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NIH Swears Off Science Education

27 September 2013 1:30 pm
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House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

End game. Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s principal deputy director, says the biomedical research agency has decided to close its science education office. Tabak testified last year before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on an unrelated matter.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has never been in the business of supporting precollege science education and promoting health literacy to the public, says NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak. And now it’s official NIH policy, too.

On 1 October, NIH will shutter its nine-person Office of Science Education (OSE) and cease to conduct a range of activities designed to foster health science education among elementary and secondary school students and the general public, Tabak told ScienceInsider yesterday. The announcement is belated confirmation of something the health science community had assumed to be true for several months. However, until this week, NIH officials had said only that the education office and a related Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program were being “paused” while NIH reviewed all options for coping with a 5% cut to its $30.7-billion-a-year budget that was a part of an automatic reduction in federal spending across all agencies.

“[K-12] education has never been part of our formal mandate,” Tabak says. “And frankly, it has never been a very high priority for NIH. As we’ve discussed before, this unusual year in which we lost $1.5 billion overnight caused us to rethink many of our priorities, and this was one of many things we had to rethink.”

On Tuesday, James Anderson of NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives lifted the veil on the fate of OSE and SEPA at a meeting of the NIH-wide Council of Councils. He said OSE was being “phased down” and that NIH would complete funding for multiyear SEPA projects already under way but that it had no plans to invite scientists to submit new proposals or make any awards. And yesterday, Tabak fleshed out those comments.

OSE has won wide acclaim for its curriculum supplements, first issued in the 1990s, that K-12 teachers can use to augment their regular lessons. Tabak says that NIH has agreed to satisfy requests for printed copies of the supplemental material “until we run out,” as well as fulfill requests for the electronic versions of the 19 units, which cover topics ranging from cancer and addiction to bioethics and mental illness. Tabak expects the roughly 200,000 copies sitting in an NIH warehouse to last until next spring. One OSE staffer has been assigned part-time to the job of answering phone and e-mail queries, he adds, while the rest of the office, including its longtime director, Bruce Fuchs, have been reassigned.

“No other OSE activities will be maintained,” Tabak says. The office had provided a wealth of health career-related information on its LifeWorks website, with features such as “Ask a Scientist.” It also conducted a series of programs, dubbed mini-med school, that provided laypersons with an introduction to various body systems. References to those and other activities have been removed from the office’s revised website, which now mentions only the curriculum supplements.

OSE and the SEPA program were on a White House hit list in April when President Barack Obama included the closures in a plan to consolidate federal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs as part of his 2014 budget request to Congress. Scientists and health educators involved in the SEPA program kicked up a fuss, however, and in July a Senate spending panel told NIH “to continue these programs in fiscal year 2014.” That spending bill has not advanced, however, giving NIH the flexibility to act unilaterally until Congress provides final guidance.

Asked this week by a Council of Councils member whether NIH would consider reviving SEPA if Congress told the agency to do so, Anderson said the program would still need to be altered substantially. “If you look at what’s important for our mission, it’s workforce development,” Anderson told James Schwob, a biology professor at Tufts University whose wife and Tufts colleague, Karina Meiri, is a principal investigator on a SEPA grant. “So the question is whether SEPA could be aligned with the overall NIH mission … in support of workforce development. It wouldn’t take us long to do that, but we would need some direction.”

*Clarification, 27 September, 4:46 p.m.: Dr. Tabak has amended his original comment to ScienceInsider about NIH’s mandate to make it clear that he was referring to elementary and secondary school education.

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