Breakthrough on Innovation Legislation: Congress to Expand STEM Education Programs

Update #2: The Senate passed the final conference report late this evening (8/2/07), so the bill is headed to the President’s desk.

Update: The legislation passed the House this evening (8/2/07) by a vote of 367-57.

After two years of discussion, Congress has finally agreed to a comprehensive “competitiveness” legislative package intended to create, expand and bolster programs that foster innovation and domestic talent. Stretching almost 500 pages the bill (here is the full text of the legislation) is comprehensive in scope. Some provisions simply reauthorize (provide proposed funding targets for Congress over the next several years) agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Some create new programs or build on existing ones. Taken together, the entire package is intends to substantially expand the pipeline of talent in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The legislation takes two basic approaches to fostering innovation. First, it supports research. It does this largely by authorizing more funding for several key research agencies. The budgets of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science would be placed on a path toward doubling over the next 10 7 years. (This doesn’t mean that they will double as the law sets the targets that then must be met by annual appropriation bills.) It also creates a new DARPA-like, high-risk research agency within the Department of Energy called ARPA-E.

The second approach is to create and bolster a diversity of STEM education programs. The bill authorizes $43.3 billion over the next three fiscal years for STEM education programs across the federal government. The variety is impressive ranging from new k-12 teacher programs to new opportunities for undergraduate and graduate STEM students. Here is a sampling of the proposals:

  • Expands the Robert Noyce program which links students in STEM fields up with education degrees so they can teach STEM in K-12
  • Authorizes two new competitive grant programs that will enable partnerships to implement courses of study in mathematics, science, engineering, technology or critical foreign languages in ways that lead to a baccalaureate degree with concurrent teacher certification;
  • Authorizes competitive grants to increase the number of teachers serving high-need schools and expand access to AP and IB classes and to increase the number of qualified AP and IB teachers in high-need schools; and,
  • Expands early career grant programs and provides additional support for outstanding young investigators at both NSF and DOE.

In addition, the legislation has several provisions that expand outreach to women and minorities in STEM fields. The lack of females and minorities has been a key problem in computing, so this is another welcome effort.

This legislation is a much needed step in focusing on the keys for innovation — the research resources need for the next generation of breakthroughs, and a highly-educated workforce. This agenda has attracted the attention and support of much of the scientific, high-tech business and higher education communities. It is heartening to see this legislative breakthrough after two years of discussion.

As I write this the House is debating the measure. We expect a Senate vote shortly thereafter. There is a chance that the Senate will not be able to complete action before the August break, which starts next week. If it stalls, expect to see a Senate vote first thing in September. We will likely see overwhelming bipartisan votes in the House and Senate supporting this legislation. There hasn’t been any word from the President yet as to whether he would sign the legislation, but the legislation does implement much of his American Competitiveness Initiative.

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