Steady as she goes, more or less
Though currently hamstrung by shutdown limbo, the new Congress has convened in a legislative environment that remains fundamentally friendly to STEM education. Notwithstanding emphases that oscillate between academic enrichment and workforce development, STEM education continues to enjoy favor from both parties. And the change from Republican to Democratic control of the House of Representatives seems unlikely to alter anything in this dynamic.
The shutdown is not to be minimized, of course. It will end – time and reasons to be determined – but in the meantime, the greater STEM enterprise suffers. A flurry of accounts highlights consequences such as interruptions to funding for grants, cessation of data gathering in ongoing research projects, and the removal of scientists and engineers in the federal workforce from their larger communities of practice and research. Check out reporting by The New York Times, the American Institute of Physics, The Washington Post, and Nature.
STEM profile rises
As Congress grapples with the shutdown, it does so with 10 more STEM-oriented members. Notable are two women engineers: Chrissy Houlahan, an industrial engineer who won the open 6th district in Pennsylvania, and Elaine Luria, a nuclear engineer who beat an incumbent in the 2nd district in Virginia. They join the 12 scientists and engineers and 18 medical professionals who will continue serving in Congress after winning reelection.
Many are called, few get through
STEM education legislation in the last Congress exemplified the basically Darwinian nature of legislative selection. Members introduced 35 bills that touched STEM education. Only eight gathered as many as 10 cosponsors, and just one made it through the legislative process to become actual law. This result is not actually atypical.
HR 5509, the Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act, was the one bill to make it into law. It authorizes $40 million in National Science Foundation support for research primarily into STEM education activities that lead to desirable workforce development outcomes. Of course, actual research under the law requires money to be appropriated, and NSF has stopped all funding efforts under the shutdown, anyway.
Tea leaves aplenty
The general funding environment for STEM education, though, continues to flash positive signs. Even as the White House ritualistically seeks to zero out areas like teacher professional development or NASA education programs, appropriators in Congress have consistently delivered solid funding streams to STEM education across varied agencies.
One of the few areas of government, in fact, not currently shut down is the Department of Education. In what seems like a different era, last October Congress funded the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services for 2019.
Two key STEM-related programs – the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program and 21st-Century Community Learning Centers – got actual increases to $1.17 billion and $1.22 billion, respectively, despite budget requests of $0 each. Such funding decisions require support from both parties, and the fact that Republicans and Democrats can work together to buck the Trump Administration on these programs suggests funding will continue reliably into the future.
Can it be?
Notwithstanding this topsy-turvy political moment, recent events suggest that even the direction of STEM education within the executive branch might be coming more into focus.
The Senate confirmed a director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. After remaining vacant for a record 712 days, the position finally gets a permanent occupant in the person of Kelvin Droegemeier, a climate scientist from the University of Oklahoma. Droegemeier’s August nomination was well received in science policy circles, and he brings a long record of executive branch service in prior administrations. And as soon as the shutdown ends, he can report for work.
The National Science & Technology Council released a five-year strategic plan for federal-level action in STEM education, titled Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education. Required by the America COMPETES Act, this periodic report draws on inputs from across the executive branch. Reflecting the workforce development focus of the White House, the strategy privileges industry needs over efforts to support teachers or develop curricula. In this regard, it echoes HR 5509, the one STEM education bill to become law in the last Congress.
The formerly mysterious White House pledge of $200 million in STEM education funding began to take concrete form this fall with grants made out of the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. Ten of the 18 grants for 2018 contained at least some STEM content, with overall funding reaching almost $150 million.
In these times, this might be as good as it gets.
As with most things to do with the Trump Administration, the past is no guarantee of the future. For all the questions about STEM education funding, the big tell will come next month when the White House releases a new budget request. It will contain specific statements about funding levels and policy directions, to which Congress will make responses in the course of the appropriations process. One thing for sure: anyone who thinks they know what will happen is in for a surprise.
If you have any predictions or analyses or, even better, inside information, we’ll be glad to hear it. As always, please share with 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 email@example.com.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.
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