Bob Swenson: Growth of Research at MSU in the 1980s and 90s – how – and why EPSCoR?

Bob Swenson receives a recognition from MSU President Waded Cruzado

Note: An edited version of this article appeared in the Spring and Summer 2015 Newsletters.  In order to allow access to the full article, we are posting it here on our website. 
Written: October 14, 2014


Robert Swenson, Emeritus Vice President for Research at MSU


These are a few recollections  from the early decades of EPSCoR at MSU and the impact those programs had on the development and success of the research programs at MSU, which had moderate growth in the 1970s and 80s followed by rapid growth from 1990 to 2007 leading to a Carnegie Tier 1 status in 2006.   These are memories, not a “history.  What is certain is that the MSU Carnegie rating is a result of EPSCoR impacts on MSU.


During the 1960s and 70s American Industry was reducing or eliminating in-house research.  There were growing expectations that universities would take over more applied research and development, leading to a national dialog on the role of a university.  In a speech to the U.S. Senate, Senator Fulbright defined what a university should be:

“When a university turns away from its central purpose of advancement of man’s search for truth and understanding and makes itself an appendage of Government and Industry, concerning itself with techniques rather than purpose, with expedients rather than ideals, dispensing with conventional orthodoxy rather than new ideas, it is not only failing to meet its responsibilities to its students; it is betraying a public trust.”  Senator Fulbright, U.S. Senate, 1967

During this same period, the geographic distribution of research funding was discussed.  Most of federal funding was located in a relatively small number of states.  Would a broader geographic distribution of funds, including “have not” states, be more beneficial for the entire country? 

“What have you done for my state recently?” asked a Southern Senator of the NSF Director at a Senate hearing in the late 70’s.  He was expressing the concerns of a number of Senators. This was followed by a request from Rep. Ray Thornton (D-AR), Chairman of the House Science Committee, to the NSF Director, Richard Atkinson, to design a program to develop the research capacity of states receiving  little Federal R&D funding. Shortly thereafter in 1978 Congress authorized the “Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research” (EPSCoR) in the NSF.  The successes and popularity of this NSF program in the 80’s led to the creation of similar programs in the early 90’s in six other federal agencies: Dept of Energy (DOE), Dept of Agriculture (USDA), Dept of Defense (DOD), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 2012 the Congressional Research Service prepared a report for Congress on the history of the NSF EPSCoR program.  To quote, EPSCoR was “… in response to concerns from Congress and from some of those in academia and the scientific community about the geographic distribution of federal research and development funds.  …  Historical data revealed that there was a concentration of federal R&D funds in large and wealthy states and universities, and that the continuation of such funding patterns might ensure a dichotomy between the “haves” and “have-nots”.”\


In 1979 NSF chose the “least competitive” seven states, based on a composite formula that measured Federal R&D dollars on a per capita and per scientist basis. Montana received a planning grant and was one of five states to win a $3M EPSCoR Implementation Grant.  (It has received NSF EPSCoR funding ever since.) There were several key requirements: a one to one match; establishment of a state-wide science committee; and choosing high quality faculty to receive funding.  Meeting these were early challenges. Although excellent faculty were in the university system, major changes were needed to provide time for research, to provide facilities, instrumentation, and infrastructure, and to provide graduate student support. The Research Park was established to house some research programs and to promote technology transfer.

At MSU these were aided by a philosophy of the Tietz administration which was spelled out in a letter from President Bill Tietz to the Board of Regents which stated that MSU would “… concentrate our resources in our highest quality, most productive programs.”

Choosing High Quality Faculty MONTANANS ON a NEW TRACT for SCIENCE (MONTS) was created as the local NSF EPSCoR program under the leadership of Gary Strobel.  MONTS was run as a “mini NSF”.  Faculty were encouraged to write a proposal for MONTS funding.  Proposals were sent out for external peer review. The best proposals were funded, with the caveat that an NSF (or other agency) proposal would be submitted within a year. Critical to the process was a twelve member state-wide review committee who selected the most worthy and promising proposals. On campus mentors, Strobel in particular, were made available;  peer reviewers (over 10,000 in the course of 20 yrs) became familiar with MSU researchers; faculty were advised to get to know the appropriate programs officers in DC and were often sent there to meet face to face. Seminar speakers were funded at an unprecedented level. While MONTS focused mainly on faculty support, the Tietz administration pooled resources to purchase major instruments. Finally, major assistance was provided by Joe Danek of the NSF EPSCoR program.

