“…it shall be an objective of the Foundation to strengthen science and engineering research potential and education at all levels throughout the United States and avoid undue concentration of such research and education, respectively…”
National Science Foundation (NSF) Act of 1950 (Pub. L. 507-81st Congress, as amended)
“It would be clearly understood from the beginning that no support would be provided beyond five years through this [EPSCoR] program, as scientists in the funded states should then be able to compete more successfully for support from NSF and other agencies.”
Richard C. Atkinson, Director, National Science Foundation, Memorandum to Members of the Science Board, Subject: Program Plan for Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, January 4, 1978
Under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010,4 Congress mandated that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), examine the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The charge—as defined by Congress and NSF—required NAS to assess the effectiveness of EPSCoR and similar federal agency programs, such as the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in improving national research capabilities, promoting an equitable distribution of research funding,
Charge in Brief
The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 requests that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences pursue the following information concerning the EPSCoR program:
•Delineation of the policies of each federal agency with respect to the awarding of grants to EPSCoR states.
•Effectiveness of each program toward achieving its respective goals.
•Recommendations for improvements for each agency to achieve EPSCoR goals.
•Assessment of the effectiveness of EPSCoR states in using awards to develop science and engineering research and education, as well as science and engineering infrastructure within their states.
•Any other issues that address the effectiveness of EPSCoR as NAS considers appropriate.
SOURCE: America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (111th Congress, 2009–2010, April 22, 2010), http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/hr5116.
In response, the NAS formed a committee to evaluate the EPSCoR program, which is in fact a group of quite different programs operating in several federal agencies and serving more than thirty states and other jurisdictions. Given the complexity of the program, the first task of the committee was to determine what it could expect to accomplish with the available time and resources.
To comply with the 2010 America COMPETES Reauthorization Act and ensure that a full understanding of the programs was available to the committee from the beginning, the committee held its first meeting once all the agencies completed a congressionally mandated summary of its program and then devoted that meeting to hearing presentations from the directors of all of the active programs. Learning of the diversity of the programs, their evolution over time, and the lack of consensus surrounding eligibility and graduation convinced the committee that it would have to begin by examining the fundamental mission and structure of the program.
A review of the scholarly literature about EPSCoR revealed a lack of comprehensive data collection and rigorous evaluation. The committee realized
5 The complete statement of task and congressional mandate can be found in Appendix C.
that it would not be possible to conduct a review and summary of existing evaluations because there simply is not an adequate research base to review.6 While recognizing the desirability of having a detailed assessment of state-level activities, the committee decided that such an assessment was far beyond what it could hope to accomplish. However, the committee identified a number of key areas that could benefit from better data and more thorough evaluation.
1. Distribution of EPSCoR funds by objective. Testimony from some EPSCoR participants raised a concern about the program expanding its mission beyond building research capacity and thus diluting its effectiveness. (Financial data on the allocation of EPSCoR funds for various purposes within each state is necessary to address these issues.
2. Distribution of EPSCoR funds by institution within each state. The Committee was unable to obtain financial data on the distribution of EPSCoR funds among institutions within each state, or changes in these patterns over time. These data are needed to determine if the program has been “captured” by one or two institutions within a state, or conversely if funding was spread thinly across all institutions rather than focused on the most successful programs.
3. Research competitiveness performance of EPSCoR recipients. The single major test of the impact of the EPSCoR program on research competitiveness is the longitudinal performance of the individual faculty or clusters of faculty who receive EPSCoR support. The Committee saw little evidence that such data were systematically collected and therefore could not determine how effective the program was in enhancing the research capacity of specific individuals or teams.
4. Disaggregated data by state and institution. The only data available to the committee were state level and institutional totals. As noted repeatedly in the report, these data cannot be used to assess the impact of EPSCoR programs on the recipients and subsequently on the overall research capacity of the state.
6 The evaluation literature relevant to this report is:
• COSMOS Corporation, A Report on the Evaluation of the National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (Arlington, VA: NFS, 1999).
