The addition of broader social goals to the EPSCoR mission—as compelling and justified as these broader social goals may be—dilutes the program’s ability to advance its primary goal of strengthening research capability and providing research opportunities for postsecondary students.
The breadth and increasing complexity of the EPSCoR program objectives have made it difficult to develop a rigorous assessment system with quantitative metrics to evaluate short-term and, more important, long-term progress. In addition, neither Congress nor the agencies have required this type of assessment, so there has been little incentive to do so.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that the EPSCoR programs have provided significant benefits to participating states—and thus to the nation. Under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010,2 Congress requested that the National Academy of Sciences examine EPSCoR with funding from NSF. The committee’s charge was to assess the effectiveness of NSF’s EPSCoR program and similar programs administered by other the federal agencies, including the extent to which these programs achieved their respective goals and states used these awards to improve their science and engineering research, education, and infrastructure.3
For at least two reasons, the committee could not assess the effectiveness of EPSCoR with the necessary rigor needed to fully address Congress’s charge. First, the overall mission of EPSCoR and its counterparts has broadened over time and to varying degrees, depending on the respective federal agency. In addition to the changes in the overall environment for conducting research, this may have affected the program’s overall progress in achieving its goals. Second, data of sufficient quality on program operations and expected outcomes are not currently available and would have required more time and resources to collect than were at the Committee’s disposal.
Therefore, the committee focused on better understanding the extent to which the overall structure and policies have affected the program’s ability to achieve its overall mission and major goals.
The first EPSCoR program began more than three decades ago at the National Science Foundation, which is mandated in its founding legislation not only to promote national excellence in science but also to avoid its “undue concentration.” When several members of Congress complained that a small number of states were receiving a disproportionate share of NSF research funding, the agency responded by creating its EPSCoR program. It began in 1979 by distributing $1 million among five states with demonstrated subcompetitive ability to attract National Science Foundation research and development (R&D) funds to help them develop strategies to enhance their research competitiveness. NSF subsequently provided support to implement
3 The complete statement of task and congressional mandate can be found in Appendix C.