Obtaining the State Match    The EPSCoR program was a state-NSF partnership.  Every NSF dollar required a state match.  This challenge required university and state priorities be set which recognized the importance of having more competitive research programs in the state.  It required substantial dialog among university personnel, the Governor’s Office, the Legislature, and the private sector. It provided an annual focus on critical priorities of the campus.  It cultivated broader understanding of the critical role that research plays, including the educational role. Bill Tietz and Vice President John Jutila played key roles in “finding” these match dollars, which included hiring of excellent new faculty and the purchase of major equipment. 


Forming a State Science Committee   Parallel with finding the match was the task of forming a state science committee, whose role was to identify and support high priority research and technology. State involvement was required at the political and private sector levels.  This met with variable success over the years.  Inevitably such committees lasted about one political cycle and then disintegrated and a new one started over.  On the other hand, this requirement provided a discussion on a regular basis of the importance of R&D at the university.


After a decade of support provided by MONTS, a changed environment brought about by fulfilling the NSF EPSCoR requirements, and an enthusiastic and supportive administration, the faculty at MSU were positioned to take advantage of new research opportunities. The NSF program also evolved, which led to a “new” MONTS II program with new expectations.

But most important, success was had in the legislature. During the 80s most of the G&C IDCs went into the State General Fund. The Tietz administration worked hard in the late 80’s during several legislative sessions to return the IDCs to the campus and to obtain direct funding for research. Finally in the 1989 legislature two highly significant bills were passed.

HB 683 provided “Seed Capital” for research over 5 years of $7.5 million to be managed by the state science committee, the Montana Science and Technology Alliance (MSTA).

HB 233 returned 100% of IDCs to campus.  It is worth noting the legislative intent of this bill: “… IDCs retained at the various units of the University System … must be expended for the enhancement of existing research programs, assistance to and encouragement of new research programs, and the general support of research.”


 It was my good fortune to become Vice President for Research (VPR) in 1990.  The faculty were excited about and committed to the rapid growth of research opportunities due to a “can do” spirit on campus.  I commented on this in a letter I wrote to the faculty in the summer of 1990:  “…I have been overwhelmed … by the spirit and quality of the faculty … and the resulting vitality.”  What was different from the 80’s was the substantial increase in funding for research which allowed for many major impacts on campus.  A brief history of this period of NSF EPSCoR funding can be found in the “Final Report NSF EPSCoR Grant 1993 – 1999”.

Return of the IDCs  

President Mike Malone and I agreed that 100 percent of the IDCs would be used for the direct support of faculty research and creative activities and would be under the control of the VPR.  With input from Faculty Council and Deans’ Council, the University Research Committee crafted a policy for the use of IDCs, and this policy guided their use during the 90’s (available from the author).  An important part of the policy was that 50 percent was returned to the academic units that produced them (10 percent to PIs, 10 percent to Deans, and 30 percent to Departments) and 50 percent was retained in the VPR office.  For the first time, departments and faculty had funds upon which to build the research infrastructure required for competitive research programs.  Also the VPR office was able to fund major projects, support competitive start up packages, and develop campus-wide programs to support creative activities.  Research faculty and non-academic units negotiated an IDC return based on merit and need.

Continuation of NSF EPSCoR and Match Dollars

In the 90s the NSF program added new dimensions with increased funding.  There was an increase in emphasis on SMET education and on technology transfer and economic development.  Match dollars were available from the state.  This led to a redefinition of MONTS to MONTS II.

