Democrats Seek Billions for R&D at Minority-Serving Institutions

Publication date

The Biden administration is seeking to pump billions of dollars into research projects and infrastructure upgrades at minority-serving institutions, though so far Congress has advanced less ambitious spending plans.

Kamala Harris at Hampton University

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with students at Hampton University, a Historically Black College and University in Virginia, as part of the annual HBCU Week conference on Sept. 10.

Media Credits

The White House

Through a combination of executive actions and legislative proposals, the Biden administration is seeking to increase the research capacity of minority-serving institutions (MSIs), arguing they are critical to expanding and diversifying the domestic STEM workforce. MSIs include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other categories of institutions that serve large numbers of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

President Biden has proposed allocating tens of billions for research infrastructure upgrades and R&D projects across MSIs within special spending packages he is urging Congress to pass. In parallel, he has also proposed several new science agency initiatives focused on increasing support for MSIs through the annual appropriations process.

So far, House Democrats have responded by including billions for projects at MSIs — albeit well short of the amounts sought by Biden — in the $3.5 trillion partisan spending package they are currently developing. Lawmakers are also advancing their own initiatives for scaling up support for MSIs, some of which predate Biden’s presidency.

Harris makes case for infrastructure upgrades

In making the case for prioritizing MSIs, the administration has pointed to the important role they play in producing undergraduate STEM majors, among their other benefits.

An executive order Biden issued this month directs federal agencies to evaluate opportunities to increase support for HBCUs, observing that they produce approximately 25% of Black STEM graduates in the U.S. despite lacking access to infrastructure and resources available to other universities.

Speaking this month at Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia, Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized the administration’s interest in improving research infrastructure at HBCUs. “Historically, our HBCUs have done extraordinary research work. But over the years, some of the facilities have experienced the wear and tear, and we need to invest in allowing our HBCUs to do what all universities should have the ability to do … which is to upgrade,” she remarked.

Harris herself is a graduate of Howard University, an HBCU located in Washington, D.C., and in her own campaign to be the Democratic nominee for president she proposed spending tens of billions on STEM research and education activities at MSIs.

The roughly $2 trillion multi-year infrastructure plan the Biden administration released in March proposes that Congress provide HBCUs and other MSIs with $20 billion for research infrastructure upgrades, $15 billion for creating up to 200 “centers of excellence” in STEM fields, and $10 billion for R&D projects.

The corresponding proposals advanced to date by congressional Democrats are less ambitious, leading some advocates to urge Congress to further embrace the administration’s vision.

The House Education and Labor Committee’s portion of the package would allocate $2 billion to MSIs over seven years to build out R&D infrastructure, including instructional and research spaces relating to STEM, the arts, or other disciplines. The funds could also be used to provide direct financial support to faculty and to create new research internships, fellowships, and postdoctoral positions.

The House Science Committee’s portion includes a $700 million carveout for National Science Foundation research projects at MSIs as well as $300 million for infrastructure upgrades. The House Agriculture Committee’s portion also includes nearly $1 billion for upgrades to agricultural research facilities at MSIs.

Although these amounts could be increased as negotiations proceed, they could also be scaled back if Democratic leaders cannot gain their party’s full support for the package’s current $3.5 trillion topline. They will need near unanimity to successfully leverage Congress’ budget reconciliation process, which allows them to circumvent the filibuster that Senate Republicans would otherwise use to thwart the package’s progress.

Related initiatives already underway

Special spending legislation aside, Congress has recently channeled some increases in funding for MSIs through the regular appropriations process.

Over the past five years, Congress has more than doubled the annual budget for a Department of Defense program that supports research projects and centers at MSIs, with $81 million appropriated this year. Much of this funding has gone to establishing research centers at HBCUs in key areas of interest to DOD that also provide training opportunities for students and pathways to internship opportunities in defense R&D.

On Sept. 9, the department announced the latest two centers, based at Morgan State University and North Carolina A&T State University, which together will receive $15 million over five years. The new centers, focused respectively on 2D materials and biotechnology, will join others in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum sensing, and aerospace R&D.

Congress also recently commissioned a National Academies study on ways to improve the ability of HBCUs to compete for and conduct defense research grants. The study also focuses on Minority Institutions (MIs), which are universities with at least 50% minority enrollment. 

The study committee released an interim report this month with a final version expected in 2022. Among its initial findings, the committee supports the notion that HBCUs play a key role in producing Black STEM graduates, stating that “among the top 10 schools that sent Black undergraduates on to earn science and engineering doctorates between 2010 and 2019, eight were HBCUs.” However, it also notes that relatively few HBCUs and MIs have large research portfolios.

Among the 266 doctorate-granting universities included in the two highest tiers of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions, the report notes that fewer than 10% are HBCUs or MIs, with only two classified as R1 institutions, meaning they have “very high research activity”: the University of Texas at El Paso and Florida International University. Among R2 institutions, which have “high research activity,” 19 are HBCUs or MIs.

The report adds that “early analyses by the committee reveal that strikingly low levels of DOD R&D funding have been competitively awarded to these institutions.”

Speaking at the study kickoff meeting last year, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD), who crafted the provision mandating the study, said that in 2017 HBCUs received “a mere 0.4%” of total DOD science and engineering funds allocated to academic institutions that year.

DOD’s program is one of several at federal science agencies that provide dedicated support to MSIs, many of which are identified in a recent report from the interagency National Science and Technology Council on “best practices for diversity and inclusion in STEM education and research.”

The Biden administration has proposed creating additional MSI support efforts in its budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2022, including a $3 million program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and a $30 million program in the Department of Energy Office of Science called Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW). Congressional appropriators have endorsed both these programs in their spending proposals.

The Biden administration has also directed science agencies to prioritize support for MSIs in their budget requests for fiscal year 2023.

About the author

FYI is an editorially independent science policy news service from the American Institute of Physics. If you are interested in republishing this content, please contact [email protected].