US military failing to shift funding to minority universities

Pentagon fell short on promises to help HBCUs compete for research grants, though institutions see new motivation from foreign tensions

May 6, 2022
A black scientist
Source: iStock

The US Department of Defense has long failed in promises to boost research spending at the nation’s minority-serving universities, creating a growing liability as foreign talent losses mount, an expert assessment concludes.

The Pentagon has been pursuing the goal for at least a decade, yet may be another decade away from giving minority-serving campuses a relatively even playing field in its grant competitions, according to the review by academic and military specialists assembled by the National Academies of Sciences.

US universities where racial minorities account for most of the student body received only 0.4 per cent of the $2.6 billion (£2.1 billion) the Pentagon spent on basic research in fiscal year 2020 – about half the amount that such institutions receive elsewhere in the federal government, the analysis finds.

The problem is especially acute at predominantly black institutions, which are receiving substantially less Pentagon funding than Hispanic-serving institutions, the panel notes.

The results of the two-year National Academies study process come as US universities suffer a steady weakening in their enrolments of foreign students, with sharp Covid-related losses compounding domestic political antagonisms and improving overseas alternatives.

While foreign student enrolment in the US has dropped below 1 million, minority-serving institutions educate about 5 million students, including nearly 30 per cent of all US undergraduates.

The defense department’s deficiencies in tapping that opportunity are so great, said one member of the National Academies effort, Richard Murray, a professor of control and dynamical systems and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, that it’s not even possible to say if the necessary solutions are most likely to be found within the Pentagon or on the university campuses.

“This is where it was a little bit frustrating,” Professor Murray said, “because we couldn’t find enough data to answer that question.”

Ideally, he said, the Pentagon would have long ago begun exploring such challenges as what minority-serving institutions have research expertise that could be cultivated in specific areas of military value, and whether minority faculty are regularly losing grant competitions or just feel unable to apply.

Universities serving black students are nevertheless optimistic that circumstances could improve soon, said Willie May, vice-president for research and economic development at Morgan State University, a leader among historically black institutions in seeking a greater research profile.

The Pentagon just in the past year has shown more interest in Morgan State, and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are not expecting to see that continue “for only social justice reasons”, Dr May said. Instead, military leaders can see the worsening prospects for a strategy of relying heavily on foreign scientific talent and are likely seeking greater ties to minority-serving institutions “for the competitiveness of the United States of America”, he said.

That fits with Morgan State’s message, said Professor May, a professor of chemistry who spent most of his career in the federal government, including a term as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Another Morgan State leader, former dean of engineering Eugene DeLoatch, served as chair of the National Academies panel; and the university’s current president, David Wilson, has been organising a campaign to get at least a few HBCUs ranked among the 130-plus universities rated as R1, meaning they rank in the top tier of research activity. None currently are.

Morgan State’s approach, Professor May said, includes identifying which faculty want to concentrate on teaching and which want an emphasis on research, and adjusting their roles accordingly. When he arrived at the university four years ago, he said, faculty too often were expected to do both.

“They were teaching four courses each semester,” he said, “and we were asking them to engage in an ambitious research programme.”

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