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Science Education Overhaul

Radical restructuring proposed for federal science education funding has the community scrambling

by Andrea Widener
June 17, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 24

Administration’s proposed plan would cut many agencies’ STEM education programs. STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. SOURCE: Office of Science & Technology Policy
Administration’s proposed plan would cut many agencies’ STEM education programs. STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. SOURCE: Office of Science & Technology Policy

The largest proposed change in federal science education programs since Sputnik launched was unveiled not with the fanfare of a major policy announcement, but as an addendum to President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposal.

The move on April 10 was a surprise to most members of the large and active science education community, which has supported reform and consolidation of U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs.

The community is concerned about the changes, which represent a radical shift in the structure of the federal portfolio. Stakeholders have had little chance to weigh in on either the Administration’s plan or a STEM education strategic plan that has been three years in the making and was released by the White House on May 31.

The strategic plan, some argue, should have been released and evaluated by the community prior to the Administration going forward with any reorganization. Instead, the plan appears to provide after-the-fact support for the proposed reorganization.

If enacted by Congress, the President’s plan would cut the total number of federal education programs from the current 226 to 110 in 2014. However, it would increase federal funds for STEM education to $3.1 billion in 2014, up 6.1% from $2.9 billion in 2012, the year the Administration uses as a base year in its budget request.

The plan would effectively eliminate 78 programs by moving their $221 million in funding to other agencies. Another 48 programs would be consolidated within their parent agencies. Ten new initiatives would be added to the federal portfolio to support the Administration’s efforts to improve pre-K–12 and undergraduate education.

“What the President has put on the table is the biggest change in science education funding since the space program,” says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, which includes 500 science, business, and education organizations, including the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN. “It is a controversial topic to eliminate programs at this scale.”

The plan also proposes important changes to which agencies would manage the federal STEM education efforts. Among the biggest surprises was the choice of the Department of Education to become the government’s “lead agency” on pre-K–12 programs, because it hasn’t been a big player in the federal STEM education community and has few STEM staff.

The Smithsonian Institution, which was selected as lead agency for informal education programs, is a completely new player in the federal STEM education community. The choice of the National Science Foundation to coordinate undergraduate and graduate education came as less of a surprise because NSF is an active player in those areas.

The President’s budget proposal is vague on how and why the changes were made, which left the STEM education community scrambling to figure out what was going on. The timing and many of the changes were “a surprise to many of us,” says Anita Krishnamurthi, director of STEM policy for the Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy group. “We are somewhat concerned about the plan, mostly because there are not a lot of details available.”

Skepticism has stretched from the STEM education community to Congress, where the House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee held a hearing in early June on the proposed ­consolidation.

In a rare standing-room-only science hearing, representatives expressed bipartisan confusion about how the cuts had come to be and doubt that this plan is the best way to reform federal STEM education.

“To be blunt, it seems to me it was not very well thought out,” said committee ranking Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), who echoed the sentiments of several other members.

The Administration will need the support of Congress to move forward with its proposed plan, which would focus resources on the President’s STEM education priorities at the three lead agencies. These priorities include preparing and recruiting more K–12 teachers, increasing the number of STEM college graduates, and broadening the participation of minorities who are underrepresented in the sciences.

But some worry about proposing any cuts to Congress in the current budget climate, even though these cuts are part of a consolidation. “They might cut most of the programs proposed for termination and fund very little of the new things,” the STEM Education Coalition’s Brown says. “That is a real concern.”

Strategic Science Education

The White House’s new strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education lays out five educational goals and assigns some of them to a lead agency.

1. Improve STEM instruction in pre-K–12 by adding 100,000 highly qualified STEM teachers by 2020. Lead agency: Department of Education

2. Increase by 50% the number of students who have an authentic research experience. Lead agency: Smithsonian Institution

3. Improve the experience of STEM undergraduates, leading to 1 million more graduates in 10 years. Lead agency: National Science Foundation

4. Increase the number of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, including minorities and women. No lead agency assigned.

5. Design better ways to give STEM graduates specialized skills. No lead agency assigned

The current federal STEM education portfolio was created piecemeal over the years at 13 federal agencies, and numerousstudies have shown that there is essentially no coordination between agencies or programs. In addition, many programs have not been evaluated for effectiveness, primarily because they are too small to collect enough data for a meaningful analysis.

“We haven’t had a lot of success in doing an evaluation of STEM programs, and I think this reform is a very worthwhile effort to undertake,” says Linda P. Rosen, chief executive officer of Change the Equation, an industry-led STEM advocacy group.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to be in the middle of the pack in science and math test scores among industrialized countries, which some observers say indicates that the current educational system isn’t working. The search for a better approach to STEM education has brought the industry, science, and education communities together to work on improving STEM education nationwide, including at the federal level.

The government has been examining its STEM education portfolio with the goal of ending up with a more potent, better coordinated, and better evaluated set of STEM education programs overall, says John P. Holdren, the President’s science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). Holdren has publicly defended the reorganization several times in recent weeks.

And the proposed plan has needed defending because many in the STEM education community are uncertain why particular programs are on the chopping block and who made the decisions.

The community had thought the decisions would come out of the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), which was created by congressional mandate to evaluate STEM education programs at federal agencies and come up with a strategic plan. CoSTEM, part of OSTP’s National Science & Technology Council, has been working on a strategic plan since 2009.

But the STEM education strategic plan that the White House sent to Congress veers in an entirely different direction from where CoSTEM’s deliberations were heading, according to those familiar with the effort.