Establishment of EPSCoR Programs in Six other Federal Agencies

The first few years of the 90s saw the creation of EPSCoR and EPSCoR- like programs at NASA, NIH, DoD, USDA, DoE, and EPA.  Using the very successful MONTS model created for the NSF program under the direction of Strobel, we established similar models on campus for each of the six new EPSCoR programs.  The individuals chosen to lead the on-campus efforts were Hugo Schmidt for DoE; Bill Hiscock for NASA (including Space Grant); Jim McMillan for NIH; Keith Cooksey for DoD; Tom McCoy for USDA; and Bill Inskeep for EPA.  In addition, these individuals served as a point of contact on campus for their respective agency as well as mentoring faculty with an interest in submitting proposals to those agencies.  By the end of the 90s we were one of the most successful states in winning EPSCoR awards (second only to Louisiana).  Perhaps even more important was that a culture developed in which multiple agencies were considered for research support.  Today MSU research support comes from a wide distribution among these seven agencies. 

 Creation of Technology Transfer and Economic Development Programs

While EPSCoR programs were being developed, Congress changed the intellectual property (IP) rights policy for research funded by federal agencies.  Enacted on December 12, 1980, and amended in 1984 and 1986, the Bayh-Dole Act created a uniform policy among all federal agencies that gave the IP rights funded by those agencies to the universities.  By the early 90s NSF and other agencies were encouraging/requiring universities to participate in technology transfer activities.  As a result, MSU created two new programs in 1993.

1.  The IPATNT office (Intellectual Property Administration and Technology Transfer office) focused on campus services for inventors, assisting in patenting decisions, and advertising IP options for licensing.

 2. The CERTT center (Center for Economic Renewal and Technology Transfer Center) focused mainly on off-campus services to license and develop campus IP and was located in the Tech Park. 

The legacies of each of these continue today as 1) The Technology Transfer Office in the office of the VPR and 2) TechLink in the Research Park.

Hiring a Washington D.C. Federal Relations Firm

Our increasing involvement in the early 90s with EPSCoR programs and the Federal Relations firm hired by the EPSCoR states, Van Scoyoc Associates (VSA), led to the decision to hire VSA as MSU’s federal relations firm.  This gave rise to many successful interactions with our congressional delegation and with federal agency personnel.  As VPR, I acted as the MSU VSA contact.  In addition, I served on both the National EPSCoR Coalition Board of Directors and the EPSCoR Foundation Board.  Many doors were opened, contacts made, and directed funding obtained which were of importance to MSU’s successes, too numerous to mention in this short note.  No longer was Washington a distant, foreign land.

Creating and Seizing Opportunities

Rather than do long range or strategic planning, we chose to react to, or create opportunities, of which there were many.  We planned our approaches to realize them. The VPR office encouraged proposals from anyone with a good idea in response to an opportunity or to create an opportunity.  We also organized groups on campus to explore opportunities.  As an example, Mark Emmert (Provost), Gerry Wheeler (Director of the Math/Science Center), and I met monthly to discuss opportunities in the science ed/outreach areas, and developed "bubble charts" to help guide the choices available.  As a result, we engaged a number of faculty in these efforts, leading to many programs which obtained external funding and which continue to exist on campus to this day.

Hiring Grant Writers

When appropriate, grant writers were made available to faculty to assist in crafting competitive proposals.  One in particular - Diane Smith - was extraordinary with a 100 percent success rate.  She led brain storming sessions with faculty and then produced a draft of their ideas which often served as the basis for a proposal.


Of the many possible impact stories, I chose the following three to illustrate (1) our developing relationships with state and federal science policy makers, (2) how a major Center on campus was kept viable, and (3) how a research cluster on campus can effect local industry.

FIRST   At the end of May in 1996, we organized an historic two day conference in Montana, "The Future of Science in Rural America”, supported by the EPSCoR programs.  A brief description of that conference can be found at

National science leaders, as well as Montana scientists, policy makers and politicians, participated.  Gary Strobel served as overall host of the meeting.

