A proposed reshuffling of federal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs in the United States would move the Department of Education (ED) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the head of the class. Their new status would be a major change for the federal government, which now spends nearly $3 billion on 226 STEM education programs run by a dozen agencies.
Many of those programs were created to address a specific problem or at the behest of Congress to serve a specific constituency. However, the resulting fragmentation has hampered efforts to coordinate and assess the impact of the government's investment. The proposed realignment, part of the president's 2014 budget request to Congress, would slice the overall number of programs in half by slashing the education activities of mission agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institutes of Health.
The reorganization unveiled last week surprised science educators, legislators, and even other federal officials. While the upcoming debate in Congress is likely to focus on whether some of the programs targeted for elimination should be preserved, the broader issue is the wisdom of creating two executive branch heavyweights in STEM education. Under the proposal, ED would oversee federally funded activities to improve elementary and secondary school science education, while NSF would lead the way in undergraduate and graduate STEM education. (The Smithsonian Institution was given the green light, and $25 million, to expand its activities in informal, or nonclassroom, science education.) The realignment is designed to tap into ED's extensive ties to, and experience working with, local schools as well as NSF's expertise in funding high-quality STEM education activities.
The administration has targeted 78 programs for elimination, and an additional 49 would be consolidated. But it has also proposed 13 new programs, and its 2014 budget request of $3.1 billion for all STEM education activities would be 7% higher than what was spent in 2012. (Figures for 2013 are not yet available).
Yesterday, presidential science adviser John Holdren told the House of Representatives science committee that the reorganization would also "leave intact" programs aimed at attracting underrepresented groups into STEM fields. "There has been a very serious effect to preserve the programs that most leverage the unique assets of the mission agencies, including programs that reach women and other underrepresented groups in STEM," Holdren explained during a hearing on the administration's overall 2014 request for research.
To learn more about the proposed reorganization, ScienceInsider spoke last week with top officials at each agency. Joan Ferrini-Mundy is head of NSF's education directorate, and James Lightbourne oversees graduate education within the directorate. ScienceInsider also exchanged e-mails with Camsie McAdams, ED's senior adviser on STEM education. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What does it mean to be a lead agency?
J.F-M.: Being the lead means we have a responsibility to make sure that there is an anchor program in place that takes into account the particular interests and mission of other programs that fall into this category across government. So what we are doing is serving as a focal investment mechanism for the government. These ideas are in place in the budget, but the implementation has yet to be worked out.
Q: Is the additional $89 million that NSF would receive under the president's request devoted to expanding existing NSF programs in the two priority areas?
J.F-M.: The expectation is that we put in place these programs at the graduate and undergraduate level that will be coherent and bigger, to make sure we will be serving a government-wide purpose. The idea is to reach more students and teachers more effectively.
Q: A lot of programs are tied to the mission of a particular agency and make use of tools such as ships or nuclear reactors. How will NSF be successful without access to those facilities?
J.F-M.: Part of the model will be to see what's possible with other agencies regarding the use of those special facilities. It may be that a good place for us to start is with NSF's own centers and facilities. That's another place where we want to be sure that it's part of what is available to them.
J.L.: We've been experimenting with this in the past few years in the Graduate Research Fellowship [GRF] program. The idea is that the fellows will have opportunities through industry or other agencies. A good example is with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. Two years ago they had identified a couple of GRFs who wanted to do an internship at DARPA. Both the students and DARPA benefited.
You're right. We don't have the facilities and expertise to develop those programs. So it's important to work with other agencies.
Q: Since each agency has been assigned a priority area, what NSF programs in K-12 or informal science will be moving to ED or the Smithsonian Institution?
J.F-M.: This budget request contains no significant decrease for programs in those areas. Our intention is to continue with what we've been doing; these are research and development programs that provide the tested, evidence-based models and materials that can be used by others. So they are still crucial pieces of our portfolio.
Q: Doesn't that run counter to the idea of designating a lead agency?
J.F-M.: The details will take shape over the coming months. But there is a strong focus on engagement. The place where that will begin is with engagement of the public at different levels through what the Department of Education and the Smithsonian now do. These agencies are working very closely together, and there are a lot of questions that we will tackle in the coming months.
We've been talking about them within the limits of what we can do prebudget. Now that the budget is out, these conversations will become much more open.
Q: Is it a new role for NSF to take on the missions of other agencies?
J.F-M.: I wouldn't say we're trying to accomplish the missions of other agencies. We're trying to make sure that we have strong programs in place that select and give learning opportunities to students who will be able to succeed in science across a wide range of fields.
Q: Will ED be increasing its roster of STEM specialists or will it rely on NSF and the mission agencies to carry out its new role in STEM K-12?
C.M.: In the 2014 budget, ED has proposed an Office of STEM and anticipates hiring additional staff to manage any new programmatic initiatives. But the specific structure is still to be designed. We are relying on strong partnerships with NSF and the mission science agencies and will increase capacity at ED to help manage those relationships and run the new initiatives.
Q: How much more money is ED getting as the leader for STEM K-12?
C.M.: The reorganization resulted in approximately $180 million in redirected funds, split between NSF, Smithsonian, and ED. ED's overall increase reflects a portion of those redirected funds plus proposed new investments in ED's STEM Innovation initiatives (STEM Innovation Networks, STEM Teacher Pathways, STEM Master Teacher Corps, and the STEM Virtual Learning Network).
Q: Is ED ending any programs or activities that now fall under the priority areas to be headed by NSF and SI?
C.M.: ED does not anticipate holding another Teacher Incentive Fund-STEM program in FY '14. The reorganization protects the investments across all agencies that serve underrepresented groups, including ED's investments for minority-serving institutions. We are actively working together with NSF to coordinate our approach on undergraduate STEM education. The delineation of these additional agency roles does not imply that NSF will discontinue its important work on K-12, or that ED would not continue its role in postsecondary STEM education.
Q: Where will the STEM Innovation Networks (STEM-INs) program be housed within the department? What's the projected size of a typical grant? Will the networks be linked in any way to the Effective Teaching and Learning: STEM program?
C.M.: We are determining the appropriate placement for the STEM-INs program pending further discussion and pending appropriation of programmatic funds. The size and term and number of awards are still being developed. We are considering ways to preference the Effective Teaching and Learning: STEM program as a way to increase the impact of both STEM-INs and the ETL:STEM funding, but again, these are design considerations that will be developed through a policy process.
One of the goals of STEM-INs is to prepare students for college-level work, and a postsecondary institution would be a required partner in the STEM-INs partnership structure. Their role is not just to provide alignment to college curricula and expectations for postsecondary study, but also potentially to be a research partner, as the evaluation design component of STEM-INs is critical. We are working very closely with our colleagues at NSF and the other agencies to make sure we have a coherent, targeted approach that serves more teachers, more students, more effectively.