A battle is brewing in the U.S. Congress over a little-known program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that provides money to states that fare poorly in the agency’s funding competitions.
Last month the Senate approved legislation that would devote 20% of NSF’s overall budget to the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which serves 25 states and the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If enacted, it would immediately boost EPSCoR’s spending 10-fold, to some $2 billion per year. But many research advocates are wary of expanding EPSCoR so dramatically. They favor a bill passed last month by the House of Representatives that proposes a different way to increase the geographic diversity of NSF’s funding.
Both bills seek to address a long-standing issue for NSF, which awards its research dollars on a competitive basis. Although that process is seen as an excellent way to choose the best proposals, it has led to a staggering geographic imbalance. The top five states—California, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Maryland—garner nearly 40% of the total, whereas the bottom five—Vermont, West Virginia, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming—together receive less than 1%.
That distribution results in serious inequities across the U.S. research enterprise, say advocates for the Senate’s plan, which is part of a massive bill aimed at using research to help the country compete against China. “Your ZIP code shouldn’t determine your access to a high-quality research experience,” says Jessica Molesworth, who leads a coalition representing the 28 EPSCoR jurisdictions. “I think that devoting 20% of NSF funding [to EPSCoR] is an appropriate target for addressing the glaring disparity in federal research funding between the haves and have-nots,” adds David Shaw, provost at Mississippi State University and a coalition board member.
But many science groups are alarmed at the prospect of dramatically remaking the 40-year-old program in the name of improving geographic diversity. They prefer an approach the House approved on 28 June as part of a 5-year reauthorization of NSF programs.
The House bill (H.R. 2225) calls on NSF to spend $250 million per year on two new competitive programs, one to build research capacity at any institution outside the top 100 recipients of federal research dollars and a second to support schools that educate large numbers of minority students. Those initiatives would dovetail with the goals of EPSCoR, backers say, but would not be limited to institutions in EPSCoR states. (The program “is in the federal interest and should be sustained,” according to the House bill, which is silent on any specific funding level.)
“The House bill emphasizes inclusion and outreach, while the Senate is very prescriptive,” says Neal Lane, a former NSF director and emeritus professor at Rice University. “I’m worried that if you move too fast, you can break things that are working. I’d rather see Congress tell NSF it wants to see more geographical diversity, and then let NSF figure out how to get there.”
EPSCoR is not NSF’s first attempt at capacity building. In the 1960s, the agency ran a large academic infrastructure program that helped Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, San Diego, among others, become national research powerhouses. But most institutions in what are now EPSCoR states “missed the boat and got left behind,” says Joe Danek, president of the Implementation Group, the consulting arm of Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, and a former EPSCoR program manager at NSF.
Prodded by Congress, NSF launched EPSCoR in 1979 with $1 million in planning grants to seven states receiving the least amount of agency funding. Although many scientists don’t know EPSCoR exists, the program is very popular among legislators from eligible states. (Danek notes that one of its founding fathers, former Arkansas Democratic Representative Ray Thornton, was so proud of his role that for decades his license plate read “EPSCoR.”) Six federal agencies now operate similar versions; the largest is the $397-million-a-year Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program the National Institutes of Health launched in 1993.
At NSF, states that receive less than 0.75% of the agency’s overall research spending are eligible to compete for EPSCoR funds. But given the stiff competition within NSF’s regular programs—only one in four grant proposals is funded, although an additional 10% are deemed meritorious—it is rare for a state to raise its success rate sufficiently to “graduate” from EPSCoR. A few years ago, NSF acknowledged the reality that EPSCoR states will need additional support for the foreseeable future by changing the “E” in the program’s name from “experimental” to “established.”
The Senate’s push to massively expand EPSCoR at NSF is being led by Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, the top Republican and former chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The plan is tucked into the 2400-page U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260) the Senate passed on 8 June, 68 to 32. It calls for more than doubling NSF’s budget over 5 years, to $21.3 billion in 2026. And it would create a technology directorate to accelerate the commercialization of NSF-funded research in 10 areas deemed essential for keeping up with China and other nations.
In two short paragraphs, the bill would make EPSCoR the biggest single program at NSF, requiring it to receive 20% of the agency’s overall budget each year and 20% of the budget of the new technology directorate. That means EPSCoR’s budget would balloon to $2.16 billion in 2022, should Congress provide NSF with the $10.8 billion authorized in the bill, and reach a staggering $4.3 billion by 2026.
The bill contains a similar mushrooming of the tiny EPSCoR program at the Department of Energy. It would require the agency to spend 20% of the $17 billion authorized by the bill for research over the next 5 years on what is now a $25 million-a-year program nestled within the department’s Office of Science.
