NSF Sets Higher Bar for Research Proposals Affecting Tribes

The National Science Foundation will soon require researchers to gain prior approval from tribal governments for any proposal that “may impact tribal resources or interests”

By Melanie Lenart

The National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo: NSF

Researchers seeking funding from the National Science Foundation for projects involving tribal nations—or, in some cases, on public lands co-managed by tribes—will find themselves with a revised set of requirements this spring.

Effective May 20, those applying for NSF grants will need to submit proof of approval from the relevant tribal nation for any proposed work involving “Tribal Nation lands or those aspects of Tribal life that are within the domain of a Tribal Nation, (including, but not limited to, Tribal languages and subsistence rights on Tribal Nation lands) as opposed to individual Tribal Nation members.” 

The update in the NSF’s Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide language applies to any grants awarded after May 20, including those relating to the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program known as TCUP (pronounced tea cup).

The guideline update stems from a series of listening sessions with tribal nations following President Biden’s Jan. 26, 2021, Executive Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships, according to an NSF Media Affairs representative who worked with Assistant General Counsel Caroline Blanco to respond to questions from Native Science Report.

The written response from NSF also addressed whether the new rules would apply to research done on non-tribal federal lands being co-managed by tribal nations. Media Affairs representative Cassandra Eichner sent a statement highlighting that “aspects of tribal life within the domain of a tribal nation” aren’t necessarily restricted to tribal lands, adding, “Therefore, if the research being done on public lands that are co-managed by Tribal Nations involves Tribal Nation resources or interests that are within the domain of a Tribal Nation, then that research will be subject to the requirements of the new language.”

This suggests that if a tribal nation had an interest in wild rice as a traditional food, approval would be required for research in any public areas the tribe is co-managing or allowed access for harvesting wild rice.

To show proof of approval, researchers will need to submit: a copy of a document from the relevant tribal nation(s) that provides the requisite approval; written confirmation from the tribal nation(s) that review and approval is not required; or a copy of the written request to the relevant tribe(s) to carry out any proposed activity/activities that may require prior approval from the tribal nation(s). In the case of the latter, researchers would need to follow up with one of the other two options before any funding would be released.

The memorandum that initiated these guideline revisions came on the heels of the 2021 White House Tribal Nations summit, where the Biden administration announced a series of initiatives to give tribal nations more power and resources to manage their own decisions.

Subsequent annual summits featured additional efforts and memorandums to provide autonomy to tribal nations and honor the ecological expertise many traditional knowledge keepers hold.

At the 2024 summit, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the federal government had signed more than 200 agreements with tribal nations to co-manage public lands of relevance to them.

The revised NSF guidelines also updated the language so that any mentions of “tribal government” will be replaced with “tribal nations.” Like the Biden administration’s re-naming of the 2021 event as a “summit” between nations, the revised language reminds that tribal nations are sovereign entities that can engage in treaties and other agreement in a nation-to-nation format.

Melanie Lenart is the News and Opinions editor for Native Science Report.

Story published March 18, 2024

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