A major topic of conversation in Washington science policy circles
these days is how to maintain the U.S. competitive position in the global
marketplace. In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Bush
proposed an "American Competitiveness Initiative" to foster
American innovation and global leadership (see FYIs #16,
17, and 18).
Substantial portions of the President's initiative are based on recent
reports urging the federal government to improve science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in K-12 and beyond, encourage
more students - and a more diverse group of students - to pursue careers
in STEM fields, and ensure that the U.S. continues to attract talented
STEM students and workers from around the world. However, numerous federal
programs already in existence have these same or similar objectives,
and "little is known about the extent to which most STEM programs
are achieving their desired results," according to a recent Government
Accountability Office (GAO) Report.
In the fall of 2005, GAO released a study investigating how many programs
currently exist, where they are located, what their goals are, and whether
their effectiveness has been evaluated. The GAO report, "Higher
Education: Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
Programs and Related Trends," looks at civilian, but not military,
programs within the federal government "designed to increase the
numbers of students and graduates or improve educational programs in
STEM fields." In fiscal year 2004, it found that 207 such programs
existed, in 13 civilian federal agencies. The cost for these programs
in FY 2004 was approximately $2.8 billion. NIH and NSF were the biggest
sponsors of such programs, followed by NASA and the Department of Education.
NIH spent $998 million on such programs in FY 2004, NSF spent $997 million,
NASA spent $231 million, and the Education Department spent $221 million.
It is "uncertain whether the number of STEM graduates will be
sufficient to meet future academic and employment needs and help the
country maintain its technological competitive advantage," the
report states. However, it warns, "before making changes, it is
important to know the extent to which existing STEM education programs
are appropriately targeted and making the best use of available federal
The report notes that most of the programs had multiple goals and were
targeted toward multiple groups. It found that only about half had undergone
evaluation or were undergoing evaluation at the time of the study. The
report does not make assessments of any of the programs itself, nor
assess the validity of the program evaluations, but it finds that of
the evaluations conducted, most "reported that the programs met
their objectives or goals."
Reviewing changes in STEM education and workforce demographics over
the last decade, the report finds that while "the total numbers
of students, graduates, and employees in STEM fields increased, changes
in the numbers and percentages of women, minorities, and international
students varied during the periods reviewed." It looks in more
detail at the numbers for various demographic groups in the student
and S&T workforce populations. It finds that while the "total
number of graduates in STEM fields increased by 8 percent from the 1994-1995
academic year to the 2002-2003 academic year...graduates in non-STEM
fields increased 30 percent."
Based on comments by education experts and university officials, and
on prior studies, the report highlights several major factors that influence
students' decisions about STEM fields and occupations. These include
"teacher quality at the kindergarten through 12th grade levels
and students' high school preparation in mathematics and science courses....
In addition, university officials, students, and studies identified
mentoring as a key factor for women and minorities." International
students' decisions, the report says, "are influenced by yet other
factors, including more stringent visa requirements and increased educational
opportunities outside the United States." To encourage greater
participation in STEM fields, the report continues, university officials
and students "offered suggestions that focused on four areas: teacher
quality, mathematics and science preparation and courses, outreach to
underrepresented groups, and the federal role in STEM education."
As reported in previous FYIs, the President's proposed American Competitiveness
Initiative would include, among other components, strengthening science
and math education, improving teacher education and preparation, producing
more students with STEM degrees, encouraging foreign students to study
at U.S. universities, and doubling over 10 years the research budgets
of NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and NIST. It is not yet known how congressional
appropriators will respond to the Initiative.
The GAO report is available in pdf format on the GAO web site at http://www.gao.gov/;
type in the report number (GAO-06-114) in the upper right-hand box.