The National Science Foundation (NSF) Act of 1950 recognized the value of a broad science and engineering ecosystem across all jurisdictions (states and other U.S. entities). Over time, however, the distribution of research funds became concentrated in a few geographical areas. In response to this imbalance, the National Science Board created a task force in 1977 to examine the geographical distribution of funds. In FY79, the National Science Board approved a resolution that created the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) to ensure NSF was meeting the spirit of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950.
The first sets of NSF EPSCoR awards were made in 1979, and the name was updated in 2017 to the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The main NSF research infrastructure improvement (RII) award is the RII Track-1 cooperative agreement. The Track-1 program is a federal-state partnership, which requires a state financial commitment or match to compete for the federal dollars. The Track-1 is a jurisdictional award meant to build research capacity and competitiveness across the entire state.
NSF EPSCoR has evolved since its inception. Today, the expectation and requirement for funding of a Track-1 cooperative agreement is that a state jurisdiction provides a proposal and a plan whereby the research (intellectual merit) is fully integrated with the education outreach, broadening participation, workforce development, partnerships and collaborations, and communication dissemination to the public components/broader impacts. The motivation for increased integration between research activities and the programmatic elements is to develop a fully trained and diversified workforce to position the state’s national competitiveness and to broaden and sustain economic growth at the state level beyond the funding provided by the NSF.
North Dakota became eligible for the NSF EPSCoR program in 1985 and North Dakota has been continually funded by NSF and continuously funded by North Dakota since receiving its first award in 1986. Eligibility criteria have changed over the past several decades. Today’s criterion to be considered an EPSCoR-eligible state sets the funding cutoff at 0.75% of the annual research funding provided by NSF (on a five-year running average). Currently, North Dakota is at 0.19%, largely because of the few researchers that work in the state. Additionally, jurisdictions with established EPSCoR programs, whose total NSF funding rises above 0.75% remain eligible for five additional years or until their total share of funding exceeds 0.80%. EPSCoR has always been a federal-state partnership, and the North Dakota Legislature has been very supportive for the past three decades in providing the cash match for the RII Track-1 cooperative agreement.
In the early years, the emphasis was on building research infrastructure and capacity, primarily at the state’s two research universities (RUs: North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota). Since that time, ND EPSCoR has expanded its scope. Beginning with the 2014-2021 NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 cooperative agreement, funded research partnerships have been formed at each of the five Tribal Colleges/ Universities (TCUs: Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, Sitting Bull College, Turtle Mountain Community College, and United Tribes Technical College), the three Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs: Dickinson, Mayville, and Valley City State Universities), and the Master’s College/University (MCU: Minot State University). Faculty from each of these institutions work together in the funded research centers.
The competitiveness of obtaining NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 funding has dramatically increased. In the past ten years, over 80% of the EPSCoR jurisdictions have had to resubmit proposals for funding. The ND EPSCoR State Office was established by the North Dakota University System (NDUS) in September 2017. The state office works to: administer STEM student pathway development efforts, manage competitive research match dollars in support of STEM programs at participating institutions of higher education across the state, and inform North Dakota stakeholders. Through the support of state funding, the ND EPSCoR State Office is helping generate STEM interests among students, which helps build a diverse, skilled workforce and grow college and university-based research efforts that provide a backbone for the state's scientific and technological enterprise.
The evolution of NSF EPSCoR has expanded STEM activities within North Dakota. ND EPSCoR is a key state partner in research capacity building and other integrated activities at the RUs, the PUIs, the MCU, and the TCUs. Through the efforts of stakeholders, like ND EPSCoR, North Dakota is building a high-quality, higher education-based research effort that serves as the backbone of the state’s scientific and technological enterprise, ensuring a strong and stable economic base for the future.
The origin of the program Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education (NATURE) can be traced to an informal collaboration between the North Dakota State University Colleges of Engineering and Architecture and Turtle Mountain Community College, Belcourt, North Dakota in 1998. A team of North Dakota State University (NDSU) science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) faculty worked with the five ND tribal colleges to develop a proposal to increase STEM educational opportunities for American Indian students. The effort paid off when Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC), in partnership with NDSU, was awarded a five year grant from the Office of Naval Research (An Adaptive Systemic Initiative of Tribal Collaboration for Increasing Native American Participation in Mathematics, Science and Engineering, 1999-2004), to support activities designed to stimulate the interest of Indian youth from North Dakota reservations in careers such as engineering and those involving higher level mathematics, science and technology skills. This project allowed the team to develop and implement activities such as summer camps, Sunday Academy, workshop for tribal college faculty, and a scholarship program to create new, and strengthen existing, pathways for American Indian students to pursue STEM education successfully and to seek careers in those fields. This project also received support from NASA PACE program (TMCC), 2002-2005, ND EPSCoR FLITE equipment funding, 2001-2004, and NSF BRIDGES program planning grant, 2004. Though it had provided partial support initially, ND EPSCoR took the program completely under its wing in 2006 after the funding from ONR had ended. At that time, the program assumed the new title NATURE. Since then,
- ND EPSCoR has a Tribal Colleges Liaison and NATURE Manager who works to improve the effectiveness of the university-tribal college communication and collaboration,
- the University of North Dakota joined the collaboration, and
- the quality of activities previously developed has improved and participants numbers have increased.