With rare bipartisan support, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 was signed into law in August to enhance the U.S. national and global position in science and technology. The act’s funding package addresses the nation’s various STEM research and innovation needs while boosting manufacturing and workforce development industries. Further, it strengthens the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Science Foundation (NSF) by outlining funding capabilities sought to address education, training, and employment inequities in distressed communities, invest in STEM research, and repair the fractured infrastructure that is necessary to support the expansion of the American workforce. The CHIPS and Science Act exemplifies what is possible when we all work together to support American interests.
The CHIPS and Science Act authorizes new modes of funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Emerging Research Institutions (ERIs)—identified as colleges and universities that significantly contribute to American innovation and workforce development. Historically, HBCUs, MSIs, and ERIs have not been well-positioned to reap the full benefits of federal grant funding opportunities due to generations of systemic and structural racism. Higher education funding disparities date back to the 1800s, with the establishment of federal legislation that produced and financed land-grant colleges and universities. The historical vestiges of policies and practices established to bolster military, agricultural, technical, and mechanical innovations in the United States and yet systematically excluded HBCUs and MSIs, persist today. These practices, rooted in bias and discrimination against Black men and women and other communities of color, positioned already-wealthy white institutions as the preeminent beneficiaries of research funding opportunities.
The funding authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act is a bold step toward reversing systematic exclusion, but funding alone will not remove the barriers that HBCUs in particular face as science and technology research institutions. The act’s funding should be accompanied by strategies for implementation that help reduce or remove discriminatory practices in the research grantmaking environment.
Persistent Barriers That Lead to Inequities
The persistence of inequitable federal and state funding practices continues to debilitate HBCUs today. Remnants of the past are seen in present disparities, such as how historical underinvestment led to deferred maintenance for physical infrastructure, or how the Carnegie Classification framework identifies which colleges and universities are lauded for very high research activities. The inequities are so pervasive that the CHIPS and Science Act calls for an assessment of federal research agency outreach activities, mandated to increase the participation and competitiveness of HBCUs and MSIs. Further reporting on agency activities and funding practice as an accountability measure, for example, is key to ensuring federal research agencies provide more equitable access to federal grant programs.
Biases in the awarding and distribution of federal grant funding also continue to be problematic. As noted above, federal agencies have historically created grant programs to the benefit of elite institutions based solely on practices that favor predominantly white schools as well as hierarchical structures that promote and encourage competitiveness among like institutions in research areas such as STEM. The federal government’s reliance upon the Carnegie Classification framework to uphold these practices continues to close doors on HBCUs. Established in the 1970s, the classification framework directly impacts an institution’s ability to access grant funding. Despite focused media coverage on HBCUs pursuit of the “very high research activity” (R1) status, funding practices continue to undermine HBCUs’ research contributions, further excluding them from competitive arenas. While several HBCUs are primed to reach the coveted R1 status, the reality remains that only eleven of the 105 HBCUs hold the designation of “high research activity” (R2) status in the higher education landscape. No HBCU currently possesses the R1 status.
HBCUs’ research contributions further advance the federal workforce development agenda. A more targeted approach by the federal government to strategically address systemic inequities in grant funding across the higher education ecosystem would improve access to the fruits produced by HBCUs, where research and innovation are ripe but untapped.
Dr. Willie E. May, vice president of research and economic development at Morgan State University, an R2 HBCU in Maryland, believes that HBCUs play a vital role in conducting research and preparing the STEM workforce that is critical to U.S. global competitiveness and the nation’s quality of life. According to Dr. May:
The major challenge remains to address “the Missing Millions,” the fact that women, Black and Hispanic people are pursuing STEM careers at a significantly smaller percentage than their overall proportion in the U.S. population. To accelerate reducing this gap, we need to develop new approaches to invest in anchor institutions, like HBCUs that have a track record of successfully training higher numbers of professionals from underrepresented groups.