• J. Scott Hauger and Celia McEnaney, eds., Strategies for Competitiveness in Academic Research (Washington, DC: AAAS, http://www.aaas.org/spp/rcp/policy/strategies_book.shtml, 2000).
• Julia Melkers and Yonghong Wu. 2009. “Evaluating the Improved Research Capacity of EPSCoR States: R&D Funding and Collaborative Networks in the NSF EPSCoR Program,” Review of Policy Research 26(6), 761-782.
• Yonghong Wu, “Tackling Undue Concentration of Federal Research Funding: An Empirical Assessment on NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR),” Research Policy 39(6), 835-841. (2010).
• Abigal Payne, “Earmarks and EPSCoR: Shaping the Distribution, Quality, and Quantity of University Research”, in Shaping Science and Technology Policy, edited by David Guston and Daniel Sarewitz (Madison,WI: University of Wisconsin Press),149-172 (2006).
5. Comparative variations across states. All states were able to provide anecdotal evidence of some benefit from the program, but there is a need to develop some comparative outcome measures to determine which state or agency approaches are most effective so that these best practices can be shared to enhance overall program effectiveness.
To learn what it could about state activities, the committee invited EPSCoR officials from ten states to brief the committee during its second meeting. States were selected to represent large and small states, physical sciences and biomedical sciences, long-term and more recent participants, and different regions of the country. The committee also consulted printed and online information about other states and information from the EPSCoR/IDeA Foundation – a non-profit set up to promote the science and technology research enterprises of EPSCoR and IDeA eligible states. All of the states provided interesting information about how they used funds from the various EPSCoR programs and anecdotal evidence of success, but they did not have readily available the type and amount of standardized quantitative data that would make it possible to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of state efforts.
Given the ambiguity over common factors such as eligibility and mission between agencies and the scarcity of rigorous data and scholarly assessment literature, the committee decided early in its deliberations that it would focus on evaluating core concerns. It addressed fundamental questions about what the program could realistically hope to achieve, how it aligned with the larger national goals of nurturing and enhancing research capacity, and the criteria for eligibility. Reaching understanding and agreement on these underlying questions is a prerequisite for developing a coherent program with achievable goals that could be rigorously evaluated and improved. The committee recognizes the need for evidence-based assessment of federal agency program design and management and of state implementation and believes that such assessments can be rigorously conducted, but it concluded that such a detailed assessment was beyond the scope of what it could accomplish. With this report, the committee aims to establish the foundation on which such an assessment must be built.
Chapter 1 lays out the historical context in which these programs arose and evolved and discusses the current state of the national and international research enterprise. Chapter 2 discusses some of the core themes in the different agency programs, focusing on NSF EPSCoR and NIH IDeA, and gives an overview of the diversity of the states involved. Chapter 3 examines the state of assessments of the EPSCoR program. Chapter 4 presents the committee’s finding and recommendations. In addition, Appendix A provides descriptions of the agency EPSCoR programs, and Appendix B provides information on a diverse sample of state programs.
In the 1950 legislation creating the National Science Foundation (NSF), Congress called on NSF to pursue strategies and tactics “to strengthen research and education in science and engineering throughout the United States and to avoid undue concentration of such research and education.”7 In 1978 the National Science Board, which oversees NSF, approved the creation of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) to further this mandate and to increase support for states that had received relatively small shares of NSF funds (see Box 1-2). Over the next three decades, EPSCoR, which had been devised as an experimental program that would cease operations after 5 years, would be implemented by seven federal agencies. Moreover, eligibility would be broadened to include more than 33 states and territories.
EPSCoR’s NSF Endorsement
In a 1978 memorandum to the National Science Board, NSF Director Richard C. Atkinson contended that NSF should continue to focus its funding activities on rewarding scientific excellence through a review process dedicated to transparency, competition, and “recognizable” merit.
However, he also urged the board to launch an “experimental” program “to stimulate competitively meritorious research in regions that are not able to compete successfully.” He observed that “significant national, as well as local, benefits would be derived from each states’ participation in the national scientific enterprise.”
EPSCoR programs have proven to be immensely popular among their advocates. Today, many university officials claim that EPSCoR has played a more significant role than any other federal program in strengthening research capacities, changing their state’s research culture for the better, and elevating the importance of science as a fundamental driver of economic growth.
