HSS&T Committee Members Skeptical of Administration's STEM Proposal

HSS&T Committee Members Skeptical of Administration's STEM Proposal

Members of a House committee agreed on the need to improve STEM education in the United States at a hearing yesterday, but many are skeptical that the Obama Administration’s proposal fits the bill.

Questions over how the Administration developed its proposed science education reorganization plan dominated the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee hearing Tuesday as several members expressed doubt that the changes would succeed in renewing U.S. leadership in STEM fields.

Several members of the committee are skeptical at the Administration’s proposal to consolidate many of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and public outreach activities of 13 agencies – including NASA – under the leadership of the Department of Education for K-12 education, the National Science Foundation (NSF) for undergraduate and graduate programs, and the Smithsonian Institution for informal science education.

The proposed changes were first revealed in the President’s budget request (PBR) for fiscal year 2014, released on April 10, in which the STEM education funding of agencies like NASA and NOAA was severely cut. According to Presidential Science Advisor Dr. John Holdren, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing, the plan seeks to derive “maximum benefit” from government investment in STEM, which would rise by $178 million (6 percent) in FY2014 when compared to FY2012 levels.

The proposal caught the NASA science education community by surprise and has drawn criticism from several organizations and leaders in the space community. In an op-ed published in the June 3 issue of Space News, Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), quotes Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” Executive Director of The Planetary Society, and others who have voiced their concerns and identifies several successful programs that would be “zeroed out.” “The fact is that NASA programs simply could not be reproduced by any other agency,” Colleton writes.

The proposed changes are the outcome of a 2010 congressional mandate to the White House National Science and Technology Council, which reports to Holdren’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to establish a Committee on STEM (CoSTEM) that would develop a five-year strategic implementation plan for the coordination of federal STEM programs. Yet as House Members repeatedly admonished during the hearing, that Strategic Plan outlining the findings, priorities and strategies behind the reorganization was released just last Friday, several weeks after the PBR came out.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), HSS&T Chairman, asked Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director for education and human resources at NSF, who helped lead the development of the Strategic Plan, about the timing of the release. He said it made CoSTEM “almost irrelevant” and asked whether changes were made to the Strategic Plan as a result of the PBR.  Mundy responded by saying that development of the plan was “an ongoing process” and that the team was working on it “around the budget release and beyond.”

NASA funds devoted to STEM education and spread across its mission directorates and offices would be cut by nearly $50 million under the reorganization, NASA’s Leland Melvin told the committee.  He said 78 programs were cut out of the Science Mission Directorate alone, but that $26 million would be competitively awarded by the NASA Office of Education to fund the best programs. Melvin is NASA’s associate administrator for education and would be in charge of the restructured activities in the agency.

A major issue of concern during the discussion was just how the Administration went about identifying low priority programs to cut at NASA and elsewhere, with several committee members asking about the specific criteria or metrics used to inform those decisions.

Holdren said it was an “iterative process” within the White House involving his office (OSTP), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Domestic Policy Council. “It wasn’t fun; those are tough decisions,” he said.

An exchange between Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD), in whose district lies NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and Melvin revealed that NASA was still waiting on metrics to gauge the success of some of its STEM education programs when the decisions to cut many of these were made. She seemed surprised by Melvin and Holdren’s responses that “the experts” at NASA and other agencies did not have direct input in identifying the specific programs that would be cut or maintained.

Although NASA was not the main subject during the two-hour long hearing, several members expressed concern about how the agency would fare under the proposed plan. HSS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said that “NASA seems to have taken the biggest hit in the budget proposal and this doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Edwards agreed: “You have to register me as one of the skeptics.”  During an exchange with Holdren, she asked about the STEM capabilities at the Department of Education which has only one staffer tasked to STEM education. Holdren explained that the PBR includes $285 million to build up that capability and draw from “relevant capability” spread across the department; it’s “not as if the Department of Education is starting from scratch,” he said. Edwards did not seem convinced. Alluding to agencies like NASA “who already know what they’re doing in STEM,” she said “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix that.”

Witness statements, opening statements, and the webcast of the hearing are available on the Republican and Democratic committee websites.

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