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NSF & Congress

Hearing Testimony

Dr. Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the Committee on Science
Basic Research Subcommittee
July 9, 2003

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before the Committee on H.R. 2183, the Digital Wireless Technology Program Act of 2003. H.R. 2183 would establish a new Office of Digital and Wireless Network Technology at the National Science Foundation to administer a new grant program to "eligible institutions" as defined in the bill, and would provide authorizations of $250 million for each year for the next five fiscal years.

Let me begin by emphasizing that the National Science Foundation is fully committed to assisting America's institutions, including those that serve minorities and women, in developing their technological infrastructure. As I have said before, the U.S. S&T enterprise has failed to cultivate a vast pool of untapped talent among women and minorities. Underrepresented minorities earn only one-tenth as many S&E doctoral degrees as their white counterparts; and whereas women comprise half of the college-educated workforce, they continue to fill only 10% of the country's engineering jobs. The requirements of the nation's 21st century workforce, and indeed our future economic and national security, call for a coherent strategy that will fully utilize all of America's human resources in science and technology.

The National Science Foundation is leading the way in pursuing such a strategy. I believe that if we work together to strengthen and improve existing efforts that are consistent with the goals underlying this legislation, and to establish new activities that will further these goals, we can make substantial improvements in the educational and research infrastructure of all our colleges and universities, including those that serve populations currently under-represented in science, engineering and technology.

As you know, the National Science Foundation is authorized by the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act

    to undertake or support a comprehensive science and engineering education program to increase the participation of minorities in science and engineering, and to support activities to initiate research at minority institutions.

We seek to fulfill this mandate through a comprehensive portfolio of programs that challenge the research and education community to present NSF with ideas, plans, programs, and actions that will result in a demonstrable gain in the number of U.S. citizens from underrepresented groups who pursue science, technology, engineering, and math careers at every level - from high school through post-graduate education. Through our merit-review process, we fund the most promising ideas, and we can claim some success in this regard.

Institutions receiving funds through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program (LSAMPs)1 funded by NSF have produced 174,000 minority bachelor degrees in science and engineering since 1991. In 2001 alone, the LSAMP institutions produced 21,704 minority S&E graduates - 70% of all minority S&E baccalaureate graduates that year. Our budget request for FY '04 increases funding to the LSAMP program by 23% and our Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program by 43%. Funding for our Major Research Instrumentation program, which assists in the acquisition or development of major research instrumentation by U.S. institutions and benefits a broad and diverse class of institutions, is increased by 67%. In addition, our Workforce for the 21st Century Initiative recognizes the need to increase the number of scientific and technologically literate U.S. citizens in the labor force. One of its principal goals is to broaden participation in science and engineering. In many institutions, including minority-serving institutions, the focus will be on drawing elements from existing NSF programs and challenging collaborators at these institutions to design programs that complement integrated activities at the preK-12 and graduate levels to develop an innovative and seamless route of advancement for the students they serve. We are also investing in research to determine the experiences and strategies that are most effective in attracting and retaining students in careers that require fluency in math, science, engineering or technology.

Integrating these proven strategies into any new initiatives is crucial to maintaining momentum and propelling us further along the path toward achieving our agreed-upon objective - to increase the number of graduates, including under-represented minorities, in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology by providing access to leading-edge research and educational-networking technologies to America's institutions of higher education, including minority-serving institutions, that can demonstrate a plan for using this technology to increase the number of students and graduates, including underrepresented minorities, in science.

Although NSF supports the goal of assisting America's institutions to develop their technological infrastructure, as demonstrated through a number of ongoing programmatic activities aimed at strengthening science and engineering research and education at all institutions, including minority-serving institutions, we cannot support H.R. 2183 in its current form. The following describes some of the issues raised by the legislation. We also understand that the Department of Justice is reviewing the legislation for possible Constitutional concerns.

