• September 4, 2015

NSF Seeks New Approach to Helping Minority Students in Science

The National Science Foundation is re-evaluating its approach to helping minority college students, proposing a consolidation of programs that currently assist specific racial and ethnic groups.

The new direction was set out by the Obama administration in its budget recommendation for the 2011 fiscal year, which calls for the outright elimination of three NSF programs: the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program, the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program.

In place of those programs, the science foundation would get $103-million to run a program called Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduates in STEM, in which "STEM" refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The budget for the new program, part of the $6-billion that the NSF spends each year to support academic research, would be 14 percent greater than the amount now spent on the three programs proposed for elimination.

The director of the National Science Foundation, Arden L. Bement Jr., described the plans on Wednesday at a budget hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. Mr. Bement said that under the current approach of specifying spending by racial group, the number of minority students majoring in the sciences is not increasing nearly fast enough, given the overall projected rate of growth for minorities in the United States population.

"Linear growth is no longer acceptable," Mr. Bement told lawmakers, "so we have to go into geometric growth."

Grants Awarded by Competition

The administration's plan also calls for a 5-percent cut in the $19-million budget for another program, Opportunities for Women and Persons With Disabilities, and instead a 14-percent increase in the current $154-million budget for general undergraduate- and graduate-student support.

Mr. Bement said that under his agency's new comprehensive program for increasing minority participation in the sciences, the money would be distributed widely on a competitive basis, allowing even non-minority institutions to qualify, as long as they had minority partners.

The plan also contains an expectation that recipients would find additional money from other sources, including other government agencies, private donors, and foundations.

Two Democrats on the committee, Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, questioned Mr. Bement on the plan. Neither directly criticized it during the hearing, though Ms. Johnson later provided a written statement in which she made clear her opposition.

“I, along with many of my colleagues on the Diversity and Innovation Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, am concerned that this proposal may decrease the effectiveness of some of these critical programs,” the congresswoman said.

And officials at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit group that works to help underrepresented populations in higher education, also expressed concerns.

“The intentions are good but the plan is poorly executed,” said Lorelle L. Espinosa, the group’s director of policy and strategic initiatives.

The 14-percent increase for student support may not be enough to include both Hispanic-serving institutions and white-majority institutions that will now be eligible for the money, Ms. Espinosa said. And the transition to a competitive-award system may undermine the cooperative relationship between colleges that serve minority students, she said.

She also questioned the proposal to eliminate three programs, which finance activities such as seminars, graduate-school advising, and hands-on exposure to research labs. The proposal came with little formal evaluation of whether those programs work better than a more-competitive alternative, Ms. Espinosa said. Competition "has its place,” she said, but “I don’t think this is the place for it.”

Doubts About Aid for Facilities

Mr. Bement, who is retiring from the science foundation to begin work in June as director of the new Global Policy Research Institute at Purdue University, also expressed his opposition to calls from universities for the federal government to give them more money to rebuild deteriorating science facilities.

University representatives made the plea at another hearing of the subcommittee two weeks ago, and Mr. Bement said he was "sympathetic." But, he said, the science foundation should stick to its main mission of supporting research, and not get into the business of serving as the option of last resort for universities facing tough economic conditions.

Mr. Bement also said the recent controversy over climate-change science was the result of scientists' engaging too directly in political debates rather than sticking with their research and letting their findings speak for themselves.


1. 22261984 - March 10, 2010 at 03:56 pm

From Roger Clegg, Center for Equal Opportunity: The focus on race and ethnicity is misplaced, and, to the extent that these factors determine who gets federal money, it is unfair, divisive, and unconstitutional as well. Diamonds in the rough come in all colors. See my "Parable of the Lifeguard," here: http://phibetacons.nationalreview.com/post/?q=N2FkM2NjMjhkMTg0ZWI0OThmZmU3ZDBiNWRmODc1OWQ=

(It is interesting, btw, that there is no mention in this article of any justification for the focus on race and ethnicity. Well, after all, whoever heard of a higher education program today that didn't have this focus?)

2. rambo - March 10, 2010 at 04:03 pm

what about students with disabilities??? For deaf students at Gallaudet Universities? White students with disabilities are minorities, yes or no?

