Reorganizing STEM programs – and going beyond

Today we continue with our look at the President’s budget proposal (see earlier postings). One of the budget’s themes is “educating a competitive workforce.” Within this overall framework are a number of programs to improve human capital, including a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Part of this focus is a proposal for consolidating the federal government’s programs.

The Budget proposes a comprehensive reorganization of Federal STEM education programs to enable more strategic investment in STEM and more critical evaluation of outcomes, reflecting an Administration priority on using Government resources more effectively to meet national goals. This reorganization is designed to increase the impact of Federal investments in four areas: K-12 instruction; undergraduate education; graduate fellowships; and education activities that typically take place outside the classroom, all with a focus on increasing participation and opportunities for individuals from groups historically underrepresented in these fields.

In the “Cuts, Consolidations and Savings” section of the budget document they propose eliminated 78 programs: 6 in Agriculture; 6 in Commerce; 6 in Defense; 8 in Energy, 10 in HHS; 1 in Homeland Security; 2 in EPA; 38 in NASA and in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [Note: the number does not add up to 78 but to 77]. They also propose reorganizing 11 programs in NSF and one in NASA. Unfortunately there is no narrative summary describing what programs are begin eliminated and what programs they are being folding into. It appears they will be all moved to the Department of Education.
The proposal appears to come out of the work of the Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council (part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy). Back in December 2011, the Committee published a report on the Federal STEM Education Portfolio which inventoried all the programs. That was followed in February 2012 with an progress report to Congress on Coordinating Federal STEM Education Investments. The Committee’s promised 5 year strategic plan does not yet appear to be published.
Bringing the numerous STEM programs into a coherent strategic plan is an important initiative. But there is a need to move beyond STEM to embrace other knowledge-based areas as well. We are moving to a post-scientific economy where, to quote Dr. Christopher Hill, former Vice Provost for Research at George Mason University:

the creation of wealth and jobs based on innovation and new ideas will tend to draw less on the natural sciences and engineering and more on the organizational and social sciences, on the arts, on new business processes, and on meeting consumer needs based on niche production of specialized products and services in which interesting design and appeal to individual tastes matter more than low cost or radical new technologies.

To thrive in this new environment, education needs to move from the classroom to the living room. Life-long learning should not be a slogan but an ingrained part of everyday life. And as important as STEM is, our economic future is not solely in the hands of our scientists and engineers. Our future prosperity rest on raising the skills and knowledge level of everyone. Productivity no longer comes just from new machines, but from new ways of organizing work. And as I’ve noted in an earlier posting, Professor Jamie Galbraith said it well when he said “American competitiveness depends at least as much on style, design, creativity and art – and especially on the liaison between technology and art.”
So it is my hope, therefore, that the STEM strategic plan will go beyond just coordinating STEM programs. It should also include the role of other area, such as design and social sciences, and the tie in between STEM and these other fields. That would be a major step forward.

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