NSF Seeks New Approach to Helping Minority Students in Science

March 10, 2010

The National Science Foundation is re-evaluating its approach to helping minority college students, proposing a consolidation of programs that currently assist specific racial and ethnic groups.

The new direction was set out by the Obama administration in its budget recommendation for the 2011 fiscal year, which calls for the outright elimination of three NSF programs: the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program, the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program.

In place of those programs, the science foundation would get $103-million to run a program called Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduates in STEM, in which "STEM" refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The budget for the new program, part of the $6-billion that the NSF spends each year to support academic research, would be 14 percent greater than the amount now spent on the three programs proposed for elimination.

The director of the National Science Foundation, Arden L. Bement Jr., described the plans on Wednesday at a budget hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. Mr. Bement said that under the current approach of specifying spending by racial group, the number of minority students majoring in the sciences is not increasing nearly fast enough, given the overall projected rate of growth for minorities in the United States population.

"Linear growth is no longer acceptable," Mr. Bement told lawmakers, "so we have to go into geometric growth."

Grants Awarded by Competition

The administration's plan also calls for a 5-percent cut in the $19-million budget for another program, Opportunities for Women and Persons With Disabilities, and instead a 14-percent increase in the current $154-million budget for general undergraduate- and graduate-student support.

Mr. Bement said that under his agency's new comprehensive program for increasing minority participation in the sciences, the money would be distributed widely on a competitive basis, allowing even non-minority institutions to qualify, as long as they had minority partners.

The plan also contains an expectation that recipients would find additional money from other sources, including other government agencies, private donors, and foundations.

Two Democrats on the committee, Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, questioned Mr. Bement on the plan. Neither directly criticized it during the hearing, though Ms. Johnson later provided a written statement in which she made clear her opposition.

“I, along with many of my colleagues on the Diversity and Innovation Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, am concerned that this proposal may decrease the effectiveness of some of these critical programs,” the congresswoman said.

And officials at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit group that works to help underrepresented populations in higher education, also expressed concerns.

“The intentions are good but the plan is poorly executed,” said Lorelle L. Espinosa, the group’s director of policy and strategic initiatives.

The 14-percent increase for student support may not be enough to include both Hispanic-serving institutions and white-majority institutions that will now be eligible for the money, Ms. Espinosa said. And the transition to a competitive-award system may undermine the cooperative relationship between colleges that serve minority students, she said.

She also questioned the proposal to eliminate three programs, which finance activities such as seminars, graduate-school advising, and hands-on exposure to research labs. The proposal came with little formal evaluation of whether those programs work better than a more-competitive alternative, Ms. Espinosa said. Competition "has its place,” she said, but “I don’t think this is the place for it.”

Doubts About Aid for Facilities

Mr. Bement, who is retiring from the science foundation to begin work in June as director of the new Global Policy Research Institute at Purdue University, also expressed his opposition to calls from universities for the federal government to give them more money to rebuild deteriorating science facilities.

University representatives made the plea at another hearing of the subcommittee two weeks ago, and Mr. Bement said he was "sympathetic." But, he said, the science foundation should stick to its main mission of supporting research, and not get into the business of serving as the option of last resort for universities facing tough economic conditions.

Mr. Bement also said the recent controversy over climate-change science was the result of scientists' engaging too directly in political debates rather than sticking with their research and letting their findings speak for themselves.