At the time of its creation, EPSCoR was competing against several alternative schemes designed to level the research playing field. Some
7 Initial funding for EPSCoR was authorized in P.L. 95-392 (H. Rept. 95-1265), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 1979. Italics in text have been added for emphasis.
legislators from states lagging in scientific investment, for example, proposed a minimum level of research funding for each state. Others suggested increasing the role of directed spending (earmarks) in funding science and technology efforts, thereby exempting certain projects from merit-based review.8
NSF officials were concerned that such funding strategies would compromise NSF’s long-standing emphasis on scientific excellence, open competition, transparency and merit. In this sense, EPSCoR emerged as a defensive measure against actions that were viewed as more intrusive and disruptive to NSF principles and objectives. In advocating for EPSCoR, the National Science Board largely sought to insulate NSF’s research grant program from potential political interference.
EPSCoR embraced several principles9 designed to encourage scientific excellence while fostering greater equity in the distribution of federal funds. NSF officials, for example, explicitly required that EPSCoR grant awards be based on a peer-review process. Since proposal success would be determined, in part, on the applicant’s ability to clearly articulate research goals and to devise a realistic plan for achieving the proposal’s objectives, the application process itself was viewed as a capacity-building exercise.
Participating states were also required to demonstrate a commitment to scientific advancement by establishing science and technology governing committees.10 By guiding the proposal application process, NSF believed that the governing committees would help ensure that NSF funding was sensitive to the state’s overall strategy for research capacity building and that it would be designed to forge strong links between science and economic development. In addition, NSF officials required “significant” cost sharing and called for discontinuing the program in states that failed to make satisfactory progress toward achieving EPSCoR’s goals.11
For all these reasons, NSF EPSCoR represented an innovative attempt to use federal-state relationships as a means of building research capacity in eligible states.
8 House Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Science, National Science Board: Science Policy and Management for the NSF, 1968–1980, Rpt. 98th Congress, 1st Session, Jan. 1983.
9 These principles included peer review, state governing committees and science and technology plans, and cost- sharing.
10 NSF Memorandum to Members of the National Science Board, Office of the Director, “Program Plan for Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research,” January 4, 1978.
11 Measures calling for achieving satisfactory progress toward the programs’ primary goals were vaguely defined at the time EPSCoR was created and never clarified or enforced by the federal agencies.
An Experimental Program
Even in the eyes of its strongest advocates, EPSCoR was considered “experimental” in the sense that it would “test” deeply held principles in the scientific community.12 For a scientific culture dedicated to the principles of unfettered competition, it was an open question whether a program designed to assist less successful players could produce scientific excellence and increase research competiveness. EPSCoR’s proponents therefore made the argument for short-term support to a limited number of states. In the words of W. Henry Lambright, professor of public administration and political science at Syracuse University, “EPSCoR was not intended as an entitlement, but rather as a catalyst.”13 EPSCoR was thus designed as an initiative that would reinforce the scientific community’s abiding principle of merit-based competition and not serve as a substitute for it.
In EPSCoR’s inaugural year, NSF approved planning grants for seven states, each totaling about $125,000. Five of these states—Arkansas, Maine, Montana, South Carolina, and West Virginia—were subsequently recognized as EPSCoR eligible14 and given additional EPSCoR funding in fiscal year (FY)1980 to begin programmatic research capacity building activities.
Expansion of Agency Participation
Since 1979, EPSCoR programs have been introduced in seven federal agencies (see Figure 1-1). While all of these programs are intended to improve the scientific capacity and competitiveness of institutions in eligible states, they are also dedicated to advancing each agency’s mandate and mission. The Department of Energy (DOE) EPSCoR program, for example, focuses on materials and chemical science, geology, high energy and nuclear physics, fusion energy, and other topics in DOE’s research agenda. The EPSCoR program in the Department of Agriculture (USDA) seeks to lay the groundwork for improving agriculture, food, and environmental science. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program concentrates on biomedical research. (See Box 1-3 for notes on terminology used in this report.)
