National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement was well-received at yesterday’s hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee. Bement was repeatedly praised by subcommittee members, with Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) explaining “It’s been easy to support you.” Bement will leave the foundation on June 1 to lead a new multidisciplinary institute at Purdue University, and this hearing was his last appearance before the subcommittee.
Yesterday’s hearing was held in a small room in the Capitol, one floor above the House chamber where members have repeatedly clashed over the health care insurance bill. The atmosphere in the hearing room contrasted markedly from that of the House floor, with subcommittee members from both parties sharing common ground on many points, including a strong concern about STEM education. While the $892 million request for the Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR) is only 12 percent of the foundation’s $7,424 million request, the members’ questions focused almost entirely on NSF’s programs to improve STEM education.
Mollohan’s opening statement touched on several points: Bement’s commendable service, the FY 2011 request which keeps the foundation’s budget on a doubling track, the importance of STEM education, and the foundation’s role in climate change observation and research. Ranking Member Frank Wolf (R-VA) voiced his support for the FY 2011 request, saying “I’m pleased to see this level of commitment.”
“That’s not the full story” Bement told Mollohan when asked about the disparity between the 8.0 percent request for the foundation and the 2.2 percent requested increase for EHR. Bement said many Research and Related Activities grants include a significant K-12 and/or undergraduate education component. He urged the subcommittee members to look at how the directorate’s budget has increased over time, and said that the FY 2011 request supports all of EHR’s priorities.
There was considerable discussion about NSF’s role in STEM education. Bement explained that the foundation focuses its limited resources on the development of best practices that are then scaled up by the Department of Education for application in the nation’s school districts. “The relationship is very close,” said Bement when talking about how NSF interacts with the Department.
Wolf started his round of questioning by asking for Bement’s reaction to several worrisome trends appearing on page 14 of a summary digest of “Science and Engineering Indicators 2010" comparing the United States to China and other Asian countries. Bement responded that the world is in a period of rapid change in which U.S. S&T leadership is being challenged by other nations. He described how other countries, “as a matter of national will” are rapidly and successfully increasing their S&T spending. “That’s what keeps me awake at night” he told Wolf. Bement spoke about the importance of international scientific cooperation, saying “this is the way of the world.” When asked to look ahead twenty years, Bement predicted that the U.S. will need to more effectively collaborate to compete. Otherwise, he warned, American researchers will get blind-sided, resulting in the United States being a follower instead of a leader.
The discussion returned to STEM education, with Mollohan asking about inquiry-based and activity-based approaches to learning. What programs does NSF have to encourage school districts to adopt such approaches, he asked. “We’ve made progress, but have a long way to go” Bement responded. Strategies include the development of new educational materials, teacher preparation and support, working with superintendents and boards of education, and assessment. Mollohan is interested in determining the feasibility of NSF developing a systematic approach, and asked foundation officials for their assistance in working with the subcommittee. During this discussion Bement commented that the testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act does not include science. “I think that has to change,” he said, calling for more emphasis on science.
One of the few exchanges regarding research and instrumentation concerned the status of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, with Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) asking about funding reductions, and reports that the NSF intends to eventually close it. Bement agreed on the importance of the observatory’s capabilities, but added that the operating costs are too large for NSF to cover on its own. The foundation is looking for other organizations, such as NASA, to partner with.
As the hearing drew to a close, Mollohan commented on how the hearing focused on STEM education, with little discussion about NSF’s Research and Related Activities programs. He assured Bement that this was not because the subcommittee was not interested in research, but rather because the foundation was “doing other things so well.”