WASHINGTON—A small but popular NSF program to provide scientific instruments for undergraduate programs is being expanded to let in both two-year colleges and major research universities.

The changes reflect pent-up demand within higher education for such teaching equipment and a feeling here that the federal government must do more to support the next generation of scientists and engineers. But the expansion may dilute the program’s value for its original audience.

The College Science Instrumentation Program (CSIP) was created in 1984 after Congress, prodded by Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), decided that NSF should do more to support science at predominantly undergraduate colleges.

“We pointed out that these schools train a large number of the students who go on to obtain graduate degrees in science,” recalled Eileen Baumgartner, a science aide for Sabo, “and that the federal government, which had been providing money in the past, was no longer doing anything for...

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