12 Due to the large number of variables that are responsible for scientific capacity building, it might be more accurate to refer to EPSCoR as a demonstration project rather than as an experiment. Evaluations of the impact that EPSCoR has had on scientific capacity building among participating jurisdictions are difficult, but not impossible, to devise without a full negative-control experiment. However, such evaluations, due to their complexity, are outside the scope of this study.
13 W. Henry Lambright, “Building State Science: The EPSCoR Experience,” chapter 3 in J. Scott Hauger and Celia McEnaney, eds., Strategies for Competitiveness in Academic Research (Washington, DC: AAAS, 2000). Available online at http://www.aaas.org/spp/rcp/policy/strategies_book/str3.pdf, p. 2.
14 See Building on the Past, Preparing for the Future: Innovative Science Across America (Washington, DC: EPSCoR/IDeA Foundation, March 2008).
Figure 1-1. Timeline of the introduction of EPSCoR programs. NOTES: EPA and DOD last year based on last year of funding; DOC Last year based on last grant award made. [SOURCES: Darrel Woodard, EPA – 2005 (EPA); http://www.epscorideafoundation.org/about/agency/dod/ (DoD); http://webharvest.gov/peth04/20041017054756/www.technology.gov/reports/TechPolicy/epscot4sbd.pdf (DOC)]
Notes on Terminology
There are two points that should be made about the terminology used in this report:
1.The committee was directed by Congress to evaluate “EPSCoR and EPSCoR-like” programs. However, to avoid repeating this cumbersome phrase, the committee decided instead to use the term EPSCoR to refer to the entire group of programs, including the IDeA program at NIH. When the report is addressing a specific program, it refers to NSF EPSCoR, NASA EPSCoR, NIH IDeA, and so on.
2.The program was created to help states improve their research capacity, but in the 1990s, congress extended the program to include Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. The agencies then began referring to eligible “jurisdictions.” Although technically correct, the term is likely to confuse someone not familiar with the structure and jargon of the program. The committee therefore uses the term states throughout the report with the understanding that a small amount of funding goes to the three eligible jurisdictions.
3.The report refers to DOE, NASA, USDA, DOD, and EPA as “mission agencies.” Although some people consider NIH to be a mission agency, for the purposes of this report the committee grouped it with NSF because of its dominate role in science funding and its board responsibility for maintaining research capacity in biomedical fields.
Expansion of Budget
Funding for EPSCoR has also grown over time (see Figure 1-2). In FY 2012, EPSCoR’s overall budget surpassed $480 million. However, this is in comparison to the nation’s $33 billion federal expenditures on academic research and development (R&D) in FY 2012. At NSF, EPSCoR’s $151 million allocation comprises 2 percent of the agency’s $7.1 billion FY 2012 operating budget. Even within the EPSCoR states, the program is relatively small. EPSCoR funds comprise only about 12 percent of federal research funding received by the EPSCoR states.
Figure 1-2. EPSCoR budgets have grown significantly since 1979. [SOURCES: NSF S&E Indicators; 1979: Agency NSF Data Excel File - this is the total amount in planning grants; other Years: Page 15829, Congressional Record 107th Congress, Volume 147 - Part II]
Expansion of Eligible States
The number of eligible states has also increased over time. NSF’s EPSCoR program had 31 eligible states in FY 2012. Moreover, states that have become eligible for EPSCoR in recent years—including Delaware, Iowa, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Tennessee—have tended to be larger, wealthier, and more “research proficient” than earlier EPSCoR states (see Figure 1-3).
The reason for this growth is largely that the criterion for eligibility has been relaxed over time. In the beginning, NSF used a number of criteria in selecting the states that would be eligible for EPSCoR funding, but Congress mandated a switch to the single and simple criterion of admitting any state that receives less than a set percentage of NSF funding. That percentage increased over time, and the program is now open to any state that receives less than 0.75 percent of NSF funding averaged over a 3-year period.
All the other agencies except NIH and USDA15 have closely followed NSF’s lead. NIH originally admitted states where the success rate of research proposals was less than 20 percent. However, it is now proposing a shift to a system that would admit all states that fall below the median in total NIH research funding.
