Note added on 26 January 2017: this report has been updated - click here to access the new one.
This CRS report by Laurie A. Harris was released on 15 November 2016: Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR): Background and Selected Issues.
I am anxious to read this report. I have had limited experience with the EPSCoR Program - never as a participant but I have served on two EPSCoR advisory committees. As I was leaving New Mexico in 2006 that state was about five years into an EPSCoR grant. I was flabbergasted that we had gotten one. After all, it's like a 'Head Start' program for NSF competitiveness and from my limited vantage point (Earth and life sciences, civil engineering) I could not understand why New Mexico needed such help. I recall going to a meeting focusing on the development of a 'water' proposal. All those in the room, including the group leader, had had at least several NSF grants.
True, New Mexico suffers from a 'third world country' stigma. But its three main state universities - UNM, NMSU, and New Mexico Tech - were far better than many realized (see today's quote). New Mexico had two of the 27 LTER sites, one operated by UNM and the other by NMSU. I was part of one the first IGERT projects, headed by my colleague Cliff Dahm. NM Tech had world-class hydrologists. And so on. When I asked why we got an EPSCoR Program, the answer was "Domenici wanted it." That would be powerful Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM). Okay, I get it.
The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was established at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1978 to address congressional concerns about an “undue concentration” of federal research and development (R&D) funding in certain states. The program is designed to help institutions in eligible states build infrastructure, research capabilities, and training and human resource capacities to enable them to compete more successfully for open federal R&D funding awards. Eligibility for NSF EPSCOR funding is limited to states (including some territories and the District of Columbia) that received 0.75% or less of total NSF research and related activities (RRA) funds over the most recent three-year period. EPSCoR awards are made through merit-based proposal reviews.
EPSCoR funding and program reach have increased over the years. Congress first appropriated funding for the NSF EPSCoR program in FY1979 at a level of around $1 million. EPSCoR and EPSCoR-like programs are now active at five agencies and have a collective annual program budget of over $500 million. In addition to NSF, agencies with active programs include the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH, whose program is called the Institutional Development Award [IDeA] program). In FY2015, program budgets were $273 million at NIH, $166 million at NSF, $34 million at USDA, $18 million at NASA, and $10 million at DOE. While these programs vary in some operations and policies, their common focus is to help eligible states build R&D capacity and improve their ability to compete for federal R&D funding. The EPSCoR Interagency Coordinating Committee (EICC), chaired by NSF, was formed in 1992 to help integrate the activities of EPSCOR and EPSCOR- like programs across the agencies and to create a unified effort.
While EPSCoR was originally proposed as a short-term effort for certain states, it has grown in size and scope, generating debate among stakeholders about program goals and policies. As the programs have evolved, a number of assessments have been conducted to evaluate EPSCoR’s challenges and success, and to inform future directions. These assessments, and research literature, have repeatedly raised some broad issues. For instance, an overarching concern is finding an appropriate balance between supporting research development equitably across states while also supporting high-quality science through the merit review process. Common topics of discussion among stakeholders include the expansion and focus of EPSCoR goals, program coordination among federal agencies, criteria for state eligibility and graduation from the program, and metrics for assessing EPSCoR’s success.
Congress has a long-standing interest in the EPSCoR program. Some Members of Congress have questioned the fairness of the program, which is unique at NSF in its state-targeted approach. Additionally, some have expressed concern that the EPSCoR approach does not fit within the broader merit-based grant-making process at NSF. Others Members of Congress have supported the program, stating that it has been successful in contributing to research of national interest, helping to balance federal R&D funding among states, and providing broader research education opportunities to create a skilled workforce. In the 114th Congress, legislation and amendments have been introduced both in support of the program (e.g., promoting long-term awards and naming it an established—rather than experimental—program) and in opposition (e.g., prohibiting the use of any funding for EPSCoR programs).
"It's a cathedral in a swamp." - A former UNM President, referring to the University of New Mexico