Increasing equity and accessibility of research funds can help secure U.S. leadership in science

By , and April 16, 2021

Just a small group of nationally-ranked universities are awarded the majority of federal research funding. In 2018, a study found that out of more than 600 colleges and universities that received federal funding for science and engineering research, about 22 percent received over 90 percent of the funds. The equity and accessibility of these funds was the focus of this week’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing held to discuss the budget that could be allotted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fiscal year 2022. During the hearing, NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan emphasized that addressing research disparities and establishing far-reaching partnerships were priorities for the agency.

Disparities in research funding

Disparities in research funding can greatly harm the ability of students to enter scientific careers, and diminish the potential of the country’s scientific workforce overall. The institutions that received over 90 percent of federal science funding in 2018 served only 43 percent of all students in the U.S., and only 34 percent of students from underrepresented groups. So two-thirds of underrepresented minorities and almost 70 percent of Pell grant recipients (who are undergraduates with “exceptional financial needs”) have more limited access to valuable opportunities to participate in scientific research. At the same time, researchers argue that incorporating diverse perspectives and talents leads to more innovative solutions, and that not including underrepresented minorities in science will only harm the U.S.’ competitiveness.

NSF’s most well-known program to address research funding disparities is the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). This program, which is now over 40 years old, partners with institutions of higher education to stimulate sustainable improvements in research and development capacity in specific states. States (as well as U.S. territories and DC) become eligible for EPSCoR funding if they receive 0.75 percent or less of total NSF research and related activities funding over the previous three years. Studies have shown that states with EPSCoR funding increase the quality of their universities’ publications, and that they become more competitive for future federal research funding competitions. However, more research needs to be done to fully assess the program’s impact.

Expanded access to research funding a priority for the Biden Administration

The Biden Administration has emphasized the importance of addressing research funding accessibility in the FY 2022 skinny budget request, which highlights the President’s top spending priorities for the next year in advance of the release of the full request for each agency. Specifically, President Biden is requesting $100 million for programs that “aim to increase participation in science and engineering of individuals from racial and ethnic groups, who are traditionally underrepresented in these fields.” This funding is intended to support increasing science and engineering research and education capacity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), as well as research on recruitment and retention methods, mentorship programs, and curriculum development. Studies by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have determined that this type of funding is critical to ensure the success of underrepresented minority students.

Director Panchanathan’s priorities for NSF

During the hearing, Director Panchanathan echoed (46:05) that more needs to be done to tap into the U.S.’ potential scientific talent. His two main priorities for NSF are to increase access to scientific research through regional innovation accelerators and to strengthen partnerships with other agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and its national laboratories. The regional accelerators would rely on an expanded EPSCoR program, as well as support from other NSF directorates. NSF is also working to expand artificial intelligence (AI) research to every state to tap into as much talent as possible. Last year, NSF distributed grants to develop seven AI institutes which have operations in 20 different states. Director Panchanathan hopes (46:45) to expand this further in the coming years. This idea of widely-distributed hubs aligns with a new proposal from FAS’ Day One Project that suggests a path forward for the creation of innovation ecosystems that would launch new startup ideas and cultivate the next generation of research and development talent.

Regarding strengthening partnerships with DOE, NSF collaborates with the agency on a variety of programs, including the development of new algorithms to bolster the security and efficiency of modern power grids, the creation of collaborative robots to assist humans with a variety of tasks, and the advancement of basic plasma research and education. NSF historically focuses on basic research, while DOE, and its national labs in particular, drive the commercialization of new technologies. Director Panchanathan aims (1:22:06) to further develop relationships with the agency to more closely connect NSF’s basic research strengths with DOE’s expertise in technology transfer and ensuring cutting-edge research and technologies are commercialized in the U.S., instead of by other countries. By fostering closer cooperation between NSF and the other federal science agencies, the U.S. will be able to better compete with countries, such as China, that aim to supplant the U.S. as world leader in critical technology and science fields.

The future of research and development in the U.S.

Both the Biden Administration and Congress would like to accelerate science and engineering education and research to boost the U.S.’ domestic growth and global competitiveness. In the formulation of the FY 2022 federal budget for science funding, there will be more discussions on Capitol Hill about how to bolster the country’s expertise in high-priority fields such as AI, climate science, quantum computing, clean energy, and biotechnology, and harmonize the approaches of the executive and legislative branches. We encourage the CSPI community to get involved in future CSPI calls to action, and serve as a scientific resource for policymakers.