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Dr. Blazey goes to Washington—to testify on NSF bill

May 10, 2021

The head of NIU’s research and innovation enterprise delivered virtual testimony last week to members of Congress who are considering a substantial budget increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Northern Illinois University Vice President of Research and Innovation Partnerships Gerald C. Blazey.

Gerald C. Blazey, NIU’s vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships, was among five research experts called to testify during a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on the topic. The NSF is the funding source for about 25% of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities, and the agency is among NIU’s top research supporters.

The hearing focused on merits of the proposed National Science Foundation for the Future Act, which would potentially double funding to the NSF by fiscal year 2026. The increased budget would aim to increase the number of highly rated research proposals that NSF supports; improve STEM education and research training; increase research accessibility, accountability and security; and accelerate research addressing major societal challenges.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI), chair of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology, within the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, invited Blazey to provide testimony and field questions from her congressional colleagues. Blazey offered the perspective of NIU and other universities that conduct high levels of research activity but do not fall into the top tier of large research institutions with very high levels of resources and extensive infrastructure.

The recorded May 6 hearing, titled “National Science Foundation: Advancing Research for the Future of U.S. Innovation Part II,” along with Blazey’s full written testimony, is available on the hearing website.

During his testimony, Blazey noted that student participation in research is extremely effective for the retention and graduation of students and important for diversification of STEM fields. But a long-standing inequity in research opportunity limits the ability of research institutions with smaller research footprints to diversify the STEM workforce, he said.

Most federal research funding historically has been distributed to a small fraction of the nation’s research universities. Blazey cited 2018 data indicating the top 22% of institutions, ranked by science and engineering federal research funding, received 90% of federal science and engineering research and development dollars. Yet, those same institutions serve only one-third of underrepresented minority college students—a population where critical growth is needed to accelerate workforce diversification and increase innovation.

“Said in another way, two-thirds of our nation’s students of color at research institutions see only one-tenth of federally funded research opportunities,” Blazey said, adding that geographic distribution is also uneven, with 96% of the top institutions in urban or suburban areas.

Earlier this year, National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said a key step toward enabling the American STEM enterprise to thrive in the coming decades will require addressing the “missing millions”—people who are capable of succeeding as scientists and engineers but do not have access to pathways that lead to those careers.

“Programs increasing diversity at the top research institutions, although very worthy, are not enough to reach the ‘missing millions’ because the majority of underrepresented students are at institutions like NIU,” Blazey said.

As a remedy, he advocated in favor of an initiative in the proposed NSF for the Future Act that calls for promoting more partnerships among institutions. These partnerships would help expand research opportunities for students who attend minority-serving institutions or universities with smaller research footprints. Both he and Anna Quider, NIU assistant vice president for federal relations who facilitated Blazey’s hearing participation, have been highlighting this issue in policy meetings and discussions over the past few years.

By promoting partnerships around NSF multi-institutional awards in excess of $1 million, the NSF for the Future Act would maintain the excellence of the large research institutions while building research capacity and broadening opportunity on other university campuses, Blazey said.

While care must be taken to “do no harm to the basic mission” of NSF in supporting curiosity-driven research, Blazey welcomed the proposed increased funding within the bill and supported its other provisions, including creation of the Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions. The directorate, he said, would “support the translational research necessary to address societal issues and competition from directed economies.”

Others providing testimony during the hearing were:
• Roger Wakimoto, vice chancellor for research, University of California, Los Angeles.
• Ms. Gabriela Cruz Thompson, director, University Research and Collaboration, Intel Labs.
• Mahmud Farooque, associate director, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, DC and clinical associate professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University.
• And P. Barry Butler, president, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.