At the House hearing, Holdren said the cuts were decided through an “iterative process” among CoSTEM, the White House Office of Management & Budget, and the Domestic Policy Council, which oversees education policy at the White House.

But under questioning from Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), the head of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s education programs, Leland D. Melvin, admitted that NASA had no role in choosing which programs were cut. The only thing it did was provide a list of its programs as part of the CoSTEM process.

OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss tells C&EN that he can’t elaborate beyond what Holdren said in the hearing.

Holdren’s explanation is unlikely to sit well with those whose programs are proposed to be cut or with members of Congress, who are already getting complaints from their constituents.

Carl E. Wieman, who led the CoSTEM process at OSTP until he left in June 2012, fears that this sudden, unexplained proposal will undermine the hard work that went into creating consensus among agencies. “It is just too drastic, and it doesn’t have everyone on board,” says Wieman, a Physics Nobel Laureate known for his science education efforts.

“It is hard to look at the budget document and see what it is trying to do. It is a programmatic reorganization, and that is very different from laying out educational goals that you are trying to achieve,” Wieman says. “It is sad because the CoSTEM process could have worked quite well, actually.”

Because CoSTEM is consensus-driven, the strategic plan it was developing was much less drastic, Wieman explains. That version of the plan focused on creating centers of excellence in agencies to help others better evaluate and improve their programs, rather than making radical cuts.

The CoSTEM process was mandated by the 2010 America Competes Reauthorization Act. CoSTEM released its initial examination of federal STEM investments in February 2012, and a strategic plan was supposed to come several months later. That would have given the community a chance to understand the larger goals and give feedback before specific programs were proposed to be cut or new ones suggested.

Instead, the Administration’s strategic plan came out eight weeks after the proposed cuts had already been announced. However, it does include a process for how to work through the details of the proposed reorganization. Brown from the STEM Education Coalition says the strategic plan lays out more specifics than he was expecting. “In general, I think it is a very thoughtful plan,” he says.

Although there isn’t a formal way to provide feedback on either plan, Brown sees it as the start of the first serious examination of STEM education in decades. “We want to have a conversation about the role of the federal government, and this is the first big chapter in that,” he says.

In addition to the reorganization itself, the concept of lead agencies has been a source of confusion for the STEM community. OSTP’s Weiss says lead agencies will be working with CoSTEM, which will continue to bring together agencies to talk about STEM education issues. The lead agencies will also help facilitate review and revision of programs and track progress toward the Administration’s goals. But it’s not clear whether they will be able to control budgets or decide the fate of programs.

The Department of Education, which would be the lead agency for pre-K–12 programs, will need to ramp up quickly. Although it currently has a large portion of the STEM education budget, Education primarily receives funding for one program, the Mathematics & Science Partnerships Program, which provides block grants to states for STEM support on the basis of the number of students. The department has no STEM education office and few STEM staff.

However, “I think the idea that the Department of Education would take the lead in K–12 is a fairly natural one,” says Camsie McAdams, senior adviser on STEM education at the department.

The department does have expertise working with states and school districts across the country, she says, and it knows how to administer peer-reviewed grant programs.

The 2014 budget proposal gives Education $5 million to create a STEM office. The plan would also give the department responsibility for three proposed pre-K–12 STEM education programs and an additional $265 million to create them.

“We are really hoping that CoSTEM will help with the transition. We can’t do this working one at a time with each agency,” McAdams says. She understands the confusion in the STEM education community but thinks “most people just want to understand how this is going to work.”

That’s also true for the Smithsonian Institution, which was chosen to lead informal STEM education programs and is slated to receive $25 million in 2014 to do it. The Smithsonian has internal expertise in supporting successful science education programs, but in the past such activities have not been coordinated with federal STEM education efforts.

In recent years, the Smithsonian has not received federal funding for its education programs—at least not any that were included in the recent reviews of STEM programs—and it isn’t part of the federal STEM education community. For example, it was not a participant in the CoSTEM process.

“It is hard to know what to think, just because the Smithsonian is such an unknown quantity at this point to many of us,” says Krishnamurthi of the Afterschool Alliance, many of whose members run informal programs.

NSF seemed to be a more natural fit for its role as lead agency for undergraduate and graduate education, in part because it had been funding programs in those areas for decades. The Administration’s 2014 budget proposal would give the agency an extra $89 million.


One change that is of particular concern to many science organizations is the consolidation of most graduate fellowships across the government into NSF’s long-standing Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

The NSF fellowships are available in a wide array of disciplines, but it doesn’t include the targeted opportunities that many fellowships proposed for elimination do, such as working in a specific industry or laboratory. For instance, the money for a fellowship program for budding regulatory scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency would move to NSF. But NSF doesn’t have the regulatory expertise to administer the fellowship, observers worry.

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF’s assistant director for education and human resources and one of the codirectors of the CoSTEM process, says her staff is meeting with other agencies that would be affected by the proposed consolidation.

“What we are doing now is having conversations with the program’s administrators about what they have been doing and their workforce needs,” Ferrini-Mundy explains.

Krishnamurthi is optimistic that through those conversations and broader discussions with the community, this process can lead to a better STEM education system.

“This redesign, while very ambitious and a little bit scary, also could be an opportunity to really think through STEM education and even give some of these other spaces—museums, libraries, clubs, et cetera—a little more prominence,” she says. “If there is transparency in this process, we can come up with a system that we are happy with.”



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