3. smayersu - March 10, 2010 at 04:18 pm

While I appreciate the work that Dr. Bement has done as head of the NSF, I disagree with his statement that "scientists' engaging too directly in political debates" is the source of controversy over climate-change science. He believes that scientists should remain cloistered and affect public opinion by "sticking with their research and letting their findings speak for themselves." The problem with this argument is that the general public does not speak our language. Scientists must engage the conversation in the "public square" if we are to make any progress toward dealing appropriately with global climate change.

4. newmath - March 10, 2010 at 05:03 pm

Honestly, of utmost importance to encourage minorities to enter into the sciences, is to hire more minority faculty. I live in a city where over 40% of the population are members of minorities, yet the overwhelming majority of the college faculty in this area are non-minority members. Many of the department are seemingly oblivious to the fact that minority educators are necessary, as evidenced by the fact that even though they have a high rate of qualified minority applicants for open position, they often hire faculty with little or no cultural connection with minority students.

As an educator I have noticed the wonders that a role model can achieve. The other day I was talking to a high school reading teacher, and the topic of whether students are reading more came up. The teacher informed me that after Obama became president, many of her African American students are much more interested in reading; if I may add, you can actually see that in the subways here in New York City, alot more African Americans are reading.

5. tgroleau - March 11, 2010 at 07:31 am

response to newmath,

Years ago, I would have resisted your suggestion as too simplistic - surely a white guy like me could, if a good teacher, inspire students of any color.

Over time, however, I've learned that it could very well be part of the solution. Unfortunately, knowing that it's part of the solution doesn't do much when minority faculty are very hard to find.

My department is fortunate to have an excellent minority faculty member but I can't pat myself on the back for the "diverse" hire - he was simply the most qualified applicant we had. His minority status and his role in mentoring minority students has been a bonus.

For another potential solution, look at the research of Uri Triesman regarding mathematics achievement


6. 22261984 - March 11, 2010 at 08:20 am

From Roger Clegg, Center for Equal Opportunity: The role model justification for racial preferences in employment has been rejected by the Supreme Court, and it's dubious as a policy mattter anyhow. See http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/01/19/clegg A better approach is to provide mentors, and without regard to race, ethnicity, or sex.

7. chemteach - March 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

As science faculty at a rural two year hispanic serving institution, I have been frustrataed because I want to help ALL my students who are interested in STEM disciplines. There is much funding, research opportunities, etc. which are not used because there is no "minority" student interested when I have a "majority" student who cannot apply because of restrictions. Getting any student to leave a small town environment for the big city college is a huge challenge. Sifting through all the scholarship opportunities and research opportunities to find one that fits your ethnicity, financial circumstances, program of study, and gender is quite challenging.
I agree with previous posters that we need more women and minority faculty. As a woman, I have always been in the minority in the science department. I do believe female students see that it is OK to be brainy, nerdy, science/math oriented and be a woman.

8. kaieie - March 11, 2010 at 01:30 pm

Given this change, I hope NSF is putting serious thought into what kind of students this new hybrid effort will target. As a recipient of NSF funds to increase undergraduate research involvement, I have been able to successfully argue to NSF what qualifies in my home state as "underrepresented"...first generation college students, students from geographically isolated areas, those with little opportunity to connect to research, etc. Underrepresented minorities are the majority of the applicants in my pool, but there are also many others who don't fall into NSF's categories of underrepresented minorities, but who ARE underrepresented in STEM fields in their home or region. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, I hope they are looking at what efforts HAVE worked to bring more underrepresented groups of all types into the STEM fields and applying that wisdom from so many years of programs.

9. eric_gates - March 11, 2010 at 04:42 pm

Funny thing:

the NSF already spent around $5 million to fund the most innovative, effective web technology to fix this problem:


Makes you wonder if the right and left hands are communicating.

10. jesor - March 12, 2010 at 07:45 pm

The reality of it is, there are excellent STEM programs in many states at many schools that would have been able to benefit from these programs, except for state-based prohibitions on race-conscious admissions and aid that essentially forbade them from participating in these programs. This meant that in many locales, the only schools that could apply to these programs were private institutions who were already serving a higher income bracket, and thus the support wasn't really available to all of the students that really needed it. I hope that with the broadening of access to these funds, it will allow more institutions that have different enrollment profiles to participate.

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