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On Campus

US Senate calls out NSF’s Support of HBCUs
By Lango Deen
Jun 20, 2014, 17:58

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The U.S. Senate reportedly wants more robust support for science faculty and students at America’s historically Black colleges and universities but National Science Foundation officials don’t like being told how to do it, according to AAAS’s Science Insider.

In the article on a 2015 spending bill, elected and public education officials in Maryland indicated that the extent to which Black colleges have National Science Foundation (NSF) buy-in should correlate closely with their appearance on NSF’s award listings.

Jeffrey Mervis’s report in Science Insider reveals that only one historically Black college—Florida A&M University—ranks in the top 200 institutions receiving NSF research funding. Similarly, Mervis showed that while the NSF took issue with the Senate’s assertion that their six research directorates have been traditionally reluctant to support faculty at HBCU institutions, to date, only one of roughly 140 I-Corps awards has gone to an HBCU faculty member.

The National Science Foundation established the NSF Innovation Corps Teams Program (NSF I-Corps) to identify NSF-funded researchers who will receive additional support—in the form of mentoring and funding—to accelerate innovation that can attract subsequent third-party funding.

The purpose of the NSF I-Corps Teams grant is to give the project team access to resources to help determine the readiness to transition technology developed by previously-funded or currently-funded NSF projects.

Outcomes of I-Corps Teams projects clear “go” or “no go” decisions regarding viability of products and services, put in place a transition plan for projects to move forward, and provide a technology demonstration for potential partners.

Currently, HBCUs hold nine of the top 10 spots on a list of undergraduate institutions that African-American students attended before receiving Ph.D.’s in science and engineering, Mervis wrote.

Clearly, while Senate Appropriations Committee members understand the value and role of historically Black colleges and universities in producing the talent America needs to produce the next generation of innovators, the government agency that supports research and education in science and engineering is yet to catch up.

David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, one of several academic leaders consulted before the new bill was drafted, told the Science Insider that historically Black colleges and universities have had several conversations about making strategic investments in these institutions and are elated that these ideas are finally making their way forward.

A report accompanying the Senate bill being discussed described the National Science Foundation’s track record [in making research grants to HBCUs] as “anemic” and that it “must change if the Nation is to take advantage of the country’s growing diversity.”

The 2015 spending bill now being debated by the full Senate contains three specific ways for the NSF to increase its support of HBCUs.

- HBCUs should receive “no fewer than three” of the 15 awards that NSF plans to make next year under one component of its Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program that teaches faculty how to commercialize their discoveries;

- NSF should carve out $7.5 million from existing minority activities for a program aimed at attracting students into the life sciences;

- NSF should form a “high-level” advisory panel that will suggest ways to increase opportunities for HBCU faculty to obtain grants from the agency’s six research directorates.

The new provisions relating to HBCUs are the result of a successful lobbying effort by academic community leaders, Science Insider said.
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