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House GOP, Democrats Lay Out Differing Visions for STEM Education, Research

The House Republican and Democratic proposals to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act would seem to put a few more nails in the coffin for President Barack Obama's plan to reorganize federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programs. Both sides agree on that much, at least. But the proposals for reauthorizing the primary federal STEM education and research law—as well as members' questions at a House science subcommittee hearing on the issue this week—suggest the parties have different priorities for the nation's science and innovation in the future.

While the Senate commerce and science committee held a hearing on the America COMPETES Act reauthorization last week, no draft legislation has come out of that chamber yet, putting the focus squarely on the House. Both House legislative discussion drafts criticize the White House's changes to or elimination of more than 120 programs across 14 different agencies and decline to authorize the changes in the president's 2014 budget proposal. They would each keep the current National Science and Technology Council's Committee on STEM Education. Both drafts also would create a new STEM Education Advisory Panel, which would include various experts from the education and science fields, to review the current STEM education programs and research and recommend potential changes to the President.

The GOP draft, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act, or FIRST Act, focuses intensely on streamlining duplicative education and research programs. It also calls for a STEM coordinating office which would ensure federal STEM education programs in various federal agencies are not redundant, and would help coordinate private STEM education initiatives by academic, industry and community groups.

The Democrats' version would focus heavily on science education and teacher training, with increased support for several STEM education programs, including:

  • Joint NSF and Education Department "grand challenges" to develop better STEM instruction, assessment, teacher evaluation, and other projects;
  • The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education, an education research innovation office modeled on one run by the U.S. Department of Defense; and
  • Partnerships to improve STEM teacher training and recruitment.

"One of the challenges we face when you talk about teacher professional development is that the teaching environment is changing really fast now," said James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of more than 500 education, business and professional groups. "New technologies in the classroom, we're dealing with new standards in many states, and teachers are challenged to keep up with the state of the art. Fields that didn't exist 15 years ago are now the focus of major education reform efforts."

"Any federal strategic plan needs to place at its center the notion that we have to recruit the best possible teachers into these jobs, and we also have to make sure that the existing teacher workforce is getting all the supports that they need," he said.

Accountability or Political Control?

One of the most debated portions of the Republican draft is a proposal for "greater accountability in federal funding for research," which would require the National Science Foundation to certify in writing that any new grant or cooperative agreement is in the national interest and worthy of federal funding by meeting one of eight goals:

In addition, social and behavioral science research (such as education) could only be supported by offices other than the main NSF directorate for social, behavioral, and economic sciences if it "is determined to be a higher priority than other research in that directorate's mission portfolio." This might limit, for example, engineering researchers looking at why women and minority students choose to enter their field.

The language expands restrictions that House GOP members advocated for in social research—and successfully added to political science research in a stopgap spending bill—this spring. Those restrictions were widely criticized by the scientific community at the time, and experts testifying at the hearing echoed those worries:

Richard Buckius, the vice president for research at Purdue University, argued that the NSF director will not have the time or expertise to certify some 11,000 research grants now awarded by the agency. "You have to invest in the genius of our scholars and our systems," Buckius said. "You don't want a top-down system. The people have the ideas, and if you try to tell them what the ideas are, you won't get the best ideas."

Timothy L. Killeen, the vice chancellor of research and president of the Research Foundation for the State University of New York, agreed: "I do worry about every proposal conforming to a specified set of criteria because we're talking about scientific inquiry. That includes following leads that might not take you anywhere, following a hypothesis.Scientific inquiry is not always reliably, predictably serving a particular element of the national interest."

The research approval process needs improvement, but the FIRST Act language might actually worsen the problem of research accountability by "adding a meaningless level of rubber-stamping to the grant approval process," said Daniel Sarewitz, the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and professor of science and society at Arizona State University. "The list of eight criteria used to determine if a particular grant is worthy of federal support is both very general and broadly inclusive," he said. "My guess is that the scientific community might therefore be concerned that decisions made at this next level would likely be subject to a political filter, rather than a scientific one."

Instead, Sarewitz argued for the NSF to direct peer reviewers to focus on how well research proposals provide connections to how their findings might be useful to practitioners in their fields, and that they crack down on "hype" that inflates expectations about a project's results and encourages researchers to advertise positive results even with weak evidence.

The accountability language also mirrors House scrutiny of the "usefulness" of education research in a September hearing on reauthorizing the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs federal education research. It seems likely that whatever research criteria Congress ends up adopting for one branch of federal science may find its way into the others, as well.

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