The National Science Foundation vs. the University of Puerto Rico

By: Joyce K. Almodóvar Jiménez

Imagine you are working on an important research for almost your entire academic career and you are about to finish your research but one day, your supervising professor tells you that the funds have been frozen and the investigation will no longer continue.

On April 2012, the National Science Foundation (NSF) froze $52.1 million designated to scientific and engineering research for the University of Puerto Rico since they failed to submit the required reports on time and effort.

Six months later, the central administration of the University of Puerto Rico is still trying to fix the 32 violations on the contractual agreement between the NSF and the University.

 The National Science Foundation History

The National Science Foundation was funded as part of the National Science Foundation Act in 1950.  Since then, it has supported research in the fields of science and engineering.

For 62 years, the NSF has been the major source of federal subsidy, funding approximately the 20 percent of all research conducted by universities and colleges in the United States and territories.

The National Science Foundation logo.

The National Science Foundation logo.

Its mission has always been “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense,” according to the NSF official website.

Even though the NSF has given all these funds, 18 out of 18 students, interviewed at the University of Puerto Rico- Mayagüez (UPRM), were not aware of the existence of this federal agency.

Throughout the years, the NSF has given millions of dollars in funds to various institutions in Puerto Rico such as the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Ponce Medical School and the University of Puerto Rico, among others, as it appears on the official NSF list of beneficiary universities in the United States and Puerto Rico.

However, only one of these institutions has its funds frozen due to failing to inform the advances of time and effort of the researches, among other issues.

 University of Puerto Rico and its Three Major Campuses

According to an article published in April 27, 2012 in the newspaper Primera Hora, the $60 millions in funds are divided between the three major campuses of the University of Puerto Rico: Río Piedras, Medical Sciences and Mayagüez.

The crew from Science on Wheels at the Marcelino Canino School in Dorado on March 9, 2012.

The crew from Science on Wheels at the Marcelino Canino School in Dorado on March 9, 2012.

Of the $60 million in funds, half is for the Mayagüez campus (RUM) and the other half goes to the central administration of the UPR where they divide them between the current research in other campuses, mostly for the Medical Sciences campus.

Cancer research, nanoscience and electric generation are among those researches that have been made possible thanks to the backing of this prestigious foundation.

Other than investigations, the NSF also funds various educational programs through their “NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12)” project at the RUM.

One of these programs is “Science on Wheels,” a project that brings hands-on science experiences to pre-college students to improve

the education in sciences and mathematics.

Another program in the RUM is the three-year program offering Research Experience for 12 undergraduates’ students and two teachers from underserved regions.

However, all this could change soon.

The Frozen Funds

On April 23, 2012, the central administration of the University of Puerto Rico received a letter from the National Science Foundation stating that the 74 percent of the funding had been frozen.

Copy of the letter from the National Science Foundation to the University of Puerto Rico sent on April 23, 2012.

Copy of the letter from the National Science Foundation to the University of Puerto Rico sent on April 23, 2012.

For the past seven years, the UPR failed to accomplish 32 items in the contractual agreement between the NSF and the UPR system.

In February 2010, the NSF went on a site visit to the UPR and identified the 32 issues, however, the UPR and the NSF made a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) as a compromise to address and correct these issues.

On February 3, 2012, the NSF gave an ultimatum to the UPR if by April 1, 2012 these “delinquencies” in reporting time and effort were not corrected, they would suspend all the funds.

That day passed by, without any major changes, and the NSF proceded to suspend the $60 million in funds for 60 days.

In an interview for the newspaper Primera Hora on April 27, 2012, Manuela Cortés, student representative from the Board of Trustees of the University of Puerto Rico, the investigators are the ones responsible of reporting their time and effort, however, the UPR does not count with the digital program that the NSF requires to verify these reports.

Apparently, the investigators were entering more hours that they were supposed to and the NSF noticed this and informed it to the UPR to be fixed, nonetheless, the UPR did nothing about it.

Since the 32 issues were not completely corrected by the UPR central administration on the stated date, the NSF decided to freeze $33 millions in funds until further notice and gave the UPR until January 2013 were NSF will again do a site visit to evaluate the situation.

According to UPR President Dr. Miguel Muñoz, at present, about 29 items of the 32 have been corrected.

In the meantime, the Board of Trustees of the University of Puerto Rico authorized to use the UPR credit line with the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico so the ongoing investigations would not be affected by this issue.

Although no major investigations have been directly affected for now, the professors and students have already expressed their discomfort with the maladministration of their University.

Dr. Nelson Sepúlveda, from the Department of Electrical Engineering of the UPRM, received recently, the prestigious NSF Career Award for his research on the Development of Vandium Dioxide-based Focal Planar Arrays.

Dr. Nelson Sepúlveda, from the Department of Electrical Engineering of the UPRM, received recently, the prestigious NSF Career Award for his research on the Development of Vandium Dioxide-based Focal Planar Arrays.

In an interview for online newspaper NotiCel on May 3rd, 2012, Lida Orta, president of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU) expressed that the credit line will only get the University into more debt in order to respond for a serious mistake that the central administration did for 7 years.

However, according to Melvin Marrero, a Civil Engineer senior at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, disagrees with the statement that no investigations were affected. “My environmental engineering professor has been conducting an important research for years and this year, he had to cut down expenses in order to continue the investigation,” said Marrero.

In an interview to 18 students from the RUM, about 16 of them expressed their disappointment with the administration of the University. One student, Horticulture sophomore Veronica Rodríguez stated that “some major changes should be made, the University is about the students, and students should be treated as assets, not disposables. I think the administration has been self-centered.”

Industrial Microbiology senior Charlie Maldonado stated that “we need a different administration that isn’t always satisfied with the results they always get or already have, but rather to have an administration that always thrives to improve those results and consequently the community itself.”

Even though the administration is responding to the NSF allegations of “continued delinquency,” for the students is not enough. From the interviews, almost every student expressed that it is completely unfair that for seven years, the University failed to fulfill the requisites of the NSF leading to almost losing practically the only funding source for important research, which is what give the prestige to the University.

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1 Comment

  1. photon said,

    February 20, 2013 at 12:00 am02

    The recent posts in El Nuevo Dia brought me here… shame this isn’t more prominent in the English-speaking press outside of Puerto Rico. Thank you for writing this.


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