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N.C. A&T State University joined 14 other predominantly minority schools Friday in an agreement with the federal government that could bring each institution millions of dollars in grants for environmental research.

The traditionally black, Hispanic and Native American schools entered a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Energy that should ensure them a healthy chunk of $120 billion the federal government plans to spend by the year 2020 on environmental restoration and waste management.Representatives of A&T, the other schools and the Energy Department held a signing ceremony on the A&T campus Friday, formally inaugurating the 15-school consortium, aimed at cooperating on research projects and increasing the number of minority scientists and students working in environmental research.

A&T Chancellor Edward B. Fort noted that the American work force is becoming increasingly less dominated by white males. But, he said, few minority scientists are at work on environmental issues, which many believe will present mankind's most crucial challenge during the coming decades.

``The good-old-boy network of the past just won't be adequate for the future,' Fort said.

Fort said the agreement signals a shift away from the tendency for most research money to go to only a handful of schools, such as Harvard and Yale universities.

``This switch has to be one in which the federal government, joining with those in the private sector, must get behind and push,' he said.

A&T is the only North Carolina school involved in the consortium. Other members include such predominantly black institutions as Florida A&M University, Tuskegee University and Howard University.

Consortium members with large Hispanic populations include Texas A&I University and the University of Texas at El Paso. Those with a large Native American presence are New Mexico Highlands University and Northern Arizona University.

Leo P. Duffy, head of the U.S. Office of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management, said that only 10 percent of environmental scientists are black, Hispanic, Native American or women.

``Look at the resource we have to expand,' he said. ``We do not have the environmental knowledge right now to spend $120 billion. We're looking at sciences that haven't been invented yet.'

Duffy said the federal government will give the consortium $250,000 in fellowship grants later this year to encourage environmental study.

``We're starting off with a small seed, but we expect it to grow into a very large tree,' Duffy said.

Bill Cobey, head of the N.C. Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, also signed the agreement for the state. Cobey said government and private industry have a backlog of environmental problems that have grown steadily.

``Ten years ago would not have been too soon to start,' he said of such efforts as the consortium.

Fort said it remains to be worked out how the consortium will divide the research work the Energy Department asks it to do. He said A&T's schools of engineering and technology are likely to be heavily involved in the part the university plays in the consortium's work.

He said Energy Department officials will probably outline broad environmental projects they want to tackle, and each school in the consortium will contribute to the overall work in research areas where it is strongest.

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