational Exchange Program is getting a tune-up. To better accommodate the workloads of today's scholars and respond to changes in how research is conducted, the department is experimenting with new types of awards.
The program sends some 1,100 academics outside the United States annually to teach, do research, or serve as advisers to faculty and officials at foreign universities. They are a small but significant portion of the 8,000 Fulbright awards each year, which also support international exchanges of students, artists, elementary and secondary schoolteachers, and other professionals.
Traditionally, Fulbright has sent American scholars abroad for a semester or an academic year. The majority of the grants will continue to do that, but the department is looking at new approaches, says Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs in the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
"We're constantly having to look at our program and the various options within it," she says. "We ask ourselves: Is this feasible for an academic on an American college campus these days, whether they're an adjunct, a postdoc, or a tenured faculty member?"
A few years ago, the department began the Fulbright Specialist Program, which sends academics for two to six weeks to provide assistance on curriculum development or other educational projects at foreign institutions.
The department is also starting to offer a small number of "serial grants." They allow a scholar to travel between home and abroad several times for short stints over three years. When the international-exchange program started in the 1940s, such an approach would not have worked, says Ms. Curtis, but now, with online tools like Skype, a Fulbright winner can stay in touch with overseas partners while at home. "While you aren't physically there, you can continue to be in very close contact," she says.
While both newer programs lack the cultural immersion of the traditional program, they give more options to scholars, who face ever-increasing demands on their personal and professional lives, says Ms. Curtis.
She also hopes the new flexibility appeals to colleges and universities, where some deans and department leaders frown on giving a professor an extended leave of absence, even for an award as prestigious as the Fulbright.
"That's the direction we're moving in: to make it more feasible for your typical academic and frankly also to make it more appealing for U.S. universities to endorse their faculty to go."
The department also wants to respond to changes in how research is conducted. In the future, it may provide awards to international teams of scientists to facilitate travel among their countries, a shift meant to appeal in part to engineers and others in the STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, fields. "We'd love to bring together cohorts so folks from the U.S. and, say, India, China, and Thailand, would be working together on a team," says Ms. Curtis.
In addition, Fulbright may allow an individual researcher to travel to multiple countries within a region. That option should be attractive to social scientists, whose research topics often cross borders, says Ms. Curtis.
Ezekiel J. Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the university's department of medical ethics and health policy, applauds the department's idea of supporting cohorts of researchers and other efforts but would like Fulbright organizers to go further.
Dr. Emanuel, who was asked recently by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board to review the scholar program, turned down a Fulbright award in the early 1990s to study euthanasia in the Netherlands because he didn't want to uproot his family.
He urges Fulbright to abandon its "rigid" formats and to allow scholars, especially senior-level ones, to propose travel agendas that would best suit their personal lives and their work.
"The logic should be: Let's invest in people and trust them," he says.