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Senators Criticize NSF’s Changes to EPSCoR Program

MAY 31, 2024
Senators argue a restructuring last year harmed their states’ EPSCoR offices despite NSF providing more money overall to eligible states.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics
NSF Director Panch Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee Hearing May 2024

National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan testifies before Senate appropriators on May 23.

(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The National Science Foundation’s recent restructuring of the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) is drawing criticism from senators who argue the changes have resulted in funding cuts for their states’ program offices. Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) raised the subject in testy exchanges with NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan at a hearing last week by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

EPSCoR provides funds to institutions in U.S. states and territories that have historically struggled to secure NSF grants. The agency is sunsetting a longstanding EPSCoR subprogram that supported research infrastructure improvements, called RII Track-1, and has replaced it with two new RII subprograms called EPSCoR Collaborations for Optimizing Research Ecosystems (E-CORE) and EPSCoR Research Incubators for STEM Excellence (E-RISE).

Reed argued that NSF did not do enough to help states prepare for the transition and said Rhode Island’s EPSCoR office now may run out of money this August. “Your rollout has not been successful, to be blunt, because we’re seeing now EPSCoR programs evaporate in the very states that we placed them in — because we don’t want every nickel from NSF going to MIT and Stanford and all the other big research institutions,” Reed said. Panchanathan defended the changes and noted NSF’s funding for EPSCoR jurisdictions has increased overall.

He said NSF is on track to meet the CHIPS and Science Act goal of the agency allocating 20% of its research funding to EPSCoR jurisdictions by 2029. He said the agency hit 15.9% in 2023, exceeding the target of 15.5%, and likewise plans to exceed the 16.5% target the act sets for 2025.

“I expect that we’re going to outperform because I am a firm believer that talent and ideas are all across our nation,” Panchanathan said. He also committed to considering providing “transition” funding to keep EPSCoR offices operating.

Pressed on the subject by Heinrich, Panchanathan said the program changes will result in many more institutions being able to receive EPSCoR funds. “That sounds great, but that’s not been our experience,” Heinrich replied.

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