The role of science investment in community and professional development

Photo credit: Chesapeake Bay program

Amid all the partisan turmoil in Congress, it seems Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have actually reached a consensus on one issue – that the administration’s proposal to consolidate Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs needs to go back to the drawing board.

The proposal, first introduced in the president’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request, would reduce programs across all federal agencies from 226 to 112 and house them under the National Science Foundation (NSF) (undergraduate and graduate), the Department of Education (K-12) and the Smithsonian Institution (informal education programs). Agencies that have traditionally sponsored STEM programs and fellowships such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would see their initiatives consolidated under the aforementioned agencies. Key leaders in both the House and Senate concur that the administration has not sufficiently clarified its rationale for eliminating certain programs nor has it sufficiently collaborated or sought input from the science and education communities.

This sentiment was most recently expressed by the Senate Commerce Justice and Science Subcommittee in its report that accompanied the subcommittee’s Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations bill: “While the Committee maintains its support of greater efficiencies and consolidation – as evident by adopting some of the STEM consolidation recommendations made by the administration’s budget request – the Committee has concerns that the proposal as a whole has not been thoroughly vetted with the education community or congressional authorizing committees, and lacks thorough guidance and input from Federal agencies affected by this proposal, from both those that stand to lose education and outreach programs and from those that stand to gain them.”

The report notes that the administration’s STEM strategic plan was released in May, a month after the budget request and that the reorganization proposal, as laid out in the budget request, does not fully clarify how it will meet the goals mandated by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-358). Consequently, the committee report language effectively defers implementation of the consolidation proposal “until such time that OSTP, in working with these and other Federal science agencies, finalizes the STEM program assessments as required by America COMPETES.”

The House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee report also disparages the Administration’s proposal: “The ideas presented in the budget request lack any substantive implementation plan and have little support within the STEM education community. In addition, the request conflicts with several findings and activities of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on STEM Education, most notably on the question of whether agency mission-specific fellowship and scholarship programs are a viable target of interagency coordination efforts. For these reasons, the Committee’s recommendation does not adopt the pending interagency restructuring, and no funds provided in this bill shall be used to implement that proposal.”

One key program that would be consolidated under NSF in the administration’s proposal is EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship program. In the most recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, 2013 Ecological Society of America Graduate Student Policy Award winner Lindsay Deel discusses how the STAR Fellowship program has aided her environmental geography research.

Deel (center left) and other graduate students residing in the Pennsylvania region pose with US Senator Bob Casey (PA).

Lindsay says the fellowship has helped her to link science and policy by expanding her ability to work with the Chesapeake Bay program based in Annapolis, MD as well as state and local forest managers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is a focal point of her research at West Virginia University. “The STAR Fellowship has really provided this strong foundation for beginning what I hope is a meaningful career that makes a difference,” she said. Her research ultimately could help address issues related to water quality, fishing and recreation in the Chesapeake Bay region, proving both environmental and economic benefits to surrounding communities.

The EPA STAR Fellowship program’s viability in the long-term remains uncertain. Its website indicates that it has not issued new grant requests beyond those approved in FY 2012. The ultimate fate of the program will partially be contingent on how Congress agrees to fund EPA through the coming fiscal year and whether Congress moves to address the ongoing sequester of discretionary spending cuts that is currently in effect.

There seems to be bipartisan consensus regarding the value of federal programs that aid in career and community development. Accordingly, policymakers should be willing to commit the necessary investments to ensure that programs such as the STAR Fellowship that contribute to economic development and foster collaboration between various disciplines and communities are allowed to continue.


Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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