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Hard Science

September 11, 2009

In a year when federal dollars for scientific research declined for academic institutions overall, minority-serving colleges took a disproportionate hit, according to a new report from the National Science Foundation.

Historically black colleges and universities, institutions with large Hispanic enrollments, and tribal colleges all saw steeper federal funding declines than the 0.4 percent drop that occurred across academe from the 2006 to 2007 fiscal years. The report examined "federal obligations for science," an umbrella term for funds distributed by numerous federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, as well as NASA, the National Science Foundation and other agencies. The funds go toward numerous categories, including research and development, facilities and equipment, and fellowship and training grants, among others.

The decline, recorded in current dollars, was most dramatic at tribal colleges, where funding fell by 13.2 percent. HBCU funding declined 8.6 percent, and federal support for science and engineering dropped by 1.6 percent at high Hispanic-enrollment institutions.

Minority-serving institutions make up a relatively small piece of the federal funding pie when it comes to dollars awarded for science and engineering. Federal agencies provided $28.5 billion across 1,216 academic institutions in 2007, and just $1 billion of that went to minority-serving institutions.

Patrick Clemens, director of the research and development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it’s difficult to discern why minority-serving institutions were so disproportionately affected.

“I really can’t tell you why,” Clemons said. “They are a small component of the overall [funding], so they are more apt to fluctuations. I don’t know that a one year dip in any one of these is any huge deal [in terms of showing a trend].”

If there is an overall trend in federal funding for science and engineering at HBCUs, however, it's been in the downward direction of late. The 2007 decline is the second consecutive drop for HBCUs, making the 2007 total awards less than any year since 2001, the report notes.

Federal agencies provide funding in six different categories, the largest of which is research and development. Notably, however, historically black colleges derived a significant portion of their funding in 2007 from the “other science and engineering activities” category, which includes support for technical conferences, teacher institutes and increasing the scientific knowledge of pre-college and undergraduate students. Of the $406 million awarded to historically black colleges, 29 percent was provided in the “other” category. As such, HBCU's received a far greater portion of their funding from a relatively small portion of the federal pie than do institutions nationwide. The "other" category accounted for just 6 percent of the total funding dollars provided by all federal agencies across academe in 2007, compared with nearly 30 percent for HBCU's.

Institutions with strong undergraduate programs often excel in the types of outreach programs for which “other science and engineering” dollars are awarded, but they may not be as competitive in the hunt for research and development money, Clemons said.

“The size of your graduate program is definitely going to affect the amount of people you have to work on these research and development projects,” Clemons said.

Despite having above average awards in the "other" category, research and development was still the most lucrative area for historically black colleges and universities, which derived 58 percent of their federal funds from research and development.

As in years past, Howard University, which was awarded $32 million in 2007, was the leading HBCU recipient of federal funds for science and engineering.

The smallest funding decline among minority-serving institutions occurred at high Hispanic-enrollment colleges, which were awarded $594 million. The Hispanic category includes a wide array of institutions, some of which are connected to more research intensive universities than many HBCU's and tribal colleges. Defined as any university where at least of quarter of undergraduates self-identify as Hispanic, the category includes campuses within the University of Texas, University of New Mexico and California State University systems.

With $119 million awarded, the University of New Mexico system was the largest recipient of federal dollars among high Hispanic-enrollment institutions.

For tribal colleges, federal funding has been erratic in recent years. The $25 million awarded in 2007 represented a 13.2 percent decrease from 2006, but the 2005 awards marked a 51 percent increase from 2004.

Salish Kootenai College, located in Pablo, Mont., was the leading recipient of funds among tribal colleges, taking home $2.9 million in 2007.

Institution Type Federal Awards % Change, 2006 to 2007
All universities and colleges $28.5 billion -0.4%
Tribal Colleges $24.9 million -13.2
Historically Black Colleges and Universities $406.1 million -8.6
High Hispanic-enrollment $593.7 million -1.6

 

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