Tough Budget for STEM Not the Last Word

Among the education areas to be cut in the Trump budget are afterschool programs, where many minority and low-income students have rich STEM learning experiences.

Among the education areas to be cut in the Trump budget are afterschool programs, where many minority and low-income students have rich STEM learning experiences.

Big changes put forth

In these still-early days of the Trump administration, the news moves fast on all fronts. Underneath the top-line stories of health care, Russia, and travel bans, White House proposals in science and education policy areas promise their own kinds of dramatic change.

When we looked in December at these questions, we had few clues, just a sense of foreboding. Now, real proposals give weight to this foreboding. Under the Trump budget blueprint, the federal role in education, STEM and otherwise, would get much smaller and very quickly.

Many actors still to weigh in

What actually ends up happening will depend on many other actors besides the president, of course. Congress, the courts, and citizen-level responses will all shape where we end up in STEM research and education.

Even so, this week we look at a few different developments in these areas that mark big changes with unpredictable consequences.

Hostility to science

The White House budget blueprint released last month includes what the Washington Post called “seismic disruption” in federal funding for scientific research. NASA, NIH, and EPA are targeted for double-digit cuts. While not specifically identified, NSF would likely face cuts, too. It is part of the “other agencies” category in the budget, in line for an almost 10 percent trim.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, CEO and former congressman Rush Holt declared, “The administration’s proposed cuts would threaten our nation’s ability to advance cures for disease, maintain our technological leadership, ensure a more prosperous energy future, and train the next generation of scientists and innovators to address the complex challenges we face today and in the future.”

Other than that, no big deal.

Slow rolling the jobs

President Trump has been famously slow to fill positions by appointment in his new administration. Of 553 key positions to be submitted for Senate approval, 486 have no nominee in place. It’s even worse, believe it or not, among the 46 science-related positions to be filled; just one is in place.

Up is down

And at the Water Office of the beleaguered EPA, the Office of Science and Technology might need to look for a new name. Agency officials excised the word “science” from the entity’s mission statement. Res ipse loquitur.

Before and after versions of the EPA Water Office’s mission statement regarding science and technology.

Before and after versions of the EPA Water Office’s mission statement regarding science and technology.

Education funds in doubt

Teachers would find enormously reduced prospects for professional development in the new Trump education landscape. Title II programs in the amount of $2.4 billion, meant to help teachers learn and practice new skills for classroom use, would disappear. That’s the equivalent of 40,000 teachers.

Funding to support training for teachers in STEM education and other areas would suffer big cuts in the proposed Trump budget.

Funding to support training for teachers in STEM education and other areas would suffer big cuts in the proposed Trump budget.

Another of the headline cuts in the budget blueprint was to afterschool education, housed under the 21st Century Community Learning Center program. Axing the $1.2 billion program would eliminate afterschool and summer programs for 1.6 million kids, most of them in low-income communities.

Travel bans looming

While currently blocked by courts, the proposed travel bans would hurt the science and engineering research worlds because so many graduate students, professors, and other researchers come from abroad.

Especially hard hit, it seems, would be research in medical areas, in particular HIV and mental health. And researchers from the six countries named in the ban are watching the outcome of this debate with anxiety, like this woman from Iran.

Where STEM education stands

It remains unclear where exactly the Trump White House stands on the question of STEM education. At an event last week at the National Air and Space Museum, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump plumped for more girls to enter STEM fields. At the same time, though, the administration’s budget calls for zeroing out NASA’s education programs, hailed widely as models in gender-equitable STEM outreach and education.

The president has also signed two bills meant to promote women’s prospects in STEM fields, the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act and the INSPIRE Women Act. Charging NSF and NASA, respectively, to undertake outreach efforts to women, the bills had bipartisan support. It might be noted, however, that neither bill calls for specific money to support either agency’s efforts. The programs would have to draw from available funding sources, meaning, well, cuts to other currently operating outreach programs.

Supporters of STEM education in Congress and elsewhere will be working hard to maintain funding streams for programs offered up for cuts in the White House’s budget.

Supporters of STEM education in Congress and elsewhere will be working hard to maintain funding streams for programs offered up for cuts in the White House’s budget.

Strong support elsewhere

Meanwhile, STEM education continues to command support in Congress among both Republicans and Democrats. And advocates like the STEM Education Coalition have laid out strong arguments in favor of robust funding for STEM programs. It is possible, even likely, that the final appropriations for education programs, STEM included, will be higher than what the White House has proposed.

What to do

We’ll finish with a word on how educators concerned about threats to public support for teaching and learning might respond. Especially in STEM education, policy debates and actual teaching and learning practices have taken place in related, but largely non-overlapping circles. Advocates are rarely teachers, and teachers are rarely advocates.

An attempt to breach this divide lay behind a National Academy of Engineering meeting last fall. The proceedings from this meeting were recently published under the title, “Increasing the Roles and Significance of Teachers in Policymaking for K-12 Engineering Education.” A readable 18 pages, the report focuses on specific actions teachers might take in short-, medium-, and long-term contexts to infuse their professional expertise into policy discussions and decisions to promote better educational outcomes. Well worth the reading, the report can help education policy better reflect teachers’ interests and show teachers how education policies get developed and enacted.

Practicing citizenship

As with so many other stories to do with the new White House, it’s important to stay informed and active. Make your representatives in Washington aware of your views. Especially during this upcoming two-week recess, look for events where Members of Congress might be appearing.

We’d love to hear of anyone’s plans or experiences engaging with public officials on these questions. Share in the comments or contact us directly. And please do share with any interested colleagues or friends.

 


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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