AUTM Updates

State-Level EDI Bans Complicate CHIPS Funding Proposal Process

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is getting a boost from federal research translation initiatives authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act, but anti-EDI legislation in multiple states could make it challenging for some public research institutions to compete for funding from those programs.

The three major research translation funding programs to emerge so far from the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act all require applicants to describe how their proposed projects will benefit historically underrepresented populations. The Accelerating Research Translation and Regional Innovation Engines programs launched by the National Science Foundation and the Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program under way at the Economic Development Administration together account for a federal investment of more than $3 billion.

All three programs prioritize EDI concepts in their selection process, requiring applications to describe specific strategies the proposed project will use to engage individuals from underrepresented populations, institutions and geographic region. Many federal agencies have EDI requirements for grant proposals; notably, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science in 2023 began requiring funding opportunity applicants to submit a Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research Plan as an appendix to every proposal.

“Leveraging the full spectrum of diverse talent that society has to offer to increase capacity building programs helps to bridge the gap between knowledge gained through research, and application in policy and practice as it relates to research translation,” an NSF spokesperson said. 

The EDI emphasis is especially welcome for research institutions in under-resourced areas, which stand to gain the most from innovation-driven economic development.

“DEI is included in the NSF Engine and EDA Tech Hubs criteria. For that, we are grateful in Puerto Rico and are moving forward to improve our innovation ecosystem,” said David Gulley, PhD, Executive Director of the Technology Transfer Office at the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust.

Gulley’s organization and its partners received an NSF Engines Development Award of $1 million for its Advancing Biopharmaceutical Technologies and Manufacturing Practices proposal. It also leads the PRBio Tech Hub, which in October 2023 was designated one of 31 EDA Tech Hubs that will compete for a share of $500 million in implementation funding, which will be announced this summer.

“All of our higher education institutions are MSIs (minority-serving institutions) characterized by the students served and the faculty and staff employed,” Gulley said. “The communities we serve are economically underserved and under-resourced and can be uplifted through these broad and historic investments.” 

But federal funding agencies’ commitment to EDI is at odds with conservative political platforms in multiple states, some of which have passed laws prohibiting public universities from having EDI statements or programs (visit the Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI Legislation Tracker for updated details). Academic tech transfer professionals are concerned that the anti-EDI backlash could put universities in those states at a disadvantage when applying for CHIPS-driven funding.

“There’s a real possibility that any IP-generating institution that is unwilling, or truly and legally unable, to put forth the effort necessary for open, honest and truly welcoming environments will miss out on not only these federal funds, but on the positive cultural and economic impacts that these initiatives present for the future,” said Michael Invernale, PhD, Senior Licensing Manager in Technology Commercialization Services at the University of Connecticut and a member of the AUTM Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

The University of Connecticut and Yale University lead a coalition that received an NSF Engines Developmental Award for its QuantumCT proposal to position Connecticut as a center of excellence in quantum technologies.

“It is a categorical imperative for us to lead by example with EDI. For QuantumCT, that means bringing people into the fold and training them to be impactful contributors and leaders in the startups, industries, and schools that will carry this work forward into the world at large,” Invernale said. “Training the next generation means training all of the next generation, and we are committed to continuing to pursue this Engines proposal with an inclusive, diverse and equitable lens on everything we craft and install to accomplish the task.”

NSF is aware of the anti-EDI backlash but has no plans to soften its EDI stance, the spokesperson said. (An EDA representative did not respond to a request for comment.)

“While the US National Science Foundation cannot interpret or provide advice/guidance on state law, we are monitoring new legislation that impacts DEI programs across the country for awareness. Institutions of higher education are responsible for carefully reviewing state laws as they apply to them,” the spokesperson said. “NSF’s commitment to engaging everyone in STEM is unwavering.  We encourage participation in funding opportunities for all and remain convinced that diversity of talent and meritocracy work in harmony without compromising one for the other.”

The NSF proposal review process does not account for external factors, such as state DEI laws.
“The merit review process, which is the global gold standard for evaluating scientific proposals, has two criteria - intellectual merit and broader impacts. NSF will continue to emphasize the importance of the broader impacts criterion in the merit review process, and the agency is committed to continuing supporting programs and activities that broaden participation in STEM for the benefit of the nation,” the spokesperson said.

As the number of states introducing anti-EDI legislation continues to grow, research translation teams in affected states should consider reaching out to their institution’s leadership and state relations personnel to communicate the legislation's potential impact.

“Anyone hamstrung by an unjust law can and should present the case for why they are losing out on funding, and therefore future jobs for their state, by enacting and cowing to policies that go against the interests of the many,” Invernale said.