NSF's existing organizational structure, widely recognized for its efficiency and effectiveness, is already adequate to administer programs targeted at ensuring equal access to all institutions, including minority-serving institutions. Adding an Office of Digital and Wireless Network Technology, as proposed in the legislation, would constrain rather than facilitate the integration of research and education programs within the Foundation, and would operate with a mandate that is much more narrow than the broad, integrative approach consistent with our present plans.

Another concern is the inherent tension between the way that the program proposed in H.R. 2183 would be administered and NSF's fundamental operating policies. For example, the proposed program is comparable to our STEP (Tech Talent) Program in that it includes an evaluation component to assess the impact of improving connectivity with the specific outcomes, such as improving the quality of education, increasing the number of students at target institutions who take math, science, engineering, and technology courses, and increasing the number of graduates with majors in these fields. However, the evaluation process does not follow the Foundation's well-regarded merit-review process and award-administration tradition of ensuring that experts in the field are included in the review process.

Similarly, the proposed program would require NSF to fund every single eligible institution that applies, regardless of merit. Although there may very well be value in such an approach with respect to institutions that badly need infrastructure improvement, NSF would not be the right entity to administer it. The legislation is also silent with respect to planning grants. I would encourage you to consider the value of planning grants as an effective and proven way of engaging institutions that have not previously applied for funding or have been unsuccessful. We have found that providing funding to support faculty and administrators to thoroughly consider the long-term costs, commitments, and need to integrate technology throughout their institutions results in proposals for full awards that are much more successful and capable of meeting programmatic goals.

We also note that the President's FY 2004 Budget supports a number of programs in the Departments of Commerce, Education and Agriculture, and elsewhere that already address the goals of H.R. 2183 to provide financial assistance to improve technology instruction and infrastructure at higher-education facilities, including minority-serving institutions.

Furthermore, the authorized spending levels in the bill are simply not realistic. It is NSF's view that the current authorization levels in the bill would set unrealistic expectations within the community that could not be met. It would be nearly impossible to fund anything near the levels currently authorized in the bill.

For example, if this program were fully funded within the FY '04 request it would represent:

  • Nearly half (43%) of our Computer and Information Science and Engineering account ($584 million in '04);
  • More than a quarter (27%) of our Education and Human Resources activity ($938 million in '04);
  • 22% of our requested amount for Tools ($1.112 billion), which is the budget area that provides "broadly accessible, state-of-the-art and shared research and education tools"; or
  • 5% of our total budget ($5.481 billion).

Mr. Chairman, if this program were appropriated within our existing budget request, we would be obliged to cut drastically some of the very NSF accounts, which I have cited above, that are responsible for tremendous advances in increasing the populations currently under-represented in the nation's science, engineering and technology fields. Furthermore, we would be forced to cut other areas that this Committee cares deeply about, such as our STEP (TechTalent) program, our CyberSecurity efforts, Noyce Scholarships, and possibly the Math and Science Partnership Program.

Rather than serving as a resource for commodity high-bandwidth connections and duplicating existing programs, NSF has a much more appropriate role in assessing the most effective way to integrate emerging technology into research and educational settings in America's institutions, including its minority-serving institutions.

Mr. Chairman, as you know, one of my goals during my tenure as Director of NSF is to seamlessly integrate efforts to increase representation by underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As my testimony has already indicated, I believe we are well on the way to achieving truly vertical and horizontal integration of these efforts at NSF. But we can do better.

In looking over the range of NSF programs, I am struck by several realities. First, we have in our portfolio a number of programs designed to attract underrepresented minorities to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We have viewed these as experiments to determine a set of "best practices" that could eventually be adopted - both throughout NSF and in the higher education community.

