Rebecca Rutstein and the Ocean Memory Project, "Blue Dreams" (2023), still from the 2 minute and 40 second digital video.

Stop Patching!

In “How to Keep Emerging Research Institutions from Slipping Through the Cracks” (Issues, Spring 2023), Anna M. Quider and Gerald C. Blazey raise interesting questions about how to address the misalignment in distribution of federal research dollars and students from diverse communities being educated in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine—the STEMM fields—across the full range of higher education institutions. If we wish to produce a diverse STEMM workforce for the twenty-first century, the authors explain, we need to recognize and consider how to address this mismatch.

Historically, institutions have usually been targeted for attention when agencies have been directed, largely by congressional action, to develop strategies and “carveouts” to affect the distribution across the full range of institutions. Quider and Blazey rightly point out the limits of such carveouts and special designations to achieve the goal of contributing to increased diversity of the STEMM community. Research support in institutions can provide research opportunities to next-generation scholars and researchers from diverse communities. Research participation has also been demonstrated to support retention of these students in STEMM as well as to promote their choice for graduate education, thus addressing the critical need for faculty diversity.

The difficulty in directing research support to a wider range of institutions cannot be underestimated. Institutions that have received even small advantages in research investments over the decades will present proposals not only where the ideas are excellent, but where research infrastructure is more than likely to be superior as well, advantages having accumulated. Institutions that have not enjoyed such investment may have excellent researchers with excellent proposals, but, lacking research infrastructure, they may not be as competitive as the research behemoths. Carveouts allow for a section of the playing field to be leveled, where similarly situated institutions can compete. The authors note that although a number of carveouts have been created, not all funding “cracks” have been plugged. Missing from the litany of special programs are so-called emerging research institutions that are also taking on the critical role of contributing to the diversity of the STEMM community.

The difficulty in directing research support to a wider range of institutions cannot be underestimated.

While the carveouts have been important to developing and maintaining research capacity across a larger range of institutions, they only delay needed reforms that are more systemic, directing how only a small share of total research and development funding is deployed while leaving the overwhelming majority of funding to the same set of institutions that have always topped the list of those receiving federal R&D support.

It is easy to have conversations about spreading the wealth in a time when budgets are expanding. But even when they are, such as in the doubling of the National Institutes of Health’s budget, they do not necessarily lead to a different distribution of supported institutions. Considering a flat funding environment, what would a reordering of strategic priorities that guide investment look like? Actions would include:

  • Ensuring widely distributed research capacity across a range of criteria.
  • Re-examining the research agenda and the process of setting it—who establishes, who benefits, and who is disadvantaged.
  • Specifically addressing the environment in which research is being done—that it be free of bias and allow all to thrive.
  • Harking back to the “Luke principle” I articulated previously in Issues, all research investments, in whatever the institutions, should include attention to equity and inclusion in developing the scholars and workforce of the future as a central element of supporting excellence and addressing the diversity-innovation paradox.

While we could stand up another targeted effort to address the cracks pointed out by the authors as a stop-gap measure, it is time to re-examine the overall research support structure in light of today’s needs and realities. Stop patching!

Senior Advisor and Director of SEA Change

Former Director of Education and Human Resources Programs

American Association for the Advancement of Science

I applaud Anna M. Quider and Gerald C. Blazey for drawing attention to the critical importance of emerging research institutions (ERIs) in the nation’s research ecosystem. ERIs are often dominated by students of color from low-income families, who may not have been admitted to a major research university or could not afford such a school’s tuition and cost of living. Or they may simply have preferred to enroll in a smaller university, perhaps closer to home.

If the nation does not embrace all ERIs, the disparities between the haves and have nots will become even greater and the nation will not fully achieve its research and diversity goals.

We have dozens of ERIs in California, and most are dominated by underrepresented minorities. The California State Universities are excellent examples of institutions that are in same category as the authors’ home institution, Northern Illinois University, in that they do not benefit from additional federal funding simply because they are geographically located in a state that has a number of major R1 universities.

I worry that if the nation does not embrace all ERIs, the disparities between the haves and have nots will become even greater and the nation will not fully achieve its research and diversity goals. I have firsthand knowledge of these disparities since I graduated from an emerging research institution. However, I am also an example of the potential of these students to contribute to the national research priorities.

Vice Chancellor for Research & Creative Activities

University of California, Los Angeles

Cite this Article

“Stop Patching!” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 4 (Summer 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Summer 2023