US mulls huge shift in research funding from excellence to equity

Despite known risk, politicians from states with weak science records push dramatic expansion of affirmative-action-style set-asides for federal dollars

June 22, 2022
Astronaut Sitting on a Subway to illustrate US mulls huge shift in research funding from excellence to equity
Source: Alamy

The US Congress is taking a serious look at substantial new subsidies for research universities in less-productive states, pushing a political and populist appeal in the face of persistent warnings that it has generally proven a wasted investment.

The idea has long existed in the form of a niche programme known as Epscor, which takes a percentage or two of the annual federal scientific investment and reserves it for universities in states that fare poorly in the standard merit-based systems for distributing research dollars.

In a dramatic escalation, however, the Senate has approved a version of a science spending bill that would raise the Epscor set-aside to 20 per cent at two leading agencies – the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy.

That’s provoked an alarmed pushback by lawmakers from states with strong research universities – typically Democrats from regions along or near the east and west coasts – who warn that such a huge diversion from competitive science will significantly hurt the overall US research enterprise.

“Arbitrarily walling off a sizeable percentage of a science agency’s budget from a sizeable majority of the country’s research institutions would fundamentally reduce the entire nation’s scientific capacity,” more than 90 members of the House and Senate wrote to their legislative leaders.

That followed a letter by some 65 lawmakers from states that are eligible for Epscor, who have argued that more than four decades of the programme at lower charitable levels have left “severe regional inequities in federal research investment”.

Some new set-aside level lower than 20 per cent is regarded as likely in a final House-Senate agreement on the bill, which would authorise for the NSF a doubling of its $8.8 billion (£7.2 billion) annual budget and the creation of a new division aimed at creating products from its discoveries.

The measure is part of a broader strategy to boost US competitiveness. But the idea of expanding Epscor appears to be far more a matter of political machinations than economic or academic demand. National higher education leaders – while careful not to criticise particular universities or regions – have pointed out studies by groups such as the Congressional Research Service and the National Academy of Sciences that suggest institutions whose researchers fail to win significant shares of federal research dollars are stuck in conditions that aren’t readily improved by more federal money.

Instead, such analyses have suggested, the main value to the nation overall from Epscor is that it provides resources to help identify talented scientists in low-resourced environments and to direct them towards places where they can prosper. One commonly cited statistic is that half the nation’s 50 states now qualify for Epscor – which operates across five major federal research agencies – and yet the states rarely if ever improve to the point of not being eligible. The NSF, similar to other agencies, includes a state in Epscor if its university scientists together win only 0.75 per cent or less of the NSF’s annual research expenditure.

The largest provider to universities of basic research dollars, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has an Epscor programme but is not part of the legislative proposal to sharply increase its size. The NIH is, however, considering other ways of helping scientists at low-resourced universities, through ideas that include creating a network of academic research experts who can advise their counterparts in other states.

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