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David Wilson of Morgan State University has advised Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) on a proposal to expand NSF programs serving historically black colleges and universities.

David Wilson of Morgan State University has advised Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) on a proposal to expand NSF programs serving historically black colleges and universities.

(Left to right): Morgan State University; Office of Senator Barbara Mikulski

U.S. Senate wants more support for science at black colleges

Senate appropriators want the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do more for faculty and students at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It’s the latest attempt by Congress to push NSF in that direction. And although NSF officials agree on the importance of helping those institutions as part of a larger effort to broaden participation in science and engineering, they don’t like being told exactly how to do it.

A 2015 spending bill now being debated by the full Senate contains three specific ways for NSF to increase its support of HBCUs, 106 institutions that range from 2-year schools to research universities. In report language accompanying the bill, the legislators declare that:

  • HBCUs should receive “no fewer than three” of the 15 awards that NSF plans to make next year under one component of its Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program that teaches faculty how to commercialize their discoveries;

  • NSF should carve out $7.5 million from existing minority activities for a program aimed at attracting students into the life sciences;

  • NSF should form a “high-level” advisory panel that will suggest ways to increase opportunities for HBCU faculty to obtain grants from the agency’s six research directorates.

“We’re not pointing a finger at NSF,” explains an aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD). “But we’ve heard from a lot of people representing the HBCU community that they could use a little help. It’s more a question of spotlighting an area that needs attention.”

Congress has tried in recent years to get NSF to expand its outreach to groups traditionally underrepresented in science, including Hispanics and women. NSF operates several such programs within its education directorate, some cofunded by one or more of the research directorates. However, the agency traditionally has resisted what it regards as overly prescriptive language and has had some success in getting legislators to modify directives that NSF sees as misdirected or duplicative of existing efforts.

For example, a 2010 law ordered NSF to create a program explicitly for Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs), a larger and more amorphous category than HBCUs. NSF officials argued that its existing programs for undergraduates would do a better job of serving the Hispanic population than a program that targets HSIs would. This year, the House of Representatives spending panel that draws up NSF’s budget signaled its willingness to go along with that argument. “The Committee accepts this approach for fiscal year 2015 with the understanding that such targeted opportunities cumulatively will constitute a $30,000,000 investment,” the House legislators wrote in a report accompanying their version of the spending bill.

But so far the Senate’s Mikulski is sticking to her guns on HSIs. The Senate bill would give NSF $5 million to carry out the terms of the 2010 law, creating “a Hispanic- Serving Institutions Program that is designed to increase the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of Hispanic students pursuing associate or baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields.”

The new provisions relating to HBCUs are the result of a successful lobbying effort by academic community leaders. Although HBCUs enroll only 9% of all African-Americans in U.S. higher education, they play an outsized role in producing the next generation of minority scientists and engineers. For example, HBCUs hold nine of the top 10 spots on a list of undergraduate institutions that African-American students attended before receiving Ph.D.s in science and engineering. At the same time, only one HBCU—Florida A&M University—ranks in the top 200 of institutions receiving NSF research funding. The agency’s “anemic track record [in making research grants to HBCUs] … must change if the Nation is to take advantage of the country’s growing diversity” in remaining an economic powerhouse, declares a report accompanying the Senate bill.

“Senator Mikulski understands the value and role of HBCUs in producing the talent that we need to produce the next generation of innovators,” says David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, one of several academic leaders that she consulted before drafting the bill. “She has four HBCUs in her state, and we have had several conversations about making strategic investments in these institutions. I’m elated that these ideas are finally making their way forward,” adds Wilson, who is also a member of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Wilson hopes the language in the bill will lay the groundwork for a broader initiative to help HBCUs compete for funding. It could, he says, resemble the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a long-running NSF program designed to help states with low research activity strengthen their capacity to compete against scientific powerhouses like Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A new initiative could be “an EPSCoR-style program for HBCUs,” Wilson says.

Indeed, the ranking Democrat on the House spending panel that funds NSF is in the process of crafting such language. Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) told ScienceInsider that “I think that is a good idea and my staff is actually working on it” as part of the Democratic bill to reauthorize NSF programs. Fattah said details would be forthcoming.

The Senate’s language on broadening I-Corps is designed to enhance recent efforts by Morgan State and other urban HBCUs to build ties with local businesses and encourage faculty to become more entrepreneurial. “We’ve started the Morgan Community Mile to attract more R&D firms and to create our own companies, and this initiative dovetails nicely with what we and other HBCUs are doing,” Wilson says. Likewise, he says, the proposed NSF advisory panel on HBCUs will allow the agency “to pick the brains of academic leaders to ensure that every NSF program considers the needs of minority institutions in increasing participation in the STEM fields.”

NSF officials have no quarrel with the intent of the legislative language. “We have a deep commitment to broadening participation,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, head of NSF’s education directorate. But the agency is still mulling over the likely impacts of the specific changes being proposed.

An existing NSF program, called HBCU-UP, serves undergraduates and has many of the same goals as what Mikulski has proposed, she notes. HBCU-UP began in 1998 as a scholarship program to attract and retain minority students in STEM fields, explains Program Manager Claudia Rankins. “But then we realized we also needed to support faculty, departments, and even entire disciplines, like the geosciences, where minorities are severely underrepresented.”

The result is a $32-million-a-year, hydra-headed program that allows institutions to address particular needs, such as revising how so-called gateway courses like calculus are taught so that poorly prepared students can master the topic rather than simply be weeded out. Successful programs appear to share such ingredients as strong academic mentoring and career counseling, summer research opportunities, and internships with local companies, they note. Although NSF hopes that other institutions facing similar challenges can learn from successful HBCU-UP projects, Ferrini-Mundy warns that “exact replication often doesn’t make sense in education.”

Ferrini-Mundy takes issue with the Senate’s assertion that the research directorates have been reluctant to support faculty at HBCU institutions. And she thinks that scientists of all stripes are slowly recognizing that the I-Corps program, which is open to anyone with an NSF grant, can be an instrument for disseminating best educational practices as well as for commercializing a scientific breakthrough.

To date, only one of roughly 140 I-Corps awards has gone to an HBCU faculty member. But Ferrini-Mundy says, “I expect that we’ll start seeing more involvement in I-Corps from the education community,” including faculty members at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.

Incremental progress is fine as long as it comes with increased recognition of the contributions that HBCUs can make, says the Senate aide. “The idea is to foster a discussion about how we can do things better,” the aide says. “So it’s more of a qualitative than a quantitative approach to improvement. Our goal is to raise awareness of what we are hearing from members about the need to address this issue.”

Once the Senate acts, its version of the spending bill for NSF and several other federal agencies will need to be reconciled with what the House has approved. That is not expected to occur until after the November elections. NSF would then have to take up the task of implementing the language regarding HBCUs and HSIs, a process that may well require additional conversations with its congressional overseers.