Sloan Research Fellowships is by far the oldest program of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, although those who receive the grants are among the youngest researchers the Foundation assists. The Fellowship program has grown in size and cost over the years and now includes several disciplines not covered in the beginning; its purpose – to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise - remains the same.
The Sloan Research Fellowships were established in 1955 to provide support and recognition to scientists, often in their first appointments to university faculties, who were endeavoring to set up laboratories and establish their independent research projects with little or no outside support. Financial assistance at this crucial point, even in modest amounts, often pays handsome dividends later to society. Originally called the Program for Basic Research in the Physical Sciences, the Fellowships were first announced in 1955 with the award of monies totaling $235,000 to 22 physicists, chemists and pure mathematicians at 16 universities and colleges.
Over the first 17 years of the program, Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Additional fields were added in subsequent years: neuroscience in 1972, economics in 1980, computer science in 1993, computational and evolutionary molecular biology in 2002, and ocean sciences in 2012. The Foundation currently awards 126 Sloan Research Fellowships each year, bringing total grants in the program to $5.9 million annually. Since the beginning of the program, the Foundation has spent nearly $119 million for support of over 4,200 early-career researchers. Under present operating procedures the total number of Fellowships is allocated as follows: 23 for physics, 23 for chemistry, 20 for mathematics, 16 for neuroscience, 16 for computer science, 8 for economics, and 12 for computational and evolutionary molecular biology and 8 for ocean sciences.
Selection procedures for the Sloan Research Fellowships are designed to identify those who show the most outstanding promise of making fundamental contributions to new knowledge. Sloan Research Fellows, once chosen, are free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry are of the most compelling interest to them. Their Sloan funds can be applied to a wide variety of uses for which other, more restricted funds such as research project grants cannot usually be employed. Former Fellows report that this flexibility often gives the Fellowships a value well beyond their dollar amounts.
Aside from the monetary aspect of the Fellowships, less tangible benefits have been cited by former Fellows. The early recognition of distinguished performance which the Fellowships confer, after years of arduous preparation, was said to be immensely encouraging and a stimulus to personal and career development. Thirty-nine Sloan Research Fellows have won Nobel Prizes later in their careers, and hundreds have received other honors.