A June 4 hearing held by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to review the Administration’s proposed consolidation and reorganization of federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs demonstrated bi-partisan hesitation about the plan. As the Committee looks into the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, Members on both sides of the aisle were interested in examining the proposed changes to STEM education particularly as they relate to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) opened the hearing by noting the low rankings of American students in STEM education as he spoke about the need to encourage students to study and pursue careers in STEM fields. “We also need to carefully consider how best to streamline, coordinate and consolidate programs that specifically engage children and the public in STEM subjects. Our country continues to face a fiscal crisis and part of our challenge is how to achieve the most benefit from our limited resources in the current budget environment. More graduates with STEM degrees means more advanced technologies and a more robust economy. A well-educated and trained STEM workforce undergirds our future economic prosperity.”
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted increased Federal investments in programs aimed at improving STEM education. Regarding the proposal in the President’s FY 2014 budget, she stated “in addition to being concerned about the process, I have serious concerns with the budget proposal itself. To be blunt, it seems to me it was not very well thought out.” She specifically emphasized the role of NASA in outreach activities and informal STEM education and was concerned about the proposal’s cancellation of education and public outreach programs at NASA.
Three witnesses testified. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy highlighted the need for high-quality STEM education and noted the 6 percent increase for STEM education in the FY 2014 budget. He outlined the goal to “look carefully at the effectiveness of all STEM programs and find ways to improve them” as he stated that “these disciplined choices to consolidate and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs make room for targeted increases in high-priority areas.” He emphasized that the agencies with STEM education programs in FY 2012 would continue to have those programs in FY 2014 as he noted that the Department of Education, NSF, and Smithsonian Institution would become “lead agencies” and would support the science mission agencies.
The proposal, according to Holdren, was designed to preserve “the most valuable STEM education programs,” “reduce fragmentation of the Federal STEM education investment, reorganizing efforts and redirecting resources around clearly defined priorities. It will enable rigorous evaluation and evidence-building strategies for Federal STEM education programs.” In addition, it will provide resources to prepare and recruit 100,000 high quality K-12 STEM teachers, infrastructure for supporting and engaging undergraduates, and support broadening participation in STEM fields by underrepresented groups.
Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation stressed the ongoing investment in STEM education at the NSF. She described one of the new STEM programs, Catalyzing Advances in Undergraduate STEM Education, which is comprised of several consolidated programs and spoke of the increased resources for graduate education at the NSF.
Leland Melvin, Associate Administrator for Education at NASA spoke about the role that NASA has played in education and public outreach. He underlined the four priorities in NASA’s STEM education portfolio: engagement; internships, scholarships, and fellowships; educator professional development; and institutional engagement. Lastly, he stressed the role of NASA as a source of inspiration to students.
Questions from both sides of the aisle focused on the process for selecting STEM programs for elimination. Members were interested to hear about the involvement of the agencies and how decisions were made to cancel programs. Holdren emphasized that this plan takes into consideration the constrained overall federal budget as it eliminates some programs.
Smith expressed the frustration of both Republican and Democratic Science Committee members as he noted the delayed release date of the Committee on STEM’s Strategic Plan outlining the objectives and goals for this restructure. That plan was a requirement set in the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010. He and other Members were particularly interested to hear from Melvin about the cuts to NASA outreach programs.
Johnson questioned the lack of opportunity for the STEM community to provide input to the plan to consolidate and eliminate programs. She was particularly interested in cancellations at NASA but also pressed the witnesses for information about the overall process for all the science agencies. Also, Johnson wanted to know about additional staff and resources that would potentially be provided to the Smithsonian Institution.
There were many questions as to the effectiveness of this plan and many Members doubted that the lead agencies would have the same level of resources as are currently available from all the science mission agency STEM programs. Overall, there was significant concern regarding the involvement of the science agencies in the planning of this restructure.