[lg policy] NSF Seeks New Approach to Helping Minority Students in Science

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Mar 15 13:23:19 UTC 2010

NSF Seeks New Approach to Helping Minority Students in Science
By Paul Basken


The National Science Foundation is re-evaluating its approach to
helping minority college students, proposing a consolidation of
programs that currently assist specific racial and ethnic groups. The
new direction was set out by the Obama administration in its budget
recommendation for the 2011 fiscal year, which calls for the outright
elimination of three NSF programs: the Historically Black Colleges and
Universities Undergraduate Program, the Louis Stokes Alliances for
Minority Participation, and the Tribal Colleges and Universities
Program. In place of those programs, the science foundation would get
$103-million to run a program called Comprehensive Broadening
Participation of Undergraduates in STEM, in which "STEM" refers to
science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The budget for the
new program, part of the $6-billion that the NSF spends each year to
support academic research, would be 14 percent greater than the amount
now spent on the three programs proposed for elimination.

The director of the National Science Foundation, Arden L. Bement Jr.,
described the plans on Wednesday at a budget hearing held by the U.S.
House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science
Education. Mr. Bement said that under the current approach of
specifying spending by racial group, the number of minority students
majoring in the sciences is not increasing nearly fast enough, given
the overall projected rate of growth for minorities in the United
States population. Linear growth is no longer acceptable," Mr. Bement
told lawmakers, "so we have to go into geometric growth."

Grants Awarded by Competition

The administration's plan also calls for a 5-percent cut in the
$19-million budget for another program, Opportunities for Women and
Persons With Disabilities, and instead a 14-percent increase in the
current $154-million budget for general undergraduate- and
graduate-student support. Mr. Bement said that under his agency's new
comprehensive program for increasing minority participation in the
sciences, the money would be distributed widely on a competitive
basis, allowing even non-minority institutions to qualify, as long as
they had minority partners.

The plan also contains an expectation that recipients would find
additional money from other sources, including other government
agencies, private donors, and foundations.

Two Democrats on the committee, Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri and
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, questioned Mr. Bement on the
plan. Neither directly criticized it during the hearing, though Ms.
Johnson later provided a written statement in which she made clear her

“I, along with many of my colleagues on the Diversity and Innovation
Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, am concerned that this
proposal may decrease the effectiveness of some of these critical
programs,” the congresswoman said.

And officials at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a
nonprofit group that works to help underrepresented populations in
higher education, also expressed concerns.

“The intentions are good but the plan is poorly executed,” said
Lorelle L. Espinosa, the group’s director of policy and strategic

The 14-percent increase for student support may not be enough to
include both Hispanic-serving institutions and white-majority
institutions that will now be eligible for the money, Ms. Espinosa
said. And the transition to a competitive-award system may undermine
the cooperative relationship between colleges that serve minority
students, she said.

She also questioned the proposal to eliminate three programs, which
finance activities such as seminars, graduate-school advising, and
hands-on exposure to research labs. The proposal came with little
formal evaluation of whether those programs work better than a
more-competitive alternative, Ms. Espinosa said. Competition "has its
place,” she said, but “I don’t think this is the place for it.”

Doubts About Aid for Facilities
Mr. Bement, who is retiring from the science foundation to begin work
in June as director of the new Global Policy Research Institute at
Purdue University, also expressed his opposition to calls from
universities for the federal government to give them more money to
rebuild deteriorating science facilities.

University representatives made the plea at another hearing of the
subcommittee two weeks ago, and Mr. Bement said he was "sympathetic."
But, he said, the science foundation should stick to its main mission
of supporting research, and not get into the business of serving as
the option of last resort for universities facing tough economic

Mr. Bement also said the recent controversy over climate-change
science was the result of scientists' engaging too directly in
political debates rather than sticking with their research and letting
their findings speak for themselves.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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