US lawmakers back more research funding but want it spread wider

Senators warm to massive federal funding hike, but with greater share for non-elite institutions

April 19, 2021
Source: iStock

US lawmakers are signalling openness to bipartisan efforts to dramatically boost federal funding for academic research, but with an expectation that the money will go well beyond the universities that typically receive it.

During a series of congressional hearings on plans to increase major federal research budgets to at least twice current levels, legislators repeatedly warned against letting large numbers of states feel short-changed.

Cynthia Lummis, a Republican senator from Wyoming, cited data showing that seven states received half of all National Science Foundation grant awards in 2018, while 10 other states got only 3 per cent of NSF money.

Such inequity had persisted for decades, said Roger Wicker, a Republican senator from Mississippi. “Competing with China means leveraging the talent, expertise and capabilities found across our entire nation,” he said.

The forums offered an early gauge of sentiment for several sweeping proposals for massive increases in US investment in academic science after years of Trump administration resistance.

One major initiative, backed by the leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, and a bipartisan group of allies in both chambers of Congress, would add $20 billion (£14.5 billion) a year to the NSF’s current budget of about $8.5 billion, for added basic research and commercial development of research findings.

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is pushing a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $250 billion over 10 years in new federal research and development spending, with $5 billion a year for the NSF. Yet another plan, from the top Republican on the House science committee, would double federal spending on basic research.

The concerns about equity in the geographic distribution of such investments are long-standing. Similar complaints led Congress in 1979 to create the Experimental Programme to Stimulate Competitive Research (Epscor), which sets aside a share of federal research money for universities in states that win relatively few grants on scientific merit.

But in more than three decades, Epscor has struggled to make a meaningful dent in the pattern of top-tier research universities in a few states winning the bulk of the grant awards.

Nevertheless, one major benefit has emerged in the area of student training, said Norine Noonan, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of South Florida. While the added money from Epscor is not enough to spark major shifts in institutional rankings, it does play a key role in giving universities enough projects to train their most talented research scientists who may pursue careers at more prominent institutions elsewhere.

For that reason alone, she said, the demands by lawmakers for greater equity in any major expansion of the federal government’s research investment look worthwhile, even if those lawmakers likely will remain disappointed by the persistently low competitive positioning of their own local universities.

“The human capital outcomes are really what we ought to be focusing on,” Professor Noonan said.

The equity question may get more complicated, however, in the realm of racial divisions. The heads of several historically black US universities have in recent months been demanding that the federal government begin funding at least some of them to the level of major research institutions.

Their advocates now include Raphael Warnock, whose run-off election win in January alongside fellow Georgian Jon Ossoff gave Democrats control of the Senate.

Revd Warnock highlighted an NSF report showing that 30 universities – none of them minority-serving – accounted for 42 per cent of all research and development spending across US higher education.

“Historically,” he acknowledged, “such funding has disproportionately accrued at a small handful of large universities with very large endowments.”

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