Skip to main content

Success Marks Research Competitiveness Program’s 20th Anniversary

Women's Village Workshop



Babe Ruth’s scrapbooks, letters owned by Jackie Robinson – the player who broke baseball’s color barrier – and other rare artifacts housed in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., are being digitized by a company whose initial seed-funding proposal was peer-reviewed by the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program.

The project – undertaken by HistoryIT of Portland, Maine, and estimated to be a $15 million multi-year collaboration with the Baseball Hall of Fame – is only one of many wide-ranging contributions to society by the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program (RCP), which is celebrating 20 years of service this month.

With 35 employees, HistoryIT has become “a true Maine success story,” wrote Brian Whitney, president of the Maine Technology Institute, which provided start-up funding for the company. HistoryIT has excelled by developing a proprietary software that digitizes, categorizes, and quickly accesses millions of archival documents, such as a 1947 photograph of Babe Ruth flanked by Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and Tris Speaker of the Cleveland Indians.

Maine Technology Institute


Maine Technology Institute

“The AAAS reviews of HistoryIT’s original proposal to MTI were really well done,” Whitney said in an interview. The technology institute uses AAAS expertise to evaluate proposals to its Development Loan program. MTI offers Development Loans of up to $500,000 to support the conversion of innovative research into new products, processes and companies, Whitney explained. It receives 20 to 30 funding proposals each year and awards up to $4 million annually to bolster Maine-based innovation across a diverse portfolio, ranging from gene sequencing and algae cultivation systems to bottle-redemption services and surfboard manufacturing, he explained. Since 2008, the institute has been working with the RCP team at AAAS to ensure that all funding proposals undergo rigorous, independent peer review by skilled subject-matter experts.

“AAAS has been a great partner for us,” Whitney said. “They’ve been essential in helping us to drive research, development and innovation in Maine.”

The AAAS Research Competitiveness Program, established with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in November 1996, also this month announced the winner of a networking challenge for participants of an entrepreneurs’ workshop in Cote d’Ivoire. Sesi Jessyca Esther Houenou – a software developer for a programming and data-security company who recently co-founded a start-up company – managed to grow her network by 553% in just six months, RCP Senior Program Associate Shaaretha Pelly reported.

Women Villages Workshop



The networking prize and related workshops focused on women entrepreneurs in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Mozambique. The workshops were organized by AAAS at the request of the Department of State as part of their Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative. In keeping with President Obama’s recent commitment for the United States to help train, mentor and connect more than 10,000 young African science and technology entrepreneurs, Houenou will now receive a branding package to take her startup business to the next level. Meanwhile, from the Côte d’Ivoire workshop alone, 17 participants have reported that their collective networks expanded by more than 5,600, Pelly said.

Young innovators from around the world have participated in the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I competition, which is funded by the Department of State and has been managed for the past three years by RCP. Winning innovations from the 2016 contest included, as examples, Samina Sarwat’s design for a water filter to help prevent arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, and Hoang Dao’s language learning application for Android and iOS, Monkey Junior, that seeks to improve literacy rates in Vietnam. By promoting entrepreneurship globally, RCP Director Charles Dunlap said, the GIST Tech-I competition supports the Department of State’s public diplomacy goals as well.

Such activities reflect the “broad and eclectic scope of capacity-building work being done by the RCP team,” said Dunlap. Since its inception, the program’s Ph.D.-level staff members have handled assessments of more than $1 billion spent on science programs, while also supervising the peer-review of thousands of funding proposals to boost capacity and innovation across 29 states domestically, and in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Korea, Africa, China and elsewhere. The fee-based service handles peer-review and also works with countries, states, agencies, universities, foundations, and others to support strategic planning, management, and evaluation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.




Every year, for example, RCP Project Director Annette Olson and her colleagues receive more than 100 funding proposals through two investment programs within Connecticut Innovations (CI), the state’s leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative and growing companies and researchers. One program, Connecticut’s Regenerative Medicine Research Fund, provides millions of dollars in grants annually to scientists conducting regenerative medicine research – from stem-cell projects to new scaffolds for broken bones and the 3D printing of replacement tissue – with real clinical promise for improved treatments. To handle some 95 regenerative medicine applications each winter, Olson said, RCP recruits and works with up to 55 well-qualified reviewers with relevant expertise.

Outsourcing peer review to RCP alleviated a significant staff burden for Connecticut Innovations (CI) and improved the transparency of the process, allowing applicants to understand outcomes, identify the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals and learn from the process, said Ariel Drew, a program associate for CI.

“AAAS is the type of partner that increases efficiency and elevates the program to a new level,” she said. “From start to finish, our process has greatly improved since we began working with the Research Competitiveness Program.”

Since 1996, AAAS has also dispatched scientists and engineers to provide intensely multidisciplinary and often multi-institutional external review and guidance on activities in dozens of states where investigators have received grants through two federally funded programs: the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and the National Institute of Health’s IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). Both programs were established to award block grants, some of which are on the order of  $20 million over a five-year period, to states underfunded in research, said Heather McInnis, RCP Project Director. AAAS helps to assess the performance of funded programs, based on a peer-review model, she added.

“We mobilize experts with relevant expertise and experience, take them on site and lead an external review of the program to provide both formative and summative guidance,” said McInnis. RCP STEM-program assessments “capture the major accomplishments of science and technology initiatives and provide guidance aimed at maximizing the potential of the programs to achieve project goals and improve research capacity,” she added.

Over the last year, RCP has led reviews of 13 STEM programs funded by the two federal agency programs, encompassing ten states, McInnis reported. One initiative reviewed by RCP, for example, was a three-year study to answer questions about the impacts of watershed processes on shellfish harvesting and safe recreational beaches. The project was designed and implemented by two states, involved four teams of researchers, and engaged multiple stakeholders. The AAAS expert panel was able to help the project leaders integrate activities, prioritize final research efforts, showcase project successes, and identify ways to sustain the new collaborations developed as a result of the research.




In addition to its work with federally and state-funded organizations, RCP has for many years offered peer-review and program-assessment services to individual institutions and private foundations, said Edward Derrick, chief program officer for the AAAS Center for Science, Policy, and Society Programs.       

Over its history, RCP has also expanded internationally, while working to promote best practices within institutions. Next month, for example, Dunlap will visit Kuwait, under a new AAAS agreement with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, to help grant-seekers in that country succeed in getting their work funded, and to promote the institutionalization of best practices in review.

Through yet another long-standing collaboration, RCP has worked with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology since 2008, providing both peer review and program assessments. The work supports Saudi Arabia’s National Science, Technology and Innovation Plan, which spells out goals across 15 key technology areas, from medicine and health to advanced materials and space, to boost the country’s research capacity.

“The remarkably broad range of RCP’s activities, including training for researchers, entrepreneurs, and program designers and managers, as well as more analytical projects, all contribute to the purpose of building capacity for competitive research around the country and across the globe,” said Derrick. “The diversity of RCP’s work demonstrates that AAAS can apply best practices in providing review and guidance to investments in, and the management of research programs. After 20 years of service to society, the quality, breadth and scope of RCP’s work have allowed the program to find a wide audience.”


[Associated image: Sa'd presenting the Tech-I awards at the 2016 GIST Tech-I Competition | Global Entrepreneurship Summit]


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs