How is it that in the midst of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — a catastrophe that can be attributed at least in part to technological hubris — the Obama administration is proposing cuts to many national programs that are designed to expand education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?
That was my first thought when I saw this item in Tuesday afternoon’s update from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Chronicle reports that as a follow-up to “a pledge to freeze spending unrelated to national security over the next three years, the White House is asking federal agencies to offer plans to shave 5 percent from their budgets by eliminating their worst-performing programs, and among them are some connected to higher education.” During a news conference on Tuesday, President Obama’s budget director, Peter R. Orszag, “singled out mathematics and science education, youth mentoring, and job training for cuts, noting that the federal government offers more than 110 programs focused on science, technology, engineering, and math education, 100 mentoring programs, and 40 employment programs,” the Chronicle reported.
As I read that brief account, two things struck me:
- How are math and science education programs “unrelated to national security”?
- During this time of national technological crisis, shouldn’t we be investing more in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education?
Then I looked at the list of programs on the federal STEM funding list (PDF). Yes, a number of programs are slated for elimination or reduction. They include some that, based on title alone, appear to have some bearing on our national security (as well as our future as a leader in technological innovation). For instance, the number of Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Integrated University Program items would be reduced from 15 to 5. I don’t know what that entails, but at a time when we’re hearing so much talk about the move from a carbon-based economy to a low-carbon one, it seems investment in nuclear energy education would be worth keeping flat at the least.
Furthermore, programs designed to attract more underrepresented minorities into the STEM disciplines appear to take a big hit. The National Science Foundation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program would be cut from 32 participants to zero, and two other NSF programs for minorities — the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program — would go from 45 and 13 programs to zero, respectively. Maybe these are among the “worst-performing programs” referenced in the Chronicle brief.
But on further inspection of the STEM document, the NSF’s total number of programs would actually increase by 26 programs — from 1,151 to 1,177 — and overall, the number of STEM education programs would increase by almost 1 percent (from 3,681 to 3,718).
So, it appears to be a shell game. But an interesting one that may tell us something about our nation’s agenda for STEM education, or lack thereof. Perhaps this is the price we’ll pay as a nation for failing to reauthorize the America Competes Act last month.