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Correcting the Inequities in Federal Research Funding

Correcting the Inequities in Federal Research Funding

It is important and necessary for graduate students across different disciplines to be engaged in higher education policy debates. However, the reality is that too often, many graduate students are focused solely on their course work and/or research without realizing the significant impact of higher education policies on their educational success.
For instance, the issue of equity in federal research funding is not only important for the viability of many doctoral granting institutions, especially for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but also necessary for research programs that are struggling to attract and retain graduate students and junior faculty.
Research funding inequity is the disproportionate dispersal of federal research and development (R&D) funds across institutions of higher learning. Many institutions receive federal funds for research in the form of a grant and, in addition, receive a percentage of the grant to cover indirect cost. Institutions use indirect cost funds at their discretion, mostly as seed money for junior faculty research projects and building costs and to cover wear and tear resulting from collateral usage during the life of the grant. Money awarded directly for private investigators is used by the PIs to fund research and hire graduate students. However, only a few schools receive windfall benefits from federal research money as a result of inequities in the distribution of these funds.
Data from the National Science Foundation indicate that 100 universities receive more than 80 percent of all federal funds allocated for science and engineering R&D. Moreover, a significant number of these schools are private institutions. In fact, there are no HBCUs, public or private, in the 100 institutions receiving the majority of federal funds allocated for science and engineering R&D. This inequity results in decreased opportunities to hire graduate students and limited opportunities to build a research agenda so programs can become more competitive in garnering federal research funds.
It has been suggested by several critics of the federal funding formula that agencies such as NSF and the National Institutes of Health, should put more emphasis on a need-based criteria instead of the peer-reviewed system currently in place. The NSF has been somewhat sensitive to the issue. The agency devoted $48.4 million of its $3.6 billion budget in 1999 to strengthen the institutions receiving minimal federal R&D funds for the rigors of competing for federal research money — this sum represents only 1.3 percent of the total budget. The fact still remains that many institutions, including numerous HBCUs, receive little or no federal R&D dollars. The top 100 universities that receive federal R&D funds are partly to blame. These universities often argue that the unnecessary “propping up” of individual institutions without merit for the purposes of strengthening them for the rigors of federal R&D money is a waste of NSF’s financial resources. This attitude exacerbates federal funding inequities and allows the system to continue rewarding well-financed universities.
The majority of graduate students who are adversely affected by research funding inequities do not attend the top 100 universities that receive most of the federal research money. Moreover, the interest of these graduate students often are not represented at various levels of the funding decision-making process. In other words, they are rarely represented during the appropriation process, the development of Request for Applications (RFA) process, or the peer-review system. This lack of participation must improve as a first step in achieving federal research funding equity.
As a course of action, graduate students should take the following four steps toward involvement in higher education policy:
• Understand the issues surrounding federal research funding mechanisms, legislative processes, department and institutional roles, publishing and the politics of higher education policy. This can be accomplished by collaborating with higher education administrators and faculty to develop and implement seminars to educate the graduate student population on these issues.
• Engage in civic discourse on these issues through participating in regional and national debates, identifying key persons involved in the decision-making process, writing letters to legislative representatives and administrative and academic leaders, assisting in developing a legislative agenda for graduate student organizations, and building a local advocacy base by clarifying how funding for research benefits the local region.
• Conduct seminars for undergraduate students to instruct them on higher education policy issues. Over time, this will facilitate a continuity of efforts in addressing issues concerning higher education and at the same time promote graduate education among undergraduates.
• Monitor the effectiveness of policy education campaigns and tweak them if necessary. An evaluation of the effectiveness of the strategies that promote graduate awareness of higher education policy should be built into the education campaign. Feedback from these evaluations should help inform future strategies and provide information for the public information component of the campaign.
It is my belief that an informed graduate student would make a better consumer of higher education than an uninformed one. Therefore, graduate students must get involved at all levels of higher education policy-making. 

— Dr. Anthony D. Salandy is the 2001-2002 Society for Research in Child Development and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Fellow and an affiliate faculty member at Auburn University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

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