STEM--But No Stem

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Science  24 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5841, pp. 1009
DOI: 10.1126/science.1149332

Two converging events took place on 9 August that ought to have the scientific community scratching its collective head. One of these is an anniversary: On that date in 2001, President George W. Bush signed an Executive Order banning any use of federal funds to support research on stem cells (save, of course, for those 78 preexisting cell lines, only 21 of which are available). That position is reiterated most recently in another Executive Order after Bush's veto of the 2007 Senate bill (S.5) that would have authorized stem cell research.

The convergence is with the presidential signing of the America COMPETES Act (H.R. 2272) precisely on that anniversary. For those who collect fancy congressional titles, the full name of this act is (gasp) America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science. Its content embodies many of the provisions and the spirit of the president's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), and thus both bills are responses to an unusually influential report from the National Academies. Called Rising Above the Gathering Storm and produced by a high-level committee chaired by Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, its recommendations included programs for the education of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: STEM, in the acronym of science-ed lingo.


The irony is unmistakable. The prospects of a basic research effort that might have extraordinary clinical applications, one approved by a substantial majority of Americans, are still dim. So, no stem. But STEM is all over the America COMPETES Act, signed on the anniversary of Bush turning the lights out on stem cell research. Surely the president cannot have intended a subliminal message in the convergence. Or could he?

America COMPETES implements a number of initiatives derived from the Augustine report and ACI. It provides substantial increases to three physical science agencies for the period 2008 to 2010: a total of $22 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), $17 billion for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, and $2.7 billion for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Much smaller annual amounts go to the Department of Education for two new middle-school math programs, advanced courses in high school, and inducements for college science majors to become K-12 teachers.

It is difficult to find fault with these proposals. There is consensus that the physical science agencies were about due for their turn at having research funding doubled. The STEM education programs are a little harder for the White House to swallow: The president's science adviser, John Marburger, has called them an unwarranted expansion of efforts not yet proven effective, and this month Bush declared that he will support only those pieces of the new law that mirror his own ACI. Still, the research direction appears to be right, and scientists supported by NSF or DOE ought to be looking happier than their colleagues in biomedicine. They should be warned, though, that doubling is a blessing only until it ends in a real-dollar dropoff, at which point they'll start to feel dumped on.

So here we are. On the one hand, the scientific community ought to thank the Augustine committee for a report that somehow avoided the usual fate of dying on a government shelf, and be appreciative of a president who says he cares about science. Yet that same chief executive is prepared to apply his own set of “moral values” to prevent some promising research. And we are still grappling with the effects of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's contribution to his legacy in which billions of dollars in unfunded mandates have been left to the 50 states to pay.

America COMPETES, in fact, is an authorization and not an appropriation, full though it is of good intentions. Perhaps the president is attracted to its business-friendly language and welcomes the fact that its focus is on STEM rather than lowercase stem. With that emphasis, it could be the other bookend for his legacy. Maybe “No Grownup Left Behind.”

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