“Talent is everywhere”
EPSCoR’s advocates argue such growth could help solve several problems. One limitation in the current program, they argue, is that EPSCoR grants are rarely large enough to enable have-not institutions to effectively compete against those boasting billion-dollar research programs.
The core EPSCoR program at NSF currently makes 5-year, $20 million awards to states to develop the infrastructure—including faculty, facilities, and students as well as off-campus partnerships with industry—that can help faculty members win regular NSF grants. “But that’s not really enough money to move the needle,” Molesworth says. A larger EPSCoR budget might allow states to receive more than one such award, she notes, giving them the ability to acquire a critical mass in several cutting-edge fields.
A more robust EPSCoR would also serve NSF’s goal of improving equity in science, backers of the Senate bill argue. The 28 EPSCoR jurisdictions represent less than 20% of the U.S. population but are home to 45% of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, Molesworth says. A 2014 study found that 51% of college freshmen attend schools within 80 kilometers of their permanent residence, she adds, pointing to the need for world-class research to be available to every community.
“Talent is everywhere,” says Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, an EPSCoR state, and chair of the EPSCoR/IDeA council. “But we lose many of our most talented students to universities in non-EPSCoR states, and they don’t come back because we don’t have enough good jobs to offer them. My goal is to be able to say to a student: ‘If you stay in South Carolina, you’ll have a wonderful research experience and the chance to start a company.’”
Shaw, who in 2019 testified at a Senate commerce committee hearing on how research fosters economic development, says he has made similar arguments to Wicker’s staff. “I suggested that as much as 20% of NSF funding would be an appropriate target, given the magnitude of equity differences between states,” he says. “His understanding and appreciation of the role rural institutions play in scientific advancement and commercialization has been invaluable to the process.”
Arden Bement, a former NSF director and emeritus professor at Purdue University, doesn’t object to the Senate’s mandated spending level. But he thinks it should be used primarily for attracting graduate students and postdocs, that unsung but essential segment of the overall scientific workforce. “If you do that,” he says, “I don’t think a $2 billion budget is too much for EPSCoR to spend.”
“Getting it right”
House lawmakers have a different vision for NSF. The new programs in the House bill would give NSF “more tools in its toolkit” to improve geographic diversity, says a Democratic staff member for the House science committee, which crafted the legislation. Instead of using state boundaries to define “have-not” institutions, the new programs target any school that lacks the capacity to compete successfully for NSF dollars.
One program, authorized at $150 million annually for 5 years, would fund new research centers at these second-tier institutions that build on their existing strengths in a particular field and address a pressing problem facing their communities. Schools could get up to $10 million a year. The second program, authorized at $100 million annually, targets schools serving large minority populations that receive relatively little (less than $50 million annually) in federal research dollars. Those schools could compete for grants of $1 million or so to help faculty members improve their grantmaking skills, learn to be entrepreneurs, and develop ties with local industries. All those elements are within easy reach of faculty at research-intensive universities, say House lawmakers, but are much harder to access for professors at smaller institutions and with heavy teaching loads.
Lane believes the House approach is more likely to yield the desired results. “As a former NSF director, I don’t like the idea of fencing off money,” he says. “It can cause the agency to miss other opportunities. But even more importantly, Congress doesn’t know how to do this. NSF has a much better shot at getting it right.”
However, Bement thinks the House approach is also too prescriptive. “I’m totally against program engineering at the congressional level,” he says. “I understand the temptation, but that’s the prerogative of the executive branch,” which includes NSF.
House and Senate lawmakers are expected to have an opportunity to discuss their differences over EPSCoR later this year, as they attempt to cobble together a final bill that can garner support from both bodies and President Joe Biden. In the meantime, NSF is assembling a committee that will spend the next several months soliciting the community’s ideas for improving EPSCoR.
“The spirit of EPSCoR is something I strongly support,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan told ScienceInsider. But he declined to weigh in on the appropriate funding level for EPSCoR. “It is trying to make it possible for ideas and talent everywhere to contribute to our national economy and to regional prosperity. So we are going to be looking at better ways to do that.”
However, many EPSCoR advocates say they are tired of waiting for the agency to correct the problem. “What NSF has been doing hasn’t worked,” Shaw says. “And I’m not just talking about the concentration of funding in a few states. I’m also thinking about all the students, in Mississippi and in other EPSCoR states, who are losing out.”
“If there are other ways to help them, I’m open to that,” Shaw adds. “But if not, I think a [funding] carve-out is necessary.”