State perspectives were given by

     Governor Marc Racicot who gave the after dinner address on Montana’s commitments

     Gary Strobel who opened the conference and made opening remarks

     John Mercer, Speaker of the Montana House

            “Comments from a Legislative Point of View”

Federal perspectives were given by

     Senator Conrad Burns on the importance of research support in rural states

     Robert Swenson, VPR at MSU and Chair of the National EPSCoR Coaltion

            “Overview and Challenge of Where EPSCoR Fits into the National Setting from a State’s Perspective”

     Jack Gibbons, National Science Advisor to President Clinton

            “U.S. National Science Policy – the Concerns and Future of Science in America – the Role of the EPSCoR States”

     Neal Lane, Director of the National Science Foundation

            “Concerns, Comments and Challenges Relating to the EPSCoR States”

     Ernest Moniz, Associate Director for Science at President Clinton’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.  (As an aside, Ernie is presently the Secretary of Energy.)

            “Undergraduate Research Experiences in EPSCoR States – a Plan/a Program”

In addition to the talks, half a day was spent on discussions and brainstorming on the future role of research in a rural state such as Montana.

The above is an example of our efforts to create trust and a dialog between us and appropriate policy makers in Washington.  During the 90s the heads of NSF, NASA, and NIH; two President’s Science Advisors; the NASA Chief Scientist; an Associate Director of NSF; and an Under Secretary of Commerce visited.  Likewise we visited them and other agency leaders in Washington on a regular basis.

SECOND    In 1990 an NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) proposal with Bill Characklis as Director was funded.  Prior to this NSF had funded about a dozen ERCs, all at major research universities.  This proposal received outstanding reviews which recommended funding, but there was some controversy within NSF about placing an ERC out in the “sticks”.  Partly to address the concerns, the MSU ERC was assigned a Program Officer (PO) to oversee the program who had considerable reservations and ran a tight ship.  Unfortunately, Bill, seen as critical to the success of the ERC by the PO, died in June, 1992.  After several conversations with the PO, it seemed likely that he would recommend a one year termination grant.  However, we were able to get a meeting with the Director of the Engineering Directorate at NSF to discuss the issues.  During a positive discussion, Mike Malone and I convinced him to let us carry on – to replace Bill with another outstanding leader and to commit five new faculty lines to the center. He agreed to give us a new PO who was much more willing to work with us and continued funding for a year.  On the flight home, Mike said, “Hell, let’s hire two senior people” (to replace Bill).  Upon our return we met with Mark Emmert to discuss how we would fund two senior people to head up the ERC and the five positions we would commit to them.  A few months later in early 1993 we hired Bill Costerton as ERC Executive Director and James Bryers from Duke as ERC Director of Research.  Thereafter, the future of the center was never in doubt.  All eleven years of NSF ERC funding was forthcoming.  We were told that our ERC was one of the most successful, if not the most, funded by NSF and one of the few that lasted long after the ERC funding was over. Today, 24 years later, the Center for Biofilm Engineering continues as the nation’s leader in this area of research.

THIRD The 1993 – 1999 NSF EPSCoR project focused on developing four cluster activities at MSU, one being in Laser Optics. Not only were existing faculty supported, but MONTS support added an average of a new faculty line each year. Having developed a critical mass, in 1995 the Optical Technology Center (OPTEC) was established to promote education and research in the rapidly growing fields of optical science and engineering.  Its goal is “… to maintain a nationally competitive optics program that promotes collaboration with local optical industry ….”  With congressionally directed funding, in 1999 Spectrum Lab was created as a partner to OPTEC.  Its mission is “… to advance the opto-electonic technologies emerging from the research laboratories of MSU and foster their transition to Montana companies …” In part, the success of these activities can be measured by the number of optics companies in Bozeman, which has grown from 9 in 1993 to 36 in 2014, many of which employ MSU grads and many were founded by MSU grads.  This is shown graphically below. The number of faculty in this area has grown from a half dozen to around 30. 

MSU Optics Impact


When I became VPR in the summer of 1990, three elements were essential in the rapid expansion and great successes of the research/creative activities programs at MSU, all arising from EPSCoR impacts.

One:  A spirit and atmosphere conducive to success in research development existed on campus, and in the state.

Two:  Money to grow research was becoming available from 4 new sources: (a) EPSCOR grants; (b) State match and seed grants; (c) 100 percent of IDCs available on campus; and (d) Congressional Directed funding.

Three:  An administration that was willing to use EPSCoR- like programs as catalysts and support and encourage looking for or creating opportunities – good ideas were the coin of the realm.  


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