The CHIPS and Science Act provides the foundation needed to ensure that federal agencies see HBCUs as a part of the national research community. These institutions repeatedly prove their capabilities and invest in expanding competitive science, technology, and innovation in the United States despite persistent and targeted funding droughts. As the higher education community considers how to implement the initiatives and funding streams created by the legislation, it needs to keep at the forefront how past transgressions against institutions traditionally ignored in the research community can negatively impact the progress made through the new law. Exploring and quickly addressing how federal agencies ensure what is specifically outlined in the act is executed to the direct benefit of “distressed communities”—which are served by HBCUs—are necessary steps to realize the legislation’s goals and objectives. The details regarding implementation need to be made clear—not left as gray areas—to ensure effectiveness and a paradigm shift in how funding agencies view academic research and technology programs at HBCUs. Implementation must also consider the following recommendations, which seek to forge a path for impactful strategies that dismantle discriminatory grant funding practices, with equity at the forefront of funding decision-making.
- Invest in Research and Development Capacity by Improving Infrastructure. HBCU infrastructure challenges continue to hamper the advancement of research capabilities. Deferred maintenance, crumbling buildings, dated laboratory equipment, and poor air quality inhibit sustainable research. These realities are among the most significant for HBCU faculty and graduate students as they limit their innovative ability to educate students and produce competitive research contributions. Federal support and advocacy for equitable and sustainable infrastructure investments are essential for successful research and innovation outcomes. Gains made through the U.S. Department of Education’s discharge of roughly $1.6 billion in deferred loans to public and private HBCUs further support the need for attention on infrastructure issues to address mounting challenges that impact meeting and exceeding research benchmarks. Funding sources targeted to the benefit of HBCUs need to be directed to address the highest deferred maintenance costs. Establishing accountability measures that outline strategic plans for resolving the most egregious infrastructure needs is also recommended.
- Establish Centers of Excellence in Innovation at the HBCUs. Centers of Excellence and Research Innovation (CERIs) should be established to provide technical assistance and training mechanisms that strengthen research grant proposal development. The establishment of these centers can create environments that foster and promote cultures of collaboration via relationship-building among HBCUs and federal agencies, while further developing a student-focused pipeline in STEM research. These engagements provided additional support and resources for capacity-building among faculty and staff, thus supporting the higher probability of securing grant awards. Additionally, programmatic development that strengthens these institutions grant-seeking activities is essential to address challenges that they have experienced in identifying, soliciting, and securing grant funding. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Directorate of Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) should be tasked with establishing assistive grant development programs through regional CERIs. The assistive programs should reference federal agency offerings, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Phase 0 Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. CERI programs should strengthen training, mentoring, and grant execution support outcomes to benefit HBCU, faculty and graduate student researchers. These support structures provide much-needed access that bridges solicitation knowledge gaps.
- Establish an Oversight and Accountability Body to Ensure Equitable Grant Distribution. The CHIPS and Science Act calls for the establishment of an accountability entity to monitor federal agencies involved in providing competitive grant opportunities. To ensure equity is at the forefront, the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce should create an Oversight and Accountability Body (OAB) to enforce equitable funding implementation under the CHIPS and Science Act. The OAB should be directed to investigate, develop, and disseminate best practices to eliminate bias and further enhance grant award viability at HBCUs.
The Future of Innovation Includes HBCUs
The CHIPS and Science Act opens the door to HBCUs so that they can better compete as viable research institutions ready to contribute to mission-driven and critical innovation. With a conscious focus on equitable grant awarding that seeks to bridge the gap and address the discriminatory practices of the past and provide opportunities for the future, the legislation outlines support for capacity-building for these institutions that encourages mutually beneficial partnerships. Providing equitable research experiences while scaling up successful model programs should be incorporated as a central focus of implementation of the CHIPS and Science Act.
The recommendations provided above would help foster a culture of collaboration across federal agencies seeking to invest in research and development capacity at HBCUs. These joint collaborations will bolster faculty and student research initiatives and strengthen institutional infrastructure. The time is now to reposition HBCUs as architects of the future, not simply for the benefit of these institutions but also for the future generations of science and technology innovators, scholars, and the competitive American workforce.