How New COMPETES Science Law Broadens NSF Education Programs

Only one of the seven directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF) has "education" in its title. But the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law yesterday, spells out program changes meant to ensure that every component of the $7 billion agency is involved in training the next generation of researchers and improving public scientific literacy.

The changes bring joy to the hearts of many in the higher education community, which is the chief recipient of NSF funds. "It's a reaffirmation of the value of integrating research and training at our universities," says Debra Stewart, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools. "It's what has made our research enterprise the best in the world, and it says that we are still on the right track."

But others fear that the language could weaken NSF's capacity to fund the best research. "I do worry a little about these unfunded mandates" for the disciplinary divisions—chemistry, physics, biology, and the like—at NSF, says Samuel Rankin, head of the Coalition for National Science Funding and of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Mathematical Society. "If their budgets don't grow, they'll have to reallocate existing funds. And that will mean fewer people getting research grants."

The COMPETES Act is popularly known for its endorsement of a 10-year doubling of the budgets of NSF, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Of course, those healthy increases may never come to pass. But a reauthorization bill is more than just lofty fiscal promises. It also gets into the weeds of how an agency should carry out its business.

With respect to NSF, that means a heightened emphasis on training all manner of students, at institutions ranging from high schools and community colleges to the top research universities. NSF officials say they are already doing much of what's called for in the legislation. "We appreciate the outside recognition for the idea that enhancing STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education is an NSF-wide responsibility," says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, head of NSF's $900-million-a-year education directorate. "And COMPETES offers some wonderful opportunities for us to expand that conversation."

In particular, the new law requires NSF to:

  • Raise the amount paid to universities that host recipients of NSF's prestigious graduate research fellowships and receive funding to run an NSF graduate traineeship program. The education allowance, which will go from $10,500 to $12,000, subsidizes tuition costs. Higher education officials note that the higher figure still pays less than half of a year's tuition at many private universities but that they are grateful for the increase, the first since 1999.

    But there's a downside. The Obama Administration has promised to triple the number of graduate fellowships as a way to grow the scientific workforce. Without an increase in the program's overall budget, however, a higher allowance will result in fewer awards.

  • Divide the cost of the two graduate training programs evenly between the education directorate and the six research directorates. Currently, the education directorate puts up three-quarters of the $135 million NSF spends on the fellowships. The cost of the traineeships is already split between the research and education directorates.

    The same downside exists here. Unless the research directorates get a bigger budget, they will have to shrink existing programs to fund their share of the fellowships.

  • Stop a planned merger of three programs aimed at bolstering undergraduate science and engineering programs at colleges with a large percentage of minority students (African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans). NSF officials wanted to broaden the eligibility pool to include "majority" institutions, arguing that they may offer opportunities not now available to these students. But officials at minority-serving institutions said the change would weaken their ability to serve this underrepresented population.

    "We'll preserve them because the language is very clear," says Ferrini-Mundy. "But I think it would be wise for us to continue to find ways to look across programs and synthesize what's been learned and promote more cross-fertilization, to make sure we are working with the best approaches."

  • Support undergraduate research predominantly through its regular application process. Currently, most investigators seek a supplement to their regular grant to pay students to work on their projects. But COMPETES requires principal investigators to plan ahead "unless such undergraduate participation was not foreseeable at the time of the original proposal."

    The reauthorization also tells NSF to begin several new education initiatives. One asks NSF to replicate the successful UTEACH program at the University of Texas, Austin, that trains STEM majors to become science and math teachers in public schools. Others would encourage high school students to help university scientists collect data for NSF-funded projects, allow for a competitive grants program to support research on improving graduate education, and create industry internships for undergraduates in STEM fields. All of them would require new funding, however—some $10 million a year for the UTEACH replication, for example—meaning that NSF officials are extremely unlikely to move ahead unless Congress appropriates the money for that particular activity.

Even when cost is not a factor, government agencies sometimes need a nudge from Congress to make change happen. That's the intangible value of a law like the COMPETES Act, say education advocates.

"I know that the leadership at NSF has wanted to move in that direction for a long time," says Stewart about the language encouraging all parts of the foundation to get more involved in education and training. "But NSF is a complex bureaucracy, and that vision doesn't always get implemented. I don't know why. But COMPETES should help."