Jeffrey Mervis reports over at Science that a House amendment to prevent NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) from spending any money on the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was defeated 232-195. The EPSCoR program provides funding to researchers in states that receive a very small percentage of an agency’s research budget. In the case of the NSF, that’s currently 0.75 percent of its roughly $6 billion research budget.
The amendment was sponsored by Representative Bill Foster, (D-Illinois), which is extra notable not for his party, but for his profession. Foster is currently the only physicist in Congress, and represents an Illinois district just south of the Fermilab facility. Foster is quoted in the Science piece as interested in reducing the incidence of less-populated states getting more in federal dollars than they pay in taxes (a debate that covers a multitude of programs and much more than the $160 million covered by EPSCoR).
Foster complains about the specific formula that determines whether a state or jurisdiction (Puerto Rico qualifies for EPSCoR funds) can access the additional funding. While I’m sympathetic to his argument here, I’m not willing to go as far as he appears to in scrapping the program.
The debate over EPSCoR deals with issues of equity, and a presumption that an interest in equity must undercut considerations of scientific merit. Arguably the interest in equity – in making sure that money doesn’t go only to the elite institutions and only the larger states – can help make the point that one can do science, and be a scientist, even if you don’t get into the top schools.
There is a bias that programs like EPSCoR, and other efforts to increase underrepresented groups in science and engineering research, can work against. Called the Matthew effect, sociologists have noted that (among other things) resources accrue to those that already have them at a greater rate than to those who lack resources. Robert Merton explored this in the context of scientific research in a notable Science article back in 1968.
I don’t know if Representative Foster believes the $160 million in NSF EPSCoR money will make a difference for Illinois. But I can certainly see an effort coming from a scientist to defund the program of a kind with efforts to pit scientific fields against each other in the continued era of stagnant funding. The scientific community has plenty of stress on research dollars coming from outside. It doesn’t need infighting. To avoid this I would encourage a pushback from researchers in all jurisdictions against efforts that would both shrink the funding pie and exclude those who lack sufficient resources.