Using total funding as a yardstick raises questions because of the large differences in state populations. In general, comparisons among the states often rely on per capita data, because such data provide metrics that help to standardize comparisons and reveal differences that matter. For example, when assessing a wide range of economic issues among states, what is often significant is not total household income but per capita income. Similarly, when it comes to public safety issues, what is often most significant is crime rates per capita, not total crime rates.
The same may well be true when assessing state research capacity. In fact, the use of total funding as a criterion for eligibility creates a curious challenge for determining state eligibility in EPSCoR. Sixteen states and two jurisdictions have less than 0.75 percent of the U.S. population. To lose their eligibility and “graduate” from the program, each of these states would have to receive a percentage of research funding that exceeds its share of the nation’s population. Indeed, several states have less than 0.25 percent of the nation’s total population, and it will be virtually impossible for these states to ever reach 0.75 percent of total funding.
15 USDA does not rely on the NSF criteria but does use a similar system; states that fall below the 38th percentile (3-year rolling average) are eligible for USDA EPSCoR.
If one chose to examine per capita research funding, which would seem to make more sense if the goal is to achieve equity for all citizens, the list of states not receiving a proportionate share of research funding would look very different (Table 1-1). Under this new requirement, several current EPSCoR states with small populations would no longer be eligible for the program. On the other hand, a substantial number of states with large populations that do not currently participate in the program would be able to do so. Their total research funding would remain high, but on a per capita base, they would not be faring well despite their size.
Table 1-1. Ranking States Based on Per Capita Federal Academic Science and Engineering Support and Assuming 31 EPSCoR Jurisdictions, EPSCoR Eligibility Changes Dramatically
States Ranked According to Per Capita Federal Academic S&E Support
|1. Dist. of Col.||12. New York||23. Oregon||34. Texas||45. New Jersey|
|2. Maryland||13. New Hamp.||24 Utah||35. Virgin Is.||46. W. Virginia|
|3. Massa.||14. Washington||25. Alabama||36. So. Dakota||47. Oklahoma|
|4. Connecticut||15. Alaska||26. Illinois||37. Virginia||48. Arkansas|
|5 .Hawaii||16. Iowa||27. Tennessee||38. Indiana||49. Idaho|
|6. No. Dakota||17. Missouri||28. Michigan||39. Kansas||50. Florida|
|7. Vermont||18. Delaware||29. Nebraska||40. Arizona||51. Nevada|
|8. Rhode Is.||19. Wisconsin||30. Minnesota||41. Wyoming||52. Am. Samoa|
|9. Penn.||20. New Mex.||31. Mississippi||42. Louisiana||53. Maine|
|10. N. Carolina||21. California||32. Georgia||43. Kentucky||54. Guam|
|11. Colorado||22. Montana||33. Ohio||44. S. Carolina||55. Puerto Rico|
NOTE: Boldface denotes FY 2012 NSF-EPSCoR Eligibility. States ranking 25-55 would constitute a new “EPSCoR” cohort based on per capita funding. [SOURCE: NSF Survey of Federal Science and Engineering Support to Universities, Colleges, and Nonprofit Institutions via WebCASPAR]
While the committee believes that per capita research funding is a more sensible eligibility criterion than total funding, it is not recommending that this be the sole criterion. A variety of measures are relevant when considering a state’s research capacity. A state might not be winning a significant number of NSF grants, but it could be home to important research programs funded by the DOE or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The composition of state economies also differs significantly (see Box 1-4). A state economy that is rich in resources or agricultural land, for example, has different research needs than one that is based on manufacturing of pharmaceuticals or electronics. Also, the states themselves make decisions about what their priorities are. If a state decides that research is not that important to its economy,
it is then questionable as to whether it is a federal responsibility to direct additional research funding to that state.
The committee was not charged with developing new criteria for eligibility, but it finds that the current criteria are not well suited to identify the states where the greatest need and opportunity exist. Further study is needed to determine what mix of criteria—including per capita funding—should be applied to eligibility.
