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New Mexico in line for boost in federal research dollars

New Mexico has been accepted into a federal program that will bring millions of dollars in additional research and development funding to the state each year to strengthen science and technology, said a New Mexico State University faculty member who co-wrote the state's application for the program.

The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research - - EPSCoR -- promotes development of science and technology resources through partnerships involving universities, industries and government agencies, said Bernie McNamara, NMSU professor of astronomy.

McNamara and Jim Gosh, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, prepared the state's EPSCoR planning proposal. The proposal was accepted by the National Science Foundation Dec. 15 and the state was awarded a $154,000 planning grant to develop target areas for EPSCoR funding over the next three years and the necessary administrative structure to operate the program.

During the initial three-year period, New Mexico will be eligible for $9 million in EPSCoR funding if the state provides $4.5 million in matching funds, McNamara said. Additionally, New Mexico researchers will become eligible for EPSCoR "co-funding" - - a supplemental source of federal research money that gives EPSCoR states a competitive boost -- and this component of the program does not require state matching funds, he said.

Seven other federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, also have EPSCoR programs and will consider allowing New Mexico to participate in them now that the NSF has accepted the state's proposal, he said.

McNamara said EPSCoR is intended to help states become more competitive in securing federal research and development funding, develop their research infrastructure and advance economic growth. It targets states that historically have received lower than average levels of federal research funding, he said.

"It is like a shot of hormones to give you a burst of growth and allow you to more quickly become competitive," McNamara said. "We may be nationally competitive in some fields of science and technology but not in others. EPSCoR will have a statewide committee that will determine what our focus areas should be, and these focus areas can change over time."

The EPSCoR committee will include representatives from a variety of constituencies, including the state's public universities, the public schools, industry, the Legislature, the governor's office, the national laboratories and the Native American community, he said.

The committee's first task will be to develop a detailed proposal, identifying the state's EPSCoR focus areas, to submit to NSF by mid July.

McNamara said EPSCoR provides two types of assistance -- "infrastructure" funding to help states develop their research and development capabilities, and "co-funding" for specific research projects that are worthy but would not otherwise receive NSF funding. In the highly competitive NSF research grant process, only a fraction of the research proposals submitted can be funded, and some favorably reviewed proposals do not make the cut. In such cases now, New Mexico researchers will be able to receive EPSCoR co-funding.

EPSCoR is "a golden opportunity, a collaboration with the federal government picking up two-thirds of the cost and pumping millions into science and technology in the state," McNamara said. "Just from the NSF alone, it's $3 million a year."

EPSCoR has been operating in 19 states and Puerto Rico. New Mexico and Hawaii were added in December.

New Mexico has been interested in the program for years, but federal funding to the national laboratories kept the state from qualifying, McNamara said. Recently the NSF changed its method of determining which states are eligible and invited New Mexico to apply, he said.

New Mexico's six universities already are working together on EPSCoR, said Reed Dasenbrock, associate dean and director of the Arts and Sciences Research Center at NMSU. Vice President for Research Gary Cunningham will be NMSU's representative to the EPSCoR committee.

"EPSCoR acts on the premise that universities, their science and engineering faculty, and their students are valuable resources that can influence a state's development in the 21st century," according to an NSF description of the program. "To achieve this goal, NSF collaborates with state leaders in government, higher education and business to create partnerships that can bring lasting improvements to the state's academic research infrastructure and increase its national research and development competitiveness."

Karl Hill
Jan. 8, 2001