Science - USA (2021-07-16)

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SCIENCE 16 JULY 2021 • VOL 373 ISSUE 6552 267




he National Science Foundation’s
(NSF’s) well-regarded system for
awarding research grants has re-
sulted in a staggering geographic
imbalance. The top five states—
California, Massachusetts, New York,
Texas, and Maryland—garner nearly 40%
of the total grant funding from the agency,
whereas the bottom five—Vermont, West
Virginia, North and South Dakota, and
Wyoming—together receive less than 1%.
Now, a battle is brewing in Congress over
how to fix that problem without tarnish-
ing NSF’s reputation for excellence.
Last month, the U.S. Senate ap-
proved legislation that would re-
quire NSF to spend 20% of its
budget on the Established Program
to Stimulate Competitive Research
(EPSCoR), which steers funding to
the 28 jurisdictions—25 states and
three territories (see map, right)—
that fare worst in NSF’s grants com-
petition. That would make EPSCoR
NSF’s largest initiative, with an an-
nual budget of roughly $2 billion,
up from $200 million now.
The idea delights some research
advocates. “Your ZIP code shouldn’t
determine your access to a high-
quality research experience,” says
Jessica Molesworth, who leads an
advocacy coalition representing
EPSCoR jurisdictions. “Devoting
20% of NSF funding [to EPSCoR] is
an appropriate target for address-
ing the glaring disparity ... between the
haves and have-nots,” adds David Shaw,
provost at Mississippi State University and
a coalition board member.
But others are wary of dramatically ex-
panding EPSCoR, fearing its growth could
distort the rest of NSF’s research portfo-
lio. They favor a bill the House of Repre-
sentatives passed last month. Instead of
expanding EPSCoR, it would authorize
$250 million a year for two new competi-
tive programs. One would build research
capacity at any institution outside the top
100 recipients of federal research dollars;
the other would support colleges and uni-
versities that educate large numbers of mi-
nority students. Neither program would be
limited to institutions in EPSCoR states.

“The House bill emphasizes inclusion
and outreach, while the Senate is very pre-
scriptive,” says Neal Lane, a former NSF
director and emeritus professor at Rice Uni-
versity. “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.”
At the urging of Congress, NSF launched
EPSCoR in 1979 with $1 million spread
across seven states at the bottom of the
funding ladder. The current rules al-
low institutions in any state or territory
that receives less than 0.75% of NSF’s re-

search budget to compete for an array of
EPSCoR programs. The hope is that such
capacity building will eventually pay off by
making those institutions more competi-
tive in NSF’s regular initiatives—perhaps
even allowing a state to “graduate” from
EPSCoR. But that’s tough given NSF’s over-
all one-in-four success rate for proposals.
The agency acknowledged that reality a few
years ago by changing the “E” in the pro-
gram’s name from “experimental” to “estab-
lished.” Six other federal agencies operate
programs similar to EPSCoR; the largest is
the $397-million-a-year Institutional Devel-
opment Award (IDeA) program that the Na-
tional Institutes of Health launched in 1993.
The Senate’s push to expand EPSCoR
at NSF is led by Mississippi Senator Roger

Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate’s
science panel and its former chair. The plan
is tucked into the 2400-page U.S. Innovation
and Competition Act (S. 1260), which calls
for more than doubling NSF’s budget over
5 years, to $21.3 billion in 2026, and estab-
lishing a new NSF technology directorate.
EPSCoR’s budget would grow to $4.3 bil-
lion by 2026. The bill would also expand a
$25 million EPSCoR program at the De-
partment of Energy by giving it 20% of an
additional $17 billion in research funds the
bill authorizes over 5 years.
Such growth would help have-not insti-
tutions compete more effectively and serve
NSF’s goal of improving equity in sci-
ence, EPSCoR advocates say. For ex-
ample, the 28 EPSCoR jurisdictions
are home to 45% of the nation’s his-
torically Black colleges, Molesworth
notes. “Talent is everywhere. ... But
we lose many of our most talented stu-
dents to universities in non-EPSCoR
states,” says Prakash Nagarkatti, vice
president for research at the Univer-
sity of South Carolina and chair of the
EPSCoR/IDeA coalition.
The House bill (H.R. 2225) of-
fers a different vision. The two new
programs it prescribes would give
NSF “more tools in its toolkit” to
improve the geographic diversity
of its funding, says a Democratic
staff member of the House science
committee, which crafted the leg-
islation. Instead of using political
boundaries to define have-not in-
stitutions, the programs would be
open to any school that lacks the capacity to
compete successfully for NSF dollars.
Lane favors the House’s approach. “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 bet-
ter shot at getting it right.”
House and Senate lawmakers are ex-
pected to debate their different approaches
to EPSCoR in coming months, as they at-
tempt to finalize a much larger bill aimed
at improving U.S. competitiveness. In
the meantime, NSF has begun to solicit
ideas for improving EPSCoR—an exercise
launched before the House and Senate
passed their bills. j

By Jeffrey Mervis


Senate bill gives ‘have-not’ states a big boost

Congress wrestles with how to increase geographic diversity in NSF funding


EPSCoR-eligible jurisdictions


A helping hand
One-half of U.S. states and three territories are eligible for the
National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate
Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

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