The States of EPSCoR
EPSCoR states are home to 20 percent of the country’s population and workforce. They contain nearly 30 percent of the nation’s research institutions and more than 15 percent of the nation’s scientific and technological personnel. They bestow 20 percent of the nation’s undergraduate degrees in science and engineering and 16 percent of the nation’s doctorate degrees in these fields of study. They are home to 20 percent of the country’s high-tech industries. Fifty-seven of the Fortune 500 companies have their corporate headquarters in EPSCoR states. These states are also among the nation’s nine most important energy producers. There are only 10 states in the United States that produce more energy than they consume. Nine of these states are eligible to participate in EPSCoR.
Despite all of these attributes, in 2011 EPSCoR states received just 13.6 percent of all NSF research funds. A larger portion of NSF research funds—15 percent—went to just eight of the nation’s elite research universities, all located in non-EPSCoR states. Nevertheless, a significant number of EPSCoR states now have at least one research university with capabilities that are comparable to the research capabilities of institutions in non-EPSCoR states.
SOURCE: EPSCoR 2030: A Report to the National Science Foundation, prepared by Paul Hill, Principal Investigator (Arlington, VA: NSF Award # EPS-1155975, 2012). The report observes that “Any national research agenda that ignores or diminishes the role of half the states is an agenda that makes a serious omission by excluding highly productive and important components of the nation’s R&D capacity.”
The objectives of the NSF EPSCoR program have expanded over time. Whereas the original program mandate focused on building research capacity and competitiveness, the Federal Register now recognizes goals related to broadening opportunities for underrepresented populations, promoting a knowledge-based economy, nurturing innovation and spurring “positive change
and progression” (see Box 1-5). While many of these objectives represent worthwhile long-term strategies for promoting research competitiveness, they also reflect an expansion of EPSCoR’s mandate to better meet the desires and goals of various stakeholders. Yet, it is not clear how they promote EPSCoR’s core objective to build research capabilities and competitiveness among research institutions in participating states, especially in the short term.
NSF EPSCoR Missions, Goals, and Objectives
The mission of EPSCoR is to assist the NSF in its statutory function “to strengthen research and education in science and engineering throughout the United States and to avoid undue concentration of such research and education.”
EPSCoR goals are to (1) provide strategic programs and opportunities for EPSCoR participants that stimulate sustainable improvements in their R&D capacity and competitiveness; and (2) advance science and engineering capabilities in jurisdictions for discovery, innovation, and overall knowledge-based prosperity.
EPSCoR objectives are to (1) catalyze key research themes and related activities within and among EPSCoR jurisdictions that empower knowledge generation, dissemination, and application; (2) activate effective jurisdictional and regional collaborations among academic, government, and private-sector stakeholders that advance scientific research, promote innovation, and provide multiple societal benefits; (3) broaden participation in science and engineering by institutions, organizations, and people within and among EPSCoR jurisdictions; and (4) use EPSCoR for development, implementation, and evaluation of future programmatic experiments that motivate positive change and progression.
SOURCE: Federal Register, Volume 77, Number 154 (Thursday, August 9, 2012).
EPSCoR’s broader efforts have been driven by a host of factors. To meet growing national challenges in science education and training, for example, NSF and other federal agencies have pursued measures to increase the diversity of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce and to raise public appreciation for science. Through a combination of direct congressional action and agency interpretations of their mandates, EPSCoR programs have adopted aims related to promoting greater institutional collaboration, aligning scientific research with national needs, fostering workforce diversity, and building a sustainable physical research infrastructure to create a solid foundation for scientific capacity building (see Figure 1-4).
EPSCoR state governing committees have generally embraced this larger agenda as an opportunity to illustrate how program activities positively impact state residents and the state’s economy. University administrators, moreover, have found that these additional responsibilities —while they may stretch resources and obscure other core objectives16—help to raise the public profile of universities within their communities.
