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States Use NSF Seed Money to Build Research Capacity

January 1996

weather map

A weather map from the Oklahoma hydrology project shows heavy rain in the north. The map helps trace the effects of rain on the state's landscape. Credit: Oklahmoa Hydrology Project

Before the Oklahoma hydrology project, anyone interested in the effects of rain on the state had to look out a window.

"We didn't have detailed rainfall information," says Lee Williams, director of the collaborative project between the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. "We didn't have good information on watersheds and ground cover that would allow us to predict the effects of rainfall."

A new weather radar system collected reams of potentially valuable data, but it took seed money from NSF to put the data into usable form for researchers.

The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was created to meet just such funding needs. The Oklahoma hydrology database is now used not only by academics but also by farmers, electric utilities, and others.

"EPSCoR is not about just trying to do good research," says Williams, who is also Oklahoma's EPSCoR Project Director. "It's about getting research into other people's hands."

Started by a Congressional mandate in 1979, EPSCoR is a multi-agency Federal program, aimed at the 18 states and Puerto Rico that have historically received little Federal research money.

The objective, says NSF EPSCoR Director Richard Anderson, is to help these states build stronger science and technology infrastructures.

As with other NSF programs, projects are chosen for funding through a merit review process. But unlike other grants, EPSCoR funding agreements require financial commitments from states and industries involved in the project.

"NSF puts up a dollar and we put up a dollar, and together we get something accomplished," says Hans Brisch, Chancellor of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and chairman of the Oklahoma EPSCoR committee.

Since 1980, NSF has provided more than $145 million while states, institutions and private industries have contributed about $300 million.

State leaders say the science and technology infrastructure is growing stronger in many ways. Some states are upgrading equipment and developing overall science and technology plans. Others are developing specialities within their state. For example, a Vermont EPSCoR team is concentrating on the discipline of food science which will benefit Vermont's strong food industry.

Kansas, on the other hand, is using the project to build a cohesive science team out of competing institutions. Because of EPSCoR, the three main universities have teamed up for projects on airplane design and on the biophysics of epilepsy.

"The universities work together--it's a given now. That wasn't the case a few years ago," says Kansas EPSCoR director Ted Kuwana.

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