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Jeffrey Mervis

Cold storage? NIH is no longer actively promoting the curriculum supplements for teachers that it stores in this off-campus warehouse in Rockville, Maryland.

Congress and NIH Don't See Eye to Eye on Science Education

By: 
Jeffrey Mervis
2014-01-28 17:00

You might call it a failure to communicate. But the drama is playing out in real life at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), not in a movie.

This month Congress told NIH to resume support for several science education programs that NIH Director Francis Collins had decided to terminate after the Obama administration announced last April that it wanted to reorganize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs throughout the federal government. In particular, the legislators told NIH to continue funding its long-running Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA), which inject the latest biomedical discoveries into museum exhibits and other informal learning settings, and the Office of Science Education, which oversees several other programs.

Congress rejected the White House’s proposed STEM education reorganization when it passed a spending bill that funds the entire federal government for the remaining 8.5 months of the 2014 fiscal year. (Lawmakers had previously expressed grave doubts about the proposed reshuffling.) And the explanatory language about science education at NIH that accompanies the massive spending bill makes it very clear that legislators want NIH to hit the reset button. “NIH shall continue these programs based on the same policies that existed at the start of fiscal year 2013,” it declares. “NIH is directed to continue funding these programs in fiscal year 2014 and sufficient funding is provided within [Collins’s office] to include the Office of Science Education.”

The activities receive a miniscule amount of NIH’s $30-billion-a-year budget: SEPA handed out about $20 million to 17 sites in its most recent competition in 2012, and the science education office had an annual budget of roughly $4 million. But while the language seems clear enough, NIH officials don’t seem to be listening.

With respect to SEPA, NIH says that it will fund some projects in 2014 drawn from a pool of proposals that it selected in January 2013 but never funded. That policy means there will not be a 2014 class of SEPA recipients, which seems to violate the congressional directive to return to business as usual. NIH officials also say they have not decided how many awards to make.

At the same time, NIH has continued to fund the remaining years of SEPA projects begun in 2012 and earlier. (The awards are typically for 5 years.) NIH officials also say they plan to unveil a new competition this summer for a cohort of projects to be funded in FY 2015, which begins 1 October, although the announcement could include changes to the program.

The communications gap between NIH and Congress appears to be even wider with respect to the Office of Science Education. Its director and the SEPA program coordinator were reassigned at the start of the 2014 fiscal year, in October 2013, and the nine-person office was essentially shuttered. One person was assigned the job of responding to requests for copies of the office’s award-winning curriculum supplements for elementary and secondary school teachers, but all marketing and promotion of the supplements ceased. (NIH officials estimated last fall that the 200,000 lessons stored in a warehouse would last less than a year, but since 1 October NIH has received only 773 requests for the materials.)

Despite the office’s lack of physical presence, NIH officials told ScienceInsider yesterday that “the office was never closed. There are currently no plans to close it.” The officials did not answer a question about the current budget and staffing levels for the office.

Although Collins and Principal Deputy NIH Director Lawrence Tabak declined to be interviewed about NIH’s response to the new congressional language, Collins was surprisingly candid last fall about the state of science education at NIH during a meeting with an outside panel that advises him on management policies. “There is chaos right now in this area,” Collins told the Scientific Management Review Board, an 18-member body of institute directors and outside luminaries.

In brief remarks to the board, Collins explained that offering precollege STEM education programs “is tricky for us because at the present time we don’t have specific congressional authorization to do K-12 education.” He said he considers existing programs aimed at creating a larger STEM-savvy workforce to be a “justifiable” activity, but that he was looking for “a thoughtful set of inputs” on how NIH should proceed.

In December, Tabak officially invited the board to study the issue, asking it to “[d]efine principles to guide future NIH efforts” and to “[i]dentify attributes, activities, and components of effective STEM programs.” Yesterday NIH officials said they expect the board to submit its recommendations “in late 2014 or early 2015.”

The board’s chair, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, told Collins in October that examining K-12 education at NIH “is a terrific topic” and noted that “I’m committed to education, specifically K-12.” A major player in U.S. research policy, Augustine chaired the wildly influential 2005 National Academies’ report that proposed increasing the federal government’s investment in research and science education.

Speaking yesterday to ScienceInsider, Augustine said Collins has told him that “NIH wants to make use of the knowledge and equipment it possesses to promote STEM education.” Augustine said he believes NIH “has all the resources to make a significant impact” but that its efforts must be well coordinated with the activities of other federal agencies. The task force has not yet been formed, Augustine noted, but he hopes it will complete its work in time to influence NIH’s FY 2016 budget request, which will be submitted to the White House in September. 

Health science educators are thrilled that Congress went to bat for SEPA and science education at NIH in the 2014 spending bill. But some see the study by the management board as a delaying tactic.

Although reluctant to identify themselves for fear of offending NIH, they are worried NIH will use the time to downgrade STEM education activities in ways that cannot be reversed. They note that the congressional language applies only to the current fiscal year, and speculate that NIH is betting legislators will lose interest in the subject by the time the next budget is hammered out. A final 2015 spending bill is not likely until after the midterm elections in November.

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