Figure 1-4. Current NSF, congressional, and state goals, objectives, and metrics suggest EPSCoR stakeholders have broadened program targets to suit their individual needs and goals. [SOURCES: NSB Memorandum 78-12; PL 96-44; PL 111-358; 2010 America COMPETES Act Reauthorization; EPSCoR-eligible State S&T Plans]
Like many federal programs, EPSCoR has evolved over time—and its evolution is likely to continue. In light of declining research budgets and increasing global scientific competition, the critical question for federal EPSCoR managers may not be whether EPSCoR should strictly adhere to its historic mandate but whether the program can meet the critical challenges that stakeholders will face in the years ahead. Since advocates maintain that promoting geographic equity maximizes access to talent and helps maintain U.S. global scientific standing, EPSCoR in its future iterations will likely be called upon to demonstrate its ability to improve the nation’s overall competitiveness.
16 For example, Mary L. Good, Donaghey Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has worried that EPSCoR “is beginning to lose sight of what the program was designed to do.” See EPSCoR 2030: A Report to the National Science Foundation, (Arlington, VA: NSF Award #EPS-1155975, prepared by Paul Hill, 2012).
The committee views EPSCoR programs collectively as a component of the federal research mission that must be understood in the larger context of the nation’s scientific needs and goals and its international standing.
The National Competitive Landscape
The landscape for research universities has changed dramatically since EPSCoR’s inception. Over the past several decades, the nation’s elite research universities have substantially increased their research investments, making it more difficult for other research institutions to narrow the gap in competiveness. Institutions (especially elite private universities) in non-EPSCoR states have become significantly wealthier and stronger than they were 35 years ago.
The number of research institutions competing for funding has increased steadily during the second half of the 20th century to more than 200 research universities. This increase in research universities is testimony, in part, to the commitment of many state leaders and the assistance that they have received from the federal government. A growing number of the nation’s research institutions not only pursue active research agendas but are also capable of attracting funding for research in niche areas. Several public universities in EPSCoR states, such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, and the University of Oklahoma, are among the nation’s top 100 research universities in terms of federal research funding (also see Box 1-6 for a brief description of North Dakota’s aspirations).
In attempting to improve their scientific standing and to increase—or even maintain—their share of federal funding, EPSCoR participants must therefore compete against an increasingly large and capable cadre of research institutions.
Aspiring to Excellence
New competition for research funds
In 2013, North Dakota’s 11-campus university system is projected to receive a 14 percent increase in its operating budget and a one-time $177 million allocation for capital improvements. The chancellor of the state’s higher education system has set a goal of having the state’s research institutions “to be thought of in the same tier as the Big 10 institutions.” In a similar vein, administrators “have made no secret of the fact that they aspire for one or both of the research universities to become a member of the Association of American Universities.”
The Global Competitive Landscape
The global research landscape also is in transition. When EPSCoR was launched in the late 1970s, the U.S. scientific community was first in the world in virtually every category of assessment and faced no significant risks to its top ranking. While the nation retains many advantages, its preeminent status is no longer unchallenged. Emerging economies have adopted policies that have led to dramatic changes in the global scientific landscape—and the pace of change seems to be accelerating. China, which has increased its investment in science and technology by more than 20 percent a year over the past two decades, now has a scientific workforce comparable in size to that of the United States. Other countries, including Brazil and India, are also rapidly strengthening their research capabilities.
In light of these developments, EPSCoR may face a greater need to defend its budget. Whether the nation is best served by diversifying scientific capacity or by concentrating on a few centers of excellence in selected thematic areas may prove central to the size and shape of future EPSCoR appropriations.
Declining Research Budgets
Budget concerns—both at the federal and state levels—also pose difficulties for EPSCoR managers and beneficiaries. Sustaining the gains in research capacity that have been made to date may prove problematic as federal, state, and private R&D funding declines.17 As a result, if EPSCoR is to fulfill its promise as a catalyst, at some point eligible states must sustain and expand their research capacity with funds from sources other than EPSCoR. This goal may become more difficult to achieve in an environment marked by sharp cutbacks in state funding for universities in general and research more specifically. In these austere times, it will become increasingly important to coordinate investments between the state and federal governments, and across all sectors of society, to attain a greater efficiency in efforts to improve state and regional scientific competitiveness.
17 Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006).