Agricultural Research:

USDA's Outreach to Minority-Serving Institutions Could Improve Grant Competition

GAO-03-541: Published: May 14, 2003. Publicly Released: May 21, 2003.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awards more than $200 million annually to universities and colleges to support its research, education, and extension missions. USDA's largest grant program is the National Research Initiative (NRI). GAO was asked to examine the (1) success of minority-serving institutions in competing for NRI research grants, (2) factors that could improve their success in competing for these grants, and (3) actions USDA has taken to improve the quantity and quality of grant proposals these institutions submit. GAO interviewed senior administrators at 43 minority-serving institutions that had either applied for an NRI grant between fiscal years 1997 and 2001 or received more than $100,000 from USDA for research, three major land grant universities, and cognizant USDA officials.

In fiscal year 2001, minority-serving institutions competed more successfully for NRI funding than in prior years, as measured by the percentage of grant proposals awarded funding--30 percent of their proposals were awarded as compared with 13 percent in fiscal year 2000 and only 7 percent in fiscal year 1997. However, because minority-serving institutions submitted only 46 of the 2,579 NRI proposals, they received less than 2 percent of the NRI funding in fiscal year 2001. Senior administrators at many of the 43 minority-serving institutions told us that they submit few, if any, proposals because their institutions' limited resources place them at a disadvantage in competing with the major land grant universities. The minority-serving institutions and three major land grant universities generally told us that the key to success in competing for NRI grants is making a commitment to research by improving an institution's research faculty, equipment, and facilities. Although 35 of the 43 minority-serving institutions said they have made a commitment to performing research, only 4 institutions believe they have the resources needed to compete with the major land grant universities. Several institutions cited the need, for example, to hire faculty members primarily interested in research. The major land grant universities in Montana, Maine, and Vermont said attracting top faculty to perform research and encouraging faculty to submit numerous grant proposals were important factors in their recent competitive success. Two of these universities also used their own funds to support research. USDA has several initiatives designed to help universities improve the quantity and quality of grant proposals, but these efforts have not substantially benefited many of the minority-serving institutions we contacted. Specifically, upon request, USDA offers on-site reviews to improve a university's research capabilities, grant writing workshops, and communication with USDA officials about the competitive grant programs. However, senior administrators at most of the minority-serving institutions told us that USDA's outreach efforts do not address their particular need to understand how to build a competitive research program that will enable them to generate more NRI grant proposals and receive more funding.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To encourage minority-serving and other universities that offer a doctoral degree to submit more NRI grant proposals, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the department to improve its outreach to and communications with these universities. The department should tailor its on-site reviews of research facilities to address strategies for minority-serving institutions, as well as major land grant universities participating in USDA's Experimental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research, to become more competitive in research. The successes of the three comparable-size major land grant universities may offer lessons for this effort.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) has improved its outreach to minority-serving institutions by promoting program reviews in which a visiting committee assesses a university's research program and makes recommendations for improving the university's competitive position for obtaining USDA research grants. Land grant universities consider these program reviews to be useful so that there are more requests for reviews each year than can be conducted. However, prior to fiscal year 2003, New Mexico State University and Texas A&M University were the only minority-serving universities that requested program reviews. (Both universities are their state's major land grant university, as well as meeting the criteria for being considered Hispanic-serving institutions.) During fiscal years 2003 and 2004, in response to its improved outreach, CSREES has received requests for program reviews from five of the 18 historically black land grant universities, as well as from two Hispanic-serving institutions--New Mexico State University and the University of Puerto Rico. In response to these seven requests, CSREES conducted program reviews at two historically black land grant universities in fiscal year 2004, and plans to conduct program reviews at two more during fiscal year 2005.

    Recommendation: To encourage minority-serving the other universities that offer a doctoral degree to submit more NRI grant proposals, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the department to improve its outreach to and communications with these universities. The department should enhance its communications with minority-serving institutions and other land grant institutions by fostering direct contact so that USDA has a greater understanding of each institution's capabilities and the institutions have a greater understanding of USDA's research priorities and needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) has enhanced its communication with minority-serving institutions. In particular, in fiscal year 2004, CSREES (1) worked closely with eight of the 31 Native American land grant institutions to develop long-term goals and improve their understanding of USDA's research priorities and needs, and (2) conducted site visits at six Historically Black Land Grant Universities. CSREES also participated in several regional conferences aimed at minority-serving institutions during fiscal year 2004.

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