A pitch for more NSF funding

National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan (left) and Dan Reed, a former chair of the National Science Board, testified Thursday before House lawmakers for more funding for NSF. (Screenshot from streamed event)

To make their case for more funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency’s director and a former chair of the National Science Board stressed to House lawmakers on Thursday NSF’s importance when it comes to the country’s economic and national security.

In terms of economic security, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan and Dan Reed, a former NSB chair, emphasized to members of a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee that NSF fosters innovation and entrepreneurship and also funds critical STEM training programs. Panchanathan cited the agency’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program as an “exemplar” in designing STEM curricula and developing a skilled technical workforce for areas such as AI, quantum computing and cybersecurity.

“We often forget that the skilled technical workforce is a larger fraction of the overall STEM workforce,” Reed added. He noted that about a quarter of the U.S. workforce — about 38 million jobs — use STEM skills in their jobs, including 19 million skilled technical workers without a bachelor’s degree.

“Those numbers will only increase as companies expand their STEM workforce and their R&D investments in response to rising global competition,” he said.

Invest in talent

Several times in the hearing, Reed and Panchanathan emphasized that China is already investing heavily in these areas, often funding ideas swiped from the U.S. Both said increasing funding for NSF is crucial to stay ahead of China and other competitors, and that includes developing a skilled workforce.

“We’re failing to develop the domestic STEM workforce needed to remain globally competitive,” Reed said. “We’re simply not moving at the speed of our competitors.”

The president’s fiscal year 2025 budget request to Congress includes $10.2 billion for NSF, a modest increase of 3.1% ($300 million) over the FY 2023 total budget. This is especially significant given the Congressional cuts to the agency’s FY 2024 appropriations by about 8%. House appropriators are also looking to continue cutting overall domestic spending, which may not bode well for NSF.

The ATE program — which supports partnerships between community colleges, other academic institutions, industry, and other entities to improve the education of technicians in science and engineering — currently receives $75 million. Its funding was not cut in FY 2024. NSF’s budget request does not specify an amount for ATE in particular but does seek an increase for STEM education overall.

Questions about DEI

Republicans questioned Panchanathan why the agency has funding specifically for efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion, and whether those funds could instead go toward other NSF efforts. He replied that it’s important to tap potential talent among all Americans as the country struggles with a shortage of skilled STEM workers, whether they come from underrepresented populations or from rural parts of the country.

“We want every bit of talent to be energized,” he said.

Another Sputnik moment

With the country lagging behind other nations in math and science, Reed pitched a bold idea to galvanize the entire country around STEM, much like the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) did in 1958 in the wake of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite launch. His pitch for a “NDEA 2.0” would focus on developing domestic STEM talent across all education levels and including teacher education.

At the postsecondary level, NDEA 2.0 could create “STEM Talent for America,” a national service program for undergraduates, Reed said. The program, modeled on the Defense Civilian Training Corps, could offer two- or four-year STEM scholarships in return for fulfilling a national service requirement after graduating.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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