Reposted from Science magazine, July 18 2003.

In most years, the idea of spending $250 million to help African-American, Hispanic, and Native American undergraduates bridge the digital divide would be a hard sell. Aside from the hefty price tag, the program's focus on a racially defined group would normally be anathema to the Bush Administration and Republicans who oppose affirmative action and controversial even among many Democrats. Yet just such a bill, proposed by Virginia Senator George Allen, a Republican, sailed through the Senate by a vote of 97-0 on 30 April and is now making its way through the House.

The bill's rapid advance, congressional aides say, owes much to the fallout from racially tinged remarks made by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) during a 100th birthday tribute to the late Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) last December. Lott's veiled praise of Thurmond's segregationist past cost Lott his post as majority leader and sent Republicans looking for ways to make amends with African-American voters. But the proposal to support some 400 colleges with a predominantly minority enrollment has put the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a delicate position: It could be saddled with a program that isn't solidly based on peer review and that could drain money from other efforts. Yet it's hard to argue against the concept. "Nobody wants to be seen as being opposed to helping minority institutions," says one NSF official.

Allen's bill, S. 196, was introduced 17 January, less than a month after Lott's resignation. It would create a 5-year, $1.25 billion program that would award $2.5 million to each qualifying minority-serving institution (MSI) to acquire digital and wireless communications technology. In a nod to peer review, each application would have to pass muster with reviewers and an advisory council whose members are drawn from MSIs.


Power shortage. Students at historically black colleges rely heavily on school computer labs.

CREDIT: L. Y. JACKSON/HUSTON-TILLOTSON COLLEGE

S. 196 is nearly identical to legislation that died quietly after being introduced by Democrats 2 years ago. But there's one important difference: Whereas the earlier bills placed the program in the Commerce Department, S. 196 orders NSF to run it. "We figured that NSF would be a better fit," Allen explained after testifying on 9 July before the House Science Committee in support of H.R. 2183, a mirror image of his bill introduced by Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA). "NSF is used to providing grants to universities, and one of its missions is to increase participation by underrepresented minorities in science, which this infrastructure program will do by giving students and faculty members the tools to be successful."

True enough, NSF Director Rita Colwell told Representative Nick Smith (R-MI), chair of the science committee's research panel. NSF is certainly in favor of helping MSIs, she said, and already has several programs that address the needs of these institutions. But what the Senate passed is not the way NSF does business, she explained. "The proposed program would require NSF to fund every single eligible institution that applies, regardless of merit," she complained. "Although there may be value in such an approach, NSF would not be the right entity to administer it." Colwell also said that NSF couldn't afford to operate such a program unless it received additional money.

The White House has not taken a position on the legislation, but Science has learned that budget officials asked NSF earlier this year to write a stern letter opposing the program. No such statement was issued, however, and Colwell's testimony takes a more nuanced approach, questioning how the program would be implemented but not disputing its underlying premise.

Smith echoed many of Colwell's concerns. "The government is going to be more strapped for funding in the future," he predicted, "and I'm concerned that this will jeopardize other NSF programs that help minorities." He noted that many small and rural colleges serving mostly nonminority students have similar information technology needs. And he agreed with Colwell that the fit didn't seem right: "I'd prefer to see it go to the Technology Administration or maybe the National Institute of Standards and Technology," both within the Commerce Department.

Still, Smith said, "I don't want to hold things up," and he promised that his committee would take up the bill within the next few weeks. But it's not clear what a compromise might look like. Allen says that Commerce "doesn't want the program," and last week House appropriators voted to kill funding for the Technology Administration. Allen hopes the House "can get this thing passed quickly" so that the spending panel overseeing NSF's budget can consider funding it in the upcoming fiscal year.

On July 23, 2003 the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the House science committee had approved a measure, HR2081, that would place responsibility for the MSI technology program in the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is arguing against the move.

Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine.