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Boosting America’s Scientific Brain Power

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President Trump recently signed a bipartisan bill to promote mentoring programs to encourage girls and women to enter the aerospace field. The new law adds to a loosely organized network of continuing federal efforts to boost Americans’ engagement in science, technology, engineering and math education.  In fact, President George W. Bush placed a governmentwide emphasis on STEM education in his national competitiveness agenda.

STEM career fields in the U.S. jobs market have tripled in recent years and the White House Office of Science and Technology projected in 2013 that the demand for these skills will outstrip the supply by at least one million jobs if STEM education trends do not improve.  

A 2010 law required OSTP to better coordinate the federal government’s STEM education investments.  In May 2013, it released the first-ever governmentwide 5-year STEM education strategic plan. The plan highlights five investment areas, such as improving STEM instruction by preparing 100,000 highly-qualified STEM teachers in grades K-12. Another would increase the number of STEM-educated college graduates. 

An Education Network

The federal government has encouraged STEM education since the 1950s, in part as a reaction to Russia’s launch of Sputnik, a feat that surprised many Americans. Out of self-interest, many science-based agencies, such as the Energy Department, have created programs to serve as pipelines of technical talent needed to meet their missions. Other agencies, such as NASA, have sponsored STEM programs to infuse science skills into the broader economy. There’s even an advocacy group promoting STEM education.

These programs evolved largely independent of one other. But in the mid-2000s, the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office stood back and took a more strategic view, voicing concern over the effectiveness of the investments in myriad federal programs; these concerns contributed to the requirement for a plan in the 2010 law.

In 2013, GAO inventoried existing programs and found:

“In fiscal year 2010, 13 federal agencies invested over $3 billion in 209 programs designed to increase knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and attainment of STEM degrees. The number of programs within agencies ranged from 3 to 46, with the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation administering more than half of the 209 programs. Almost a third of all programs had obligations of $1 million or less, while some had obligations of over $100 million . . . Eighty-three percent of the programs GAO identified overlapped to some degree with at least 1 other program in that they offered similar services to similar target groups in similar STEM fields to achieve similar objectives.”

That same year, the newly-released 5-year STEM plan was a first step in rationalizing the many programs and the creation of a more formal coordination network among them.

The STEM Education CAP Goal  

The 2014 STEM education cross-agency priority goal is one of 15 such goals created by OMB in response to a separate 2010 law requiring the establishment of such goals. This CAP goal outlines a strategy to implement key elements in the  STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan. Eight sub-goals include initiatives to improve STEM instruction, increase and sustain youth and public engagement in STEM, and build and use evidence-based approaches. Milestones and metrics were developed to assess progress.

Leaders from OSTP and the National Science Foundation were designated as the co-leads. In developing a governance structure, the co-leads turned to an existing OSTP advisory group, the Subcommittee on Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM), whose membership is drawn from the 14 federal agencies involved in STEM education programs. To manage the breadth of this CAP goal, FC-STEM established seven interagency working groups responsible for implementing the eight sub-goals. These working groups provide quarterly progress reports to FC-STEM, which compiles them into the quarterly progress reports required by law. According to an interagency staff that coordinates the efforts of the working groups, the designation of these efforts as a CAP Goal has led to greater coordination of funding and less duplication of effort.

For example, the interagency working group on undergraduate STEM education identified the high failure rate in introductory math as a barrier to students completing a STEM-related degree. In response, they’ve developed a focus on improving high school math instruction and measuring improvements through national testing scores. The ultimate key indicator will be the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees earned annually. While there are historical measures for this indicator, the data lag does not allow an assessment of progress since 2013.

The subcommittee, the interagency working groups and the interagency coordinating staff all pre-existed the 2010 law, the 5-year plan, and the CAP Goal. However, they were seen as policy discussion forums, without an emphasis on implementation. The CAP Goal designation in 2014 created a new mechanism for coordination, implementation, and reporting progress that helped agencies “get credit” for diffuse activities occurring across myriad STEM education programs in multiple agencies. The framework of high-level quarterly progress meetings gave the community more visibility and encouraged coordination. To some observers, the CAP goal serves as a catalyst for action.

Progress to Date

In comparison to many of the other CAP goals, the STEM education goal was initially seen as one of the least mature in terms of a pre-existing network of participants focused on cross-agency implementation of initiatives. However, when GAO examined its progress in 2016, it was fairly positive about how this network evolved in a relatively short period of time.

For example, GAO said that the OSTP leader “found contributing agencies to be more receptive to directives and efforts for implementing the CAP goal because they come jointly from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and are not solely based on OSTP’s policy perspective. They also told us that NSF’s leadership of CAP goal activities and its ability to secure agency buy-in, among other things, makes it an effective CAP goal leader.”

But GAO also noted that the coordinating staff “did not identify a target—expressing both magnitude and direction—for 12 of its 15 performance measures. The most recent data available for these measures is from 2013, prior to the start of the current CAP goal period.”

Nevertheless, one of the more concrete cross-agency successes was the creation of a one-stop portal that Energy hosts on its science.gov “gateway to U.S. federal science” website. This portal catalogues opportunities for federally-funded undergraduate and graduate STEM education programs.

OSTP in late 2016 catalogued numerous examples of different STEM initiatives underway, for example:  

  • TechHire. In 2015, the White House launched an initiative to expand local tech sectors by building tech talent pipelines across the country, supported by grants from the Labor Department and other agencies. A year later, more than 1,000 employers in 70 communities across the country were working with new training programs, such as coding boot camps, that resulted in “thousands of new hires.”
  • Computer Science for All. An early 2016 White House initiative launched “a nationwide effort to give every student the opportunity to learn computer science.” The effort, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service, engaged selected states, school districts, and non-profit organizations in providing computer science training. Grants provided tools, such as high-speed broadband, tech infrastructure, and Wi-Fi.
  • Teaching Computer Science. NSF announced in late 2016 that it will invest $20 million in the coming year to “help K-12 teachers expand opportunities for teaching computer science and computational thinking for students across the United States.” This funding is part of a five-year initiative to develop support materials for teachers.

This initiative has created enough momentum among its network of partners that there is hope that existing STEM Education programs will carry forward until new leadership is in place.

This is the 10th in a series about the progress of the 15 Cross-Agency Priority Goals established in 2014.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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