Report on the Evaluation of NSF's EPSCoR Program
Preface | Executive Summary | Table of Contents
Part A: EPSCoR Program and Its Evaluation | Part B: Evaluation Findings | Part C: Policy and Program Implications
References

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The EPSCoR Program. NSF started EPSCoR--the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research--in 1978, with investments through 1996 totalling $182.2 million in grants and cooperative agreements. The program aimed at stimulating competitive research in those states traditionally receiving low percentages of federal R&D support. As found in NSF’s basic statutory language, the program goal was to “avoid the undue concentration” of R&D in the United States. At first, five states were the target of EPSCoR efforts, but by 1992 the program involved 18 states and Puerto Rico: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

In each state, the bulk of EPSCoR’s funds was devoted to the support of research in the state’s university campuses. Because 53 of the 56 participating campuses were publicly supported universities--and, in part, because EPSCoR funding had a $1-to-$1 matching requirement--over the years EPSCoR has deliberately pursued long-term partnerships with state leaders in government, business, and higher education.

The EPSCoR program has continued to this day. The EPSCoR evaluation mainly covers the period 1980 to 1994 but not programmatic developments since then.

EPSCoR States’ Main Outcome: Shares of R&D. During the 1980-1994 period, the evaluation found that the EPSCoR states’ share of federal R&D did increase, from an average of .25 percent per state to .40 percent per state. (Overall, the EPSCoR states’ share of federal R&D funding represented 7.65 percent, totalling $960 million, by 1994.) The increase in share was a modest but positive outcome; in contrast, during the same period the non-EPSCoR states’ shares declined. Although the changes were small in absolute terms, they occurred in an era when universities in many (non-EPSCoR) states were dramatically expanding their R&D capabilities. Further, a similarly favorable outcome was found when examining changes in the EPSCoR states’ shares of NSF-funded research.

The EPSCoR Program’s Contribution to the Outcome. Whether and how the EPSCoR program contributed to these increases in states’ shares was the subject of a major part of the evaluation. The evaluation found that a plausible argument can be made that EPSCoR contributed to the outcome. The program followed a deliberately crafted and multifaceted strategy, and did not just operate as a special “set-aside” of funds for investigators from the eligible states. Included in this strategy during some or all of the 1980-1994 period were the following features:

  • Building a state’s capabilities by supporting proposals from promising investigators whose proposals were rated “good” to “very good,” and not just more senior investigators whose proposals were already scientifically excellent;
  • Requiring a $1-to-$1 match, satisfied only by newly-appropriated funds, not in-kind matches, and thereby making EPSCoR a visible and explicit investment by state government;
  • Requiring each state to form an EPSCoR steering committee, consisting of diverse members from academe, industry, and state government--including a state’s best and most senior scientific and technological personnel--and working to blend EPSCoR’s priorities with the state’s science and technology (S&T) goals;
  • Supporting groups of related research projects within and across universities (research clusters)--rather than single investigators--as a means of promoting long-term, sustainable increases in institutional research competitiveness;
  • Promoting the research capability of universities, by supporting the acquisition of state-of-the-art instrumentation and equipment and offering start-up funding for new faculty; and
  • Promoting cross-campus collaboration, thereby producing opportunities for distinctive lines of research that added to a state’s competitive capability.

In short, the EPSCoR program sought to create systemic change within a state’s R&D and university infrastructure, thus building the capability for long-term and sustainable improvement in the state’s ability to compete for subsequent R&D funding.

Based on in-depth studies of five representative EPSCoR states (and covering 14 separate campuses within these states), the evaluation tracked relevant changes in the states, such as a state’s ability to set R&D priorities and link these interests with strengthened within-state peer review processes. In each state, the evaluation showed how EPSCoR did stimulate such developments. Similarly, the evaluation investigated changes in the universities’ research capabilities. Illustrative accomplishments attributable to EPSCoR were:

  • The creation of one of the major DNA protein facilities in the world, with genetic materials and histories useful for forensics work;
  • New faculty in chemistry and a stronger optics research group;
  • University-industry collaboration on polymers; and
  • The building of a surface hydrology group that also involved a unique, statewide system for monitoring climatic conditions, soil moisture, water quality, and ultraviolet atmospheric conditions for research.

The evaluation also made a special inquiry into the entire universe of research projects funded by EPSCoR from 1992 to 1996. These projects produced high numbers of subsequent publications and new R&D funding, in this sense yielding evidence of scientific productivity and therefore a plausible argument for increased competitiveness. However, from the broader systemic perspective of creating university-wide actions and policies, EPSCoR’s influence was found to be limited, with the major effects being the stimulation of cross-campus collaboration and the initiation of competitive start-up packages to attract top faculty, especially in the sciences.

Implications for EPSCoR Policy and Program Operations. The evaluation results have the following implications for EPSCoR’s ongoing policy and program operations. First, a continuing challenge is for EPSCoR to “stimulate competitive research,” and not necessarily to support research that already may be rated “excellent” by NSF reviewers. Meeting this challenge means that EPSCoR needs to fund proposals that may be rated “good” to “very good,” but identifying these proposals is not easy. Reviewers sometimes rate proposals as “excellent” because they mean “excellent for EPSCoR,” and not scientifically “excellent.” Continued guidance on review criteria and how to use specific terms is, therefore, needed.

Second, the evaluation has shown that states’ R&D competitiveness has improved, and that EPSCoR has contributed to this competitiveness. However, no criteria have been established for defining when a state has been deemed sufficiently successful that it should “graduate” from EPSCoR. One option is for the EPSCoR program to reassess the current eligibility of all EPSCoR states, using the existing eligibility criteria.* Such an assessment could be conducted on an annual or other cyclic basis.

Third, a key EPSCoR strategy has been the program’s support of “clusters” of related research projects--especially across disciplines and campuses--rather than single and unrelated research projects. EPSCoR had at first supported such individual projects, only to find that many investigators were later recruited away from universities in EPSCoR states. The clusters, in contrast, have created institutional capabilities less vulnerable to the movement of individual investigators. Whether and how the cluster strategy can be continued, therefore, warrants ongoing attention.

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*The criteria cover highly relevant conditions, such as a state’s ranking among all states and its amount of R&D funding per academic scientist and engineer in the state.