The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) was passed by the Senate on June 8, 2021. The legislation earmarks $200 billion in government funds dedicated to enhancing and advancing the United States’ technological position, specifically against China’s efforts to expand its growing political and economic influence. A bipartisan effort, the bill outlines specific scientific and technology-focused provisions that will further secure the United States’ posture as an influential innovation superpower. While it looks likely that USICA will be reconciled with the America COMPETES Act of 2022—a similar bill that just passed the House—and will be signed into law, the specific provisions established to bolster research efforts within higher education pose a missed opportunity for the United States.
In particular, the legislation repeats U.S. errors of the past in excluding Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from being consulted as thought-leaders when it comes to making national science and technology research policy and participating in and receiving funding for such research. The USICA, in many ways, is a partnership agreement between the larger research community, the academy, and the government. HBCUs are a vital part of this research and development ecosystem, serving as the pathway to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for many Black Americans, and no equitable national research policy should exclude them.
During the Cold War, the United States took steps and made the necessary investments to become a global scientific and technological superpower. Reliance upon innovative research became a central focus for the U.S. federal government, particularly as it sought to out-pace the Soviet Union’s advancement toward space exploration. The government shifted policies toward a streamlined focus on universities’ research activities to advance science and technology education to accomplish these auspicious and targeted goals. American higher education research institutions were front and center as the United States grappled with the failed attempt to reach space ahead of the Russians. Armed with a renewed and strengthened focus on education, the goal of training the next generation of researchers in order to boost the United States’ position in the global science and technology marketplace surpassed many party-line political battles, and became a bipartisan mission.
The infusion of federal funds that came after the enactment of several research-focused bills, such as the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963, helped to strengthen the top research institutions in the nation and provided these institutions with the financing necessary to produce competitive innovations still utilized today. Now set as the elite and preeminent prototypes for higher education research and innovation in America and internationally, these institutions continued to reap the benefits of funding and strong ties to the federal government.
Primarily excluded from the influx of resources and benefits at the federal, state, and local levels during the Cold War, however, were HBCUs. This is perhaps unsurprising—for generations, HBCUs have been consistently overlooked, undervalued, under-resourced, and virtually ignored by the U.S. higher education system. These persistent slights continue to drastically impact Black students and faculty researchers seeking and producing quality educational outcomes that position them to succeed in the American and international marketplace.
The vast funding gaps among HBCUs have long been problematic. For example, as Denise Smith has shown in her report for The Century Foundation, “Achieving Financial Equity and Justice for HBCUs,” the subversive policies that have prevented financial growth, viability, and sustainability through investment in endowments at HBCUs has persisted since their founding. Endowments are the economic lifeline for higher education institutions and permit them to generate wealth that directly benefits all connected ecosystems. Without strong endowments, HBCUs are disproportionately unable to benefit from the wealth-building opportunities that strengthen their station within the higher education marketplace.
The impact of this historic underfunding of HBCUs is particularly severe when it comes to research in science and technology. HBCUs produce the largest number of Black undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
The impact of this historic underfunding of HBCUs is particularly severe when it comes to research in science and technology. HBCUs produce the largest number of Black undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Yet, these institutions continue to be disregarded as critical partners and research contributors in the fields of science and technology. Research grants bring millions of dollars into higher education institutions and ensure solid financial grounding. HBCUs work hard to center research at their institutions, allowing them to compete for top grant funding awards. Yet, leveraging funding opportunities to achieve successful outcomes continues to be a generational struggle.
What Can Be Done to Include HBCUs?
Perhaps one reason HBCUs and other institutions representing diverse populations are left out of science and technology funding opportunities is the lack of minoritized voices, experiences, and perspectives within science and technology policy development architecture itself, particularly at the top. Take the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The council comprises top advisors across sectors, including academia, and is charged with making science, technology, and innovation policy recommendations to the president and the White House. Among the notable higher education institutions represented, not one is from a Historically Black College of University. Can the PCAST honestly tout diverse innovation policy development when HBCU representation is absent? How can science, technology, and innovation policies be established equitably when decision-making activities that impact U.S. innovation completely exclude HBCUs?
More recently, National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Innovation Corps announced the establishment of its Directorate for Innovation Technology and Partnerships (TIP). The new directorate focuses on creating “breakthrough technologies” and “meets societal and economic needs; leads to new, high-wage jobs; and empowers all Americans to participate in the U.S. research and innovation enterprise.” Under the auspices of the NSF, the directorate is directly responsible for ensuring innovation activities are interwoven into American society. However, it is unclear how the NSF intends to achieve its missions without centering minoritized science and technology research contributions.
Considering the past and present history of excluding HBCU researchers from similar efforts, how can we ensure that these new initiatives will include HBCUs and other minoritized contributors in the definition of “exceptional STEM educators” and harness their capacities toward achieving the National Science Foundation’s goals? To further achieve diversity efforts, the NSF directorate and PCAST should consider the addition of two seats designated for HBCU presidents. The presence of these HBCU leaders’ insights and perspectives would ensure that President Biden would receive equitable technology policy guidance. The president has already signed an Executive Order as part of an initiative to advance opportunities at the federal level for HBCUs—a reminder of the White House’s commitment to these efforts. The White House should continue to seek equitable policy development in science and technology by including diverse voices across all higher education institutions in the policymaking process, including HBCUs.
The White House should continue to seek equitable policy development in science and technology by including diverse voices across all higher education institutions in the policymaking process, including HBCUs.
At the Congressional level, the USICA should be amended so that it goes further in including HBCUs as beneficiaries of the billions of dollars of dedicated funding and as contributors toward future legislative outcomes. There are aspects of USICA, including language directing federal agencies to increase participation of HBCUs in the Manufacturing USA Institutes, which are driving applied technological research in manufacturing that do support HBCU inclusion. The current legislation situates HBCUs and other minoritized institutions primarily as funding recipients rather than critical thought leaders and strategic policy decision-making partners. To ensure the United States meets its objective of dramatically increasing scientific research and development and re-positioning itself as a competitor with China, it must further identify the specific ways HBCUs should be called to serve. The USICA legislation, in many ways, is a partnership agreement between the larger research community, the academe, and the government. HBCUs are partners and should be addressed as such.
The next step for USICA is a conference with House of Representatives leaders on their version of the bill, the America COMPETES Act. America simply can’t be the world’s leader in technology if we don’t harness talent in every part of the country. That was already the goal of the regional technology hub program in USICA, which would drive technology economic development outside of areas like Silicon Valley and Boston that have dominated venture capital investing. Amendments to that program, passed on a bipartisan basis through the House Science Committee, would prioritize the citing of these regional grants in communities with an HBCU. With urging across Capitol Hill from Senator Raphael Warnock, the COMPETES Act includes $1.2 billion in a capacity building fund to ensure that minority serving institutions can participate equitably in federal research funding. That’s another move that could bring all the unharnessed academic strength at HBCUs into American innovation research.
Neglecting HBCUs as essential research and innovation partners was a tragic missed opportunity toward the United States’ competitive innovation objectives during the height of the Cold War. Federal policy-makers should not repeat this error, and instead should recognize that an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to meet the nation’s future innovation objectives.