UVI's EPSCoR program gets $20M grant


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ST. THOMAS - The University of the Virgin Islands will be getting $20 million over the next five years to continue and expand its ground-breaking research in the field of marine science and for other programs.

"This grant is not for us to stay where we are," UVI President David Hall said Friday during a press conference to announce the National Science Foundation grant.

The purpose of the funding is to stimulate and encourage students to start thinking about the world of scientific discovery, Hall said.

The National Science Foundation is providing $4 million each year for five years to the V.I. Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, known as V.I. EPSCoR, which is a UVI program designed to increase research and education in science, math and technology in the territory.

Vote of confidence

V.I. EPSCoR Director Henry Smith said the award is a historic milestone for the university that proves UVI can compete for national grants. The funding demonstrates the faith the National Science Foundation has in the university's ability to carry out the funded programs, and it will allow the university to expand its scientific research, he said.

The territory received its first National Science Foundation planning grant in 2002, but it was only about $76,000 and primarily funded feasibility studies, Smith said.

In 2003, V.I. EPSCoR received a $4.5 million grant to fund research, and in 2008 the grant was increased to $11.5 million.

Smith said the program was in jeopardy last year, when the university applied for, but did not receive, any grant funding.

The $20 million grant award for 2014 was the maximum award possible, and the territory was one of only six locations in the country to receive funding this year, Smith said.

Hall said the decision to fund the institution for the next five years means the National Science Foundation is pleased with the work the university is doing and that the foundation is convinced that the type of research UVI is doing - especially in the marine sciences - is critical to the future of the Virgin Islands as a whole.

Strategic plan

While the grant application includes the broad strokes of the university's plan to use the money, now that the funds are awarded, V.I. EPSCoR can begin the next step. Smith and his staff have 90 days to craft a strategic plan, which Smith said is the "nuts and bolts" of the program.

The strategic plan will include details of the specific projects and programs to be funded, along with benchmarks the university will be expected to meet during the next five years, according to Smith.

STEM

UVI wants to create a STEM Institute within the university's School of Education that will be a mentoring program for high school and undergraduate students to inspire more interest in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

"If you're going to get people involved in science, you can't start at the college level," Smith said.

The goal of the STEM Institute is to develop a scientifically skilled workforce that will lead to a boost in entrepreneurship and economic development in the territory, UVI Interim Vice Provost for Research and Public Service Frank Mills said.

"Workforce development is of no small and passing importance for us all," Mills said.

Marine science

The additional grant funding will also allow the university to expand the research being conducted in the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies into three new fields:

- Watershed Science, which looks at how watersheds in the territory work, affect the coastlines, ocean and infrastructure and how watersheds can be better managed.

- Coastal Oceanography, which involves studying how land-based activities affect the territory's coastlines and ocean.

- Human Dimension, to research the human interaction with the territory's environment and how policies can be implemented that protect the environment while addressing the community's concerns.

"The Virgin Islands' award is especially fascinating because of the novel focus on understanding the diseases that contribute to reef degradation and the relationships with overall environmental conditions, changing climate and human stressors," EPSCoR Program Director Sean Kennan said in a prepared statement.

How it helps

Smith said he expects the university will hire at least three new professors to work in the three new fields of study and be able to pay post-doctoral graduates looking for experience and UVI graduate students to be research assistants.

The Center for Marine and Environmental Studies will also be able to purchase three new research vessels, one each for St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, Smith said.

Smith said the federal funding requires a 20 percent local match, which has not been entirely identified yet. In the past, the Lana Vento Charitable Trust, a private foundation, has funded a large part of the local match requirement, Smith said.

EPSCoR is a program designed to fulfill the National Science Foundation's mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide. Twenty-eight states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam currently are eligible to participate in elements of the program.

The other jurisdictions to receive 2014 EPSCoR awards are: Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota.

"These projects exemplify the national imperative to engage in cutting edge research, provide educational opportunities for future generations of scientists, stimulate the economy and create jobs," said Denise Barnes, head of the National Science Foundation's EPSCoR program.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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