The only physicist in Congress has introduced a bill (H.R. 3763) that could rekindle a debate over how to deal with geographic disparities in the allocation of federal research funding.
Last month, Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) proposed changing the formula that the National Science Foundation (NSF) uses for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). It’s the flagship program for a half-billion-dollar-a-year federal effort to help states and U.S. territories whose scientists receive relatively little federal support.
The long-running EPSCoR programs—four other major nondefense research agencies have their own versions—set aside money for which researchers in “have not” states can compete. A state’s eligibility is based on the amount of research funding it receives. NSF, for example, deems a state eligible if it receives no more than 0.75% of the agency’s overall annual research budget (some $6 billion in 2016); other agencies have slightly different formulas (see below). Overall, roughly half the states in the nation and several U.S. territories are eligible under the various rules.
Foster, however, wants NSF to change its eligibility formula to focus on the per-capita research dollars a state receives, arguing that it would more accurately reflect a state’s relative ranking. Under Foster’s approach, a number of large states not on the current EPSCoR list—including Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Georgia—would become eligible, whereas a number of currently eligible, smaller states—including Vermont, Montana, Alaska, and Delaware—would be excluded (see maps, below).
“I’m not opposed to the idea of helping regions that are struggling to get a reasonable fraction of federal research spending,” Foster says. “But what we have now is a completely distorted allocation mechanism for defining what it means to get your fair share.”
A program spreads
NSF began EPSCoR in 1979, after legislators complained that the agency’s regular grantsmaking process favored large states on the east and west coasts. Congress liked the concept so much that by 1993 it had created EPSCoR-type programs at four other agencies—NASA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
NIH’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program is by far the largest in dollar amount: At $320 million, it’s twice the size of NSF's EPSCoR. USDA spends $56 million on its program, and NASA and DOE invest roughly one-third of that amount.
The number of participating states varies slightly by agency and can fluctuate over time. NASA and DOE follow NSF’s rules, meaning a state’s eligibility is based on how much NSF funding it receives.
USDA adopted its own formula, which deems eligible researchers in any state that falls below the 38th percentile of funding awarded through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The EPSCoR money is part of a 15% set-aside within AFRI, a $375 million competitive grants program, and scientists in 19 states and six territories are eligible to compete for it.
NIH also uses its own funding history to decide which states qualify for IDeA. But that formula is in flux.
NIH initially adopted two criteria—states qualified if they had an applicant success rate of less than 20% or annual funding of less than $120 million. But after success rates began plunging in the mid-2000s, NIH officials calculated that most of the country—47 states and jurisdictions—would soon be eligible. So, in 2008, NIH froze participation at the then-current lineup of 23 states and Puerto Rico. More recently, however, NIH has told lawmakers it is weighing a move toward a simpler criterion: namely, to include every state that receives less than the median amount of total NIH funding.
Pushback from critics
Supporters of EPSCoR don’t believe the current system is broken, however, and they say Foster’s approach would move the program away from its goal of leveling the playing field. Not only would it starve small states of money to improve their research capacity, they say, it would also benefit large states with little need for a helping hand from the government.
“The current roster of 25 NSF EPSCoR states and three territories together receive only one-tenth of NSF’s research budget,” says Christopher Lawson, a physicist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who also leads the state’s EPSCoR program. “The whole point of EPSCoR was to avoid such an undue geographic concentration of research resources.”
A new formula also could have a profound effect on the nation’s ability to train the next generation of scientists, he warns. “There are lots of bright students in those [current EPSCoR] states,” Lawson says, “and EPSCoR provides them with research opportunities that they otherwise might not have. For big states, EPSCoR funding would be just a drop in the bucket,” he adds. “But for small states, the money can make a huge difference.”
Broad support, but questions
EPSCoR enjoys widespread support in Congress, especially among senators. In fact, Foster blames what he calls the current “insane” eligibility standards on the fact that every state has equal representation in that body. “That leads to all sorts of bad policies, and results in a huge transfer of wealth from large states to small states,” he fumes.
But that support doesn’t mean legislators don’t have questions about EPSCoR. In 2010, Congress ordered up an evaluation of EPSCoR by the National Research Council, the operating arm of what is now the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The panel concluded in 2013 that EPSCoR has benefited the nation, but said there’s insufficient data for a rigorous assessment. But it did analyze what EPSCoR would look like using per-capita as the basis for eligibility and found that there would be a significant shift in the program’s roster of participating states.
However, the report straddles the line on whether such a change would benefit or harm the country’s research enterprise. It says current criteria “are not well suited to identify the states where the greater need and opportunity exists” and calls per-capita “a more sensible eligibility criterion than total funding.” But in the same sentence, it says “it is not recommending that this be the sole criterion.” Instead, it urges federal agencies to adopt new criteria that could include population, success rates, total funding, financial need, and a state’s commitment to research.
NSF has no plans to change the current eligibility formula, says NSF Director France Córdova in Alexandria, Virginia. “Congress loves EPSCoR and a lot of people like it the way it is,” she says. Córdova says her priority is making sure that the research funded through the EPSCoR program matches the quality of the proposals that go through NSF’s regular peer-review process.
In 2015, Foster took a more heavy-handed approach to the issue by offering an amendment to kill funding for NSF EPSCoR. It was defeated despite winning a significant amount of bipartisan support. Foster says parliamentary rules prevented him from offering to change the eligibility formula at the time, which was his real target, and that the new bill, only eight lines long, is narrowly crafted to do just that.
So far, Representative Frank Lobiondo (R–NJ) is the only legislator who’s signed onto Foster’s bill, dubbed the Smarter EPSCoR Act. It has been referred to the science committee in the House of Representatives, whose chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), hails from a state that would likely benefit from the change.
Foster doesn’t care whether Illinois would also benefit. “I’m not doing this to get something for Illinois,” he says. “It’s unlikely to be designated an EPSCoR state [given that the Academies study placed it on the bubble]. I’m doing it to get better science policy.”
EPSCoR’s supporters say it already fits that description. “It’s really hard to move your state up the list if it’s near the bottom,” says Lawrence Cornett, vice chancellor for research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and president of the EPSCoR Foundation, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “And I think most people would agree that it’s good for the country to support research in every state, not just where it’s already doing well. And that’s what EPSCoR is trying to do.”