STEP's Uncertain Future
As many of you already know, the 2014 Federal Budget request submitted by the Obama administration included some major changes in funding for undergraduate STEM education. The plan includes consolidation of some programs that were considered duplicative, and the transfer of other programs from one agency to another. It also includes several important internal changes at NSF.
A new NSF program, "Catalyzing Advances in Undergraduate STEM Education" (CAUSE) has been proposed that would be created by consolidating three existing programs, TUES, WIDER, and STEP, along with several other programs that are currently managed by the research directorates. Unlike TUES, WIDER, and STEP, which are funded and managed by the DIvision of Undergraduate Education (DUE) within the Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate, CAUSE would be co-funded by the research directorates at NSF. and would be overseen by a council of Assistant Directors that would be chaired by the Assistant Director of EHR.
Since the budget proposal was submitted last Spring, the future of STEM education funding (and of STEP) has only become murkier. The NSF staff has been working out the details of the new CAUSE program (there is still little to report), and in preparation for CAUSE's implementation, the 2013 TUES solicitation was withdrawn. In the meantime, Congress has gotten into the act. As always, there is the confusion and uncertainty about the overall federal budget, exacerbated by the threats to shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded. In addition, however, essentially every committee in the House and the Senate that has reviewed the White House's proposed changes in STEM education funding has been critical of the plan, and the criticism seems to be bipartisan. Furthermore, one House committee has specifically criticized the plans for internal reorganization at NSF.
I had hoped that by now we would know more about STEP's future. Unfortunately, most everything seems to be up in the air. To summarize the situation (as I see it):
- Although the TUES solicitation was withdrawn, STEP solicitation is still on the books (at least for now!!), with a proposal submission deadline of December 3, 2013.
- It is unclear what will happen if there are delays in passing a 2014 budget that result in a continuing resolution. Usually a continuing resolution (CR) means no "new" programs. This might mean a delay in implementing CAUSE, unless NSF finds a creative way to circumvent the CR.
- If a 2014 budget passes, it seems likely that NSF will move forward with CAUSE, even if there are significant changes to the final 2014 budget allocations for STEM education.
- At this stage, it is very difficult to tell what CAUSE would look like. NSF's budget request mentions three "investment strategies" for CAUSE: foundational research, design-based research, and scale-up and effectiveness studies. Although an occasional STEP-like proposal might be funded, these strategies do not appear to align well with STEP's current funding strategy, which is based on implementing proven "best practices."
So, unless Congress specifically directs NSF to back off from its plans, it seems likely to me that this year's STEP solicitation will be the last one!
While all this has been going on, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has announced a new STEP-like initiative. More than 200 research universities were invited to apply for five-year grants of up to $2.5 million. (It is possible that other types of institutions will be targeted in future years.) The focus of this initiative on persistence is closely aligned with STEP's objectives. Hopefully, many of you are planning to submit proposals.