The deck may be stacked against his panel in terms of its narrow focus and limited resources available. But Clyde Yancy thinks he still has a few cards to play in tackling the politically sensitive question of whether the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should wade into the swirling waters of precollege science education.
Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University’s medical school and a former president of the American Heart Association, is leading a new NIH-sponsored study into how the agency might improve the pool of talent going into biomedical research. The panel’s relatively fuzzy charge from NIH Director Francis Collins is to “optimize NIH’s precollege programs” so that they “both align with the NIH mission and ensure a continued pipeline of biomedical science students and professionals.” So the first job of the panel, a working group of a permanent advisory body  made up of NIH institute directors and prominent outsiders, will be to identify the connection between precollege activities and strengthening the pipeline and then define NIH’s role in both spheres.
The panel’s work marks something of a departure for NIH. For decades, the agency has argued that its primary mission is to fund research that will enhance the nation’s health, and it has focused its education and training efforts at the graduate and undergraduate level. The daunting challenge of improving a K-12 educational system that fails to deliver basic scientific literacy to millions of students, and lags behind much of the industrial world, has typically fallen to other U.S. science agencies, which have much smaller annual budgets than the $30 billion NIH receives. Last year, NIH even eliminated its tiny Office of Science Education, and it took an act of Congress to preserve the Science Education Partnership Awards  (SEPA), NIH’s sole program aimed at precollege students. (SEPA will spend about $18 million in 2014.)
Meeting Tuesday at NIH for the first time, the new panel’s members heard presentations from outside organizations working to improve precollege science education across the nation. In response, they debated whether the panel should look into some likely causes, from inadequate teacher preparation and scant in-school training to a subpar curriculum and flabby standards.
In brief opening comments, Collins warned them away from going in that direction. “We do not have a congressional mandate to do general science communications,” he told the panel. Principal Deputy NIH Director Lawrence Tabak made an even more pointed plea. “It’s important to make the whole world scientifically literate,” he told them. “It feels good, and it’s the right thing to do. But that’s not your charge. We can’t boil the ocean.”
At the same time, Collins told the panel that his concerns about the quality of the workforce are rooted in the fact that “we are missing out … on attracting the best minds” into the scientific enterprise. That problem arises, he believes, because “way too much science is taught in a dull way” and fails to hold the attention of students in secondary school, when they are beginning to think about possible careers.
Members of the panel, officially called the working group on Pre-College Engagement in Biomedical Science, also weighed how much emphasis to place on the need to diversify the scientific workforce to sustain U.S. global leadership in science. While Collins told the panel that he’s worried about attracting enough smart students into science because “we have a mandate to ensure a strong pipeline,” the charge doesn’t specifically discuss ways to attract minorities and women into the field.
One NIH institute director and panel member said the need to focus on diversity was clear to him. “There is no compelling evidence that we don’t have enough people who want to go into biomedical research,” asserted Alan Guttmacher, head of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “I also don’t think that the quality of the pipeline is a problem. It’s really a question of who these people are, and how do we use the K-12 lever to do something to diversify the biomedical workforce.”
After the meeting, Tabak said that the omission of diversity was not meant to play down its importance. “We haven’t explicitly mentioned underrepresented minorities in the charge, but the data are unambiguous,” Tabak told ScienceInsider. “There are true gaps in the educational opportunities afforded to them. And if you make the pipeline more diverse, you’re going to strengthen it.”
Yancy, the panel’s chair, thinks the two issues are distinct but related. “Diversity is not central to our study, but it’s a necessary component for our deliberations,” he told ScienceInsider after the meeting. “I think the real driver for our initiative is the realization that the most talented U.S. students are inclined to waive careers in traditional science and math, and that we need to do better to attract our most talented K-12 students to consider careers in STEM fields.”
In his talk, Collins also added a third constraint to the panel’s activities: NIH hasn’t set aside any new money for any initiative the panel might recommend. NIH officials are hoping that SEPA will become the vehicle for NIH’s precollege activities. Right now the primary goal of its 67 projects, as the program’s website explains, is to “improve student understanding of the health sciences in K-12 education, and increase the public’s understanding of science.”
Yancy says he is impressed with some of the data presented by SEPA’s Tony Beck on projects that have helped grease the path into science and engineering for students. He would like the panel to look at the feasibility of scaling up those projects with an eye toward building up the workforce. And while Yancy thinks that cost “is an important filter that should be introduced on day one,” he says it should not limit the panel’s thinking.
“I agree that $18 million a year is pretty sparse,” he says about SEPA’s current budget. “But as a clinician, if there are randomized data that would allow us to go from a pilot study to a phase 3 clinical trial, and if the results are good, then we would have to come back to Francis Collins, and say, ‘This needs to be exported to other communities and ramped up.’ Now there will be an additional cost, but that cost will generate the outcome you are looking for. … But we may also discover that it won’t cost any more money.”
The panel is expected to produce its report by the end of the year. And Collins acknowledged the problems they will face when he reminded them that he counts on the advisory board “to tackle challenging topics without easy answers.”