House Panel Questions Obama's Plan to Reorganize Science Education

Trio under fire. Presidential science adviser John Holdren (left) is joined by NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy and NASA's Leland Melvin at yesterday's hearing on STEM education.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Democrats and Republicans on the House of Representatives science committee agreed yesterday that the federal government needs to take a more coordinated approach to improving science education. But that's about the only aspect of the Obama administration's proposed reorganization of 226 programs at a dozen agencies that they liked.

The hearing was the first public vetting of a plan to reshuffle the government's current $3 billion investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. The proposal, part of the president's 2014 budget request to Congress, would cut the total number of federal programs by half and concentrate resources at three agencies—the Department of Education for elementary and secondary school programs, the National Science Foundation (NSF) for undergraduate and graduate programs, and the Smithsonian Institution for informal and public science activities.

Legislators pressed the administration's witnesses on how programs were selected for the chopping block, whether the lead agencies were capable of taking on new responsibilities, and if the outside community was part of the process. By and large, they weren't happy with the answers from presidential science adviser John Holdren, who was joined by NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy, and NASA's Leland Melvin, co-chairs of an interagency STEM committee staffed by Holdren's Office of Science and Technology Policy. Last week, that committee issued a long-delayed strategic plan for federal STEM education that lays out long-term goals to measure success in each of the four priority areas.

Unlike most hearings at which the Republican-led House examines an initiative from the Democratic White House, the legislators' comments and questions were refreshingly nonpartisan. Unfortunately for the administration, however, that comity resulted in a steady stream of skepticism flowing from both sides of the aisle. Members were particularly worried about the fate of informal science education programs at agencies—including NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—whose STEM education budgets would be trimmed under the president's plan.

"I believed that it was important to look at what the federal government has been doing [in STEM education] and how we can improve our efforts," said the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, in her opening statement. "But I have serious concerns with the budget proposal itself. To be blunt, it seems to me it was not very well thought out. … NASA seems to have taken the biggest hit, and this doesn't make any sense to me."

Twenty minutes into the 2.5-hour hearing, which was interrupted by two floor votes, Republican Representative Randy Hultgren of Illinois shared similar sentiments. "Normally, I support efforts to reduce duplicative programs," said Hultgren, who has championed basic science at DOE's national laboratories. "But this reorganization seems rushed and poorly planned. The president's proposal seems to be taking a number of successful initiatives being done by high-quality groups at the local level and running a majority of them through a federal bureaucracy in Washington."

Several legislators said that constituent groups have flooded their offices with calls and e-mails objecting to the administration's plan. They are especially upset by the proposed 33% cut in NASA's $150 million STEM education budget, a 30% reduction in DOE programs, and termination of the government's only health science education program as part of the dismantling of NIH's Office of Science Education.

Lawmakers repeatedly asked Holdren how the White House chose which programs to eliminate or consolidate. He acknowledged that agencies did not submit a list of sacrificial lambs: "Ordinarily, if you ask people if they'd like any of their programs to be cut, they'll say no," Holdren told Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD), who wondered why NASA hadn't been asked for its advice.

His answers also made clear that an impartial, outside assessment of a program's successes and failures wasn't the determining factor. "We had to take into account the inefficiency of trying to run rigorous evaluations on very small programs," Holdren told Representative Larry Bucshon (R-IN), chairman of the committee's research panel. "This is one of the reasons we wanted to consolidate, to improve our capacity to evaluate."

Instead, Holdren said programs that fit into one of the administration's four priority areas—"improving K-12 instruction, reforming undergrad programs around evidence based practices, streamlining the graduate fellowship process, and amplifying engagement activities"—received top billing in the new lineup. Vocational education and job training skills were not a major focus of the reorganization, Holdren told legislators, although he said such efforts remain a top administration priority. And programs to attract more minorities and women into STEM-related careers were left untouched in this initial reshuffling, Holdren explained. "To the extent that those programs need a closer look," Holdren told Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), "that will be done in collaboration with the institutions that provide those programs."

The committee's chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), added his voice to those questioning the plan. "I hope our witnesses can tell us what was wrong with the programs the administration wants to cut or consolidate," he said. And he wondered why the administration submitted a budget plan to reorganize STEM education programs 6 weeks before releasing its strategic vision for how to improve STEM education. Even so, Smith complemented Holdren on the bottom line in the president's 2014 budget request. "I am glad to see that the overall funding for STEM education is increased by 6%. That's a good sign," Smith said.