Researchers criticize Senate plan to steer more NSF funding to ‘have not’ states | Science

Top research universities in just a handful of U.S. states conduct the majority of research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), while institutions in half the country receive only crumbs.

The U.S. Senate wants NSF to correct that longstanding geographic imbalance. But its solution—to immediately allocate 20% of NSF’s budget to what is currently a small program serving those have-not states—is drawing fierce opposition from many universities and nearly 100 members of Congress.

“Arbitrarily walling off a sizable percentage of a science agency’s budget from a sizable majority of the country’s research institutions would fundamentally reduce the entire nation’s scientific capacity,” 18 senators and 78 members of the House of Representatives warned in a letter opposing the Senate plan that was released last week. NSF would be forced to shrink existing programs, they say, a move that would hurt many less research-intensive institutions located outside of have-not states. There are better ways to address the current geographic imbalance, they add.

The issue is coming to a head this month, as House and Senate lawmakers try to reach agreement on a massive bill aimed at bolstering U.S. competitiveness with China in research and high-tech manufacturing. Both the Senate and House have approved versions of the legislation that would authorize (but not require) Congress to more than double NSF’s budget. And both bills create a new NSF technology directorate aimed at translating basic research into high-tech products.

But the bills, which Democratic leaders hope to reconcile by the end of the month, differ when it comes to how NSF should address geographic imbalance. The Senate’s version, a nearly 2500-page package called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), mandates a 10-fold budget increase for the NSF program that steers funding to have-not states called EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). The similarly mammoth House version, called the America COMPETES Act, would create new competitive NSF programs targeting poorly funded institutions in any state.

NSF’s funding has been skewed toward a handful of states since it opened for business in 1950. Legislators representing rural areas have long complained that the agency was ignoring their states, and in 1979 NSF created EPSCoR to address their concerns.

Some 25 states as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands now receive EPSCoR funding. It’s used to seed academic research as well as to help colleges and universities in those states build the research infrastructure their faculty will need to win an NSF grant.

EPSCoR’s budget, which has grown significantly in recent years, is now $215 million. But the program has not reshaped the geography of NSF’s spending. In 2020, just five states—California, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Maryland—received nearly 40% of NSF’s research dollars, whereas the bottom five—Vermont, West Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—together got less than 1%. That list of winners and losers has changed little over the years.

The Senate wants to dramatically boost geographic diversity by pumping money into EPSCoR. If the 20% mandate were in place now, for example, EPSCoR’s budget would burgeon to about $1.75 billion.

Proponents of the Senate plan, most of whom represent EPSCoR states, say it will result in a better use of NSF dollars. “If the United States is going to stay a step ahead of China, we need to promote the scientific talent, expertise, and capabilities found through America, not just in a handful of states and universities,” says Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the leading Senate advocate for the EPSCoR set-aside. He’s also the top Republican among the 26 senators serving on the conference committee that is negotiating a final agreement with House lawmakers.

Last fall, Wicker spearheaded a letter signed by 33 Senate colleagues and 26 House members, all from EPSCoR states, that argues for keeping the Senate language in the final bill. “The Senate language,” Wicker says, will “ensure that institutions and researchers across the country receive a fair share of federal R&D funding.”

The signers included Senator Jean Shaheen (D–NH), chair of the Senate spending panel that oversees NSF. At a 3 May hearing on NSF’s 2023 budget request, Shaheen said she is counting on her Senate colleagues “to hold tight to that 20% requirement” for EPSCoR in their negotiations with the House.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA), co-chair of the conference committee and chair of the Senate commerce committee that oversees NSF, says the current geographic imbalance “is something that we have to address.” Although she has not taken a position on the set-aside, and Washington is not an EPSCoR state, she praised Wicker’s “passion for spending federal research dollars in areas defined by EPSCoR” at the conference committee’s first meeting on 12 May.

Opponents of the Senate provision took longer to get organized. In a 2 April letter to congressional negotiators, more than 200 universities in non-EPSCoR states urged them to jettison the Senate language, which would also funnel one-fifth of any additional research funds given to the Department of Energy over the next 5 years to its tiny EPSCoR program. “We agree that it is imperative to broaden the participation of federally funded researchers and students, regardless of geographic location,” they wrote. “But a solution that sets aside resources for only EPSCoR eligible states would not effectively address this concern… and would significantly constrain the funding available to underrepresented or emerging institutions in the 25 non-EPSCoR states.”

Last week’s letter from the 96 lawmakers echoed those concerns. The 20% set-aside, they wrote, “would leave behind emerging research institutions in non-EPSCoR states,” and “is contrary to the goals of both USICA and the COMPETES Act.”

The Senate language would go into effect immediately once the final bill is enacted—which could happen before Congress approves NSF’s next budget. If that occurs, they say, NSF would be required to meet the 20% threshold by redirecting existing funds. In essence, one NSF watcher says, the requirement would become “an unfunded mandate. … [Members] are not thinking about where the money will come from.”

One possible compromise, those who object to the Senate language say, would be to link any increase in EPSCoR to new funding NSF receives from Congress. So, for example, if Congress gave NSF a $1 billion increase, EPSCoR might receive 20% of that new money—but not 20% of the agency’s entire budget.

“The math looks a lot better if you tie any floor [funding level] for EPSCoR to an increase in appropriations,” says an aide to Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX). Johnson chairs the House science committee and is leading the 81-member House delegation negotiating the final bill.

Wicker, however, has said the 20% set-aside is non-negotiable—even if NSF’s budget doesn’t rise. “My support for this legislation is dependent on these provisions remaining in the bill,” he wrote in a press release accompanying last fall’s letter.

Opponents of the Senate language prefer the House COMPETES bill, which applauds EPSCoR for “supporting innovative methods for improving research capacity and competitiveness” but contains no specific set-aside for the program. Instead, it would create several NSF programs aimed at fostering greater geographic diversity in research, including one allowing less research-intensive colleges and universities to build their capacity to win federal grants and another to bolster science education in rural areas.

COMPETES would also authorize NSF to create a $150-million-a-year program open to any institution not in the top 100 recipients of federal research funds. The money would be awarded competitively for research and instrumentation, faculty recruitment, undergraduate and graduate student stipends, and “other activities necessary to build research capacity.” Another provision calls for a competitive pilot program that would fund joint projects between a research powerhouse and an “emerging research institution”—defined as one with less than $35 million annually in federally funded research.

Such programs would do a better job of addressing the twin goals of reducing geographic imbalance and boosting less-research intensive institutions in all states, according to the House staffer. “Many large states that are not EPSCoR states are also quite diverse in terms of the type of institution… the mix between urban and rural, and so on,” the staffer notes. “So while the driver for our bill is institutional diversity, it would also achieve greater geographic diversity.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the Senate has the upper hand in the current negotiations because Democrats will need to retain a majority of the 19 Republicans who supported USICA to avoid a Senate filibuster that would kill the bill. (There’s no such filibuster rule in the House, which passed the COMPETES Act on a straight party-line vote.) President Joe Biden has called the bill one of his top priorities—and has even dubbed it the Bipartisan Innovation Act in hopes of winning enough Republican votes to ensure passage.

One uncertainty is whether some Senate Republicans who voted for USICA may now be looking for ways to reduce its $250 billion in authorized spending levels, which include big promised boosts for science at the Department of Energy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Republicans in both chambers are also pushing conferees to adopt stricter measures to prevent economic espionage by the Chinese government.

With so much to like in the bills, science advocates want to see the legislation cross the finish line. But they also hope the final version doesn’t undermine how NSF funds research.

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