This is fine as far as it goes. But we need to provide more effective incentives for adopting these best practices - both within NSF and in the educational community at large. One way NSF is addressing the need for greater attention to underrepresented groups is by focusing attention on the broader impacts proposed activities in the evaluation of grant proposals. In this regard, we emphasize that, as a matter of policy, NSF returns - without review - any proposal for funding that does not separately address broader impacts such as how well a proposed activity broadens the participation of underrepresented groups and to what extent it will enhance the infrastructure for research and education in STEM fields.

Second, it is important that we also address diversity needs much more directly. As I have already discussed, demographic reality demands that we work much harder to create a high-tech workforce that truly looks like America. This will require a cadre of professionals, managers and technicians in STEM-related disciplines that are representative of the population.

We have been taking a close look over the past two years at various efforts we could undertake to improve the participation of Minority Serving Institutions across all of our activities. There are several steps we will take, both immediately and across the next five years, to respond to this need. Although we had anticipated making this announcement as part of our FY '05 budget request in February, let me share with you some of our thinking now.

There are several steps that will be taken in the near term. As I have mentioned before the President's FY '04 budget request seeks a significant increase in funding for the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. This program has been singled out as having in place a number of "best practices" approaches to improving minority STEM enrollment and retention. We will also place greater emphasis on the success of the LSAMP efforts in placing students into graduate programs and involving them in other NSF research related activities. We look forward to leveraging this success by vertically and horizontally integrating all of our research and education programs, including LSAMP.

That alone, however, is not enough. Mr. Chairman, it has become clear to me that our efforts to integrate programs aimed at increasing the number of students who pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at all levels, while successful, have also created a situation where no one person is responsible for supervising and tracking the individual efforts of our directorates. That is why I am creating a new senior position within the Office of the Director to oversee all of our efforts to increase representation by underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The person in this position will report directly to me, will be given the authority within NSF to ensure that the individual directorates are held accountable for their various pieces of this effort, and will serve as NSF's chief link to the community. I expect to have someone in this position very soon.

In addition, although NSF's efforts at increasing support for Minority Serving Institutions have been successful in our Education and Human Resources programs, we have been lagging behind this effort in our Research and Related Activities accounts. Therefore, the person in this new position will work with each of NSF's Assistant Directors to determine how MSIs can most effectively participate in our Research and Related Activities, including but not limited to activities such as:

  • Identifying specific opportunities within all directorates that are relevant to MSIs and establishing a plan for increasing the participation of those institutions;

  • Providing travel and support funds for professors and students from MSIs to work in summer positions at NSF-supported multi-user facilities;

  • Developing a systematic program of travel grants for professors from MSIs to attend professional meetings, workshops, and other professional development activities;

  • Ensuring greater outreach so that MSIs have the information they need to be competitive in programs to provide classroom laboratory instrumentation; and

  • Establishing a program of awards to MSIs to support faculty attendance at proposal writing workshops and to provide summer salary awards to enable faculty to write proposals.

The Math and Science Partnership (MSP) initiative should also serve as an important point of entry for MSIs to the National Science Foundation. Many current MSP programs involve school districts serving a significant proportion of minority and disadvantaged K-12 students. I will ask the person in this new position to work with our MSP team to schedule workshops at MSIs to assist them in developing viable partnerships for future Math and Science Partnership competitions.

Mr. Chairman, I see these as first steps in expanding NSF support to MSIs -- but only first steps. I want to develop a trusting, mutually advantageous, long-term working relationship between every directorate within NSF and the MSI community, and I believe this new position will do just that. I also believe it will put in place the final piece of the puzzle that is needed to ensure compete vertical and horizontal integration of these important programs.

Let me assure you that NSF stands ready to work with the committee to achieve our common goal of meeting the requirements of our 21st century workforce. Our future economic and national security demands a coherent strategy that will fully utilize all of America's human resources in science and technology.

Mr. Chairman I appreciate your, and your Subcommittee's longstanding support of NSF. I would be pleased to answer any questions that you may have.

1 Many of the LSAMP alliances include Minority Serving Institutions. However alliance participants include a broad and diverse group of institutions.
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