#BLACKandSTEM 03/19/15

Today’s blog post and chat are brought to you by @blackphysicists.  Make sure to follow them and @STEMontheHILL on twitter to stay up on news about science policy.

There is always a long list of policy matters that affects the work of scientists, engineers and STEM educators. Here we review a few top hot items currently before the US Congress, and suggest ways for #BLACKandSTEM #policytoday professions to engage the political processes.

Top-line budgets for Federal R&D agencies: American Innovation Act

Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) has announced plans to introduce the American Innovation Act which would lift automatic spending caps for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the Department of Defense Science and Technology Programs, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Scientific and Technical Research, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Science Directorate. Essentially the bill proposes to reduce the impact of sequester for these agencies by at least 67%.

Many Members of Congress, including ones in the GOP, as well as President Obama have called for the total end of sequestration. But while there is agreement on ending that style of spending cuts, the GOP and Administration are still at odds on the exact spending levels and taxation policy. While even the most ardent deficit hawks in the GOP have called for increases in the NIH budget, the actual GOP budget blueprint, released just this week, calls overall cuts in non-defense discretionary funding.

Scientists push for bigger top-line budgets by demonstrating the positive benefits of research to the overall economy, to health and national security. This is something we have to do often.

Regular order in appropriations

The Budget Control Act requires that the President submit a budget request to Congress in February. Congress then has a 2-step process to fund the government, authorizations and appropriations. The latter is required specifically in the Constitution in Article I, Section 9, Clause 7. When all these things are done before October 1 that is called regular order.   When they are not, it is a great failure of the system. The lack of regular order slows down the process of government and has real negative impacts on programs, institutions and people. Research scientists feel the lack of regular order when their program directors cannot process awards well into the fiscal year because they do not know what their budgets will be. Moreover, the stop-gap ‘continuing resolutions’ require deprecated programs to be continued and new programs to be prohibited from moving forward.

From February to September scientists have to urge our Representatives and Senators to keep to regular order. It is an arduous task to keep track with hearings and amendments. But several professional societies have experts on staff that do this. We as citizens just have to stay informed and diligent in contacting our elected representatives.

Make the R&D Tax Credit Permanent. Invest in Domestic STEM Labor Workforce

Economists as well as private-sector and S&T advocates can agree that the United States needs to invest more in research and development by both public and private entities. The R&D tax credit intends to incentivize such investment by private corporations.

The R&D tax credit has a long history. It is currently expired as it has done many times since its first enactment in 1981. On February 11th, Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX-8) introduced H.R. 880: American Research and Competitiveness Act of 2015 which seeks to make the credit permanent and to simplify the taking of its provisions. The bill currently has 11 co-sponsors (9R, 2D).

In addition to making this tax credit permanent, the bill should be passed with an amendment to protect the domestic STEM workforce, particularly the underrepresented minority STEM workforce. That is, the bill should contain a provision that requires entities that take the credit to certify that it has made good-faith efforts to recruit and hire from the domestic labor pool and in particular from those groups underrepresented in STEM fields, including women and disabled, African American, Hispanic American, Native American, and Pacific Islander Americans. Labor economists Sharon Levin and Paula Stephan have analyzed the role of immigrants on the changing career outcomes of scientists in academe. They found US citizens are being displaced from “choice” positions in academe, especially in physics and astronomy.

Several groups of corporations, government agencies and groups of individuals have been concerned about the over-reliance that US S&T employers have on foreign-born personnel. When countries like India and China can provide more scientists and engineers than the US could possibly employ, and America has a long and sad history of giving preferences to immigrant labor over African American labor, there is clear a policy conundrum that has to be carefully considered.

Student Loan Reform

Over the last 25-30 years there has been a shift in who bears the cost of attending college from the federal and state governments to students and their parents, and that has entailed more and more student loans. Today the aggregate student loan debt is over on trillion dollars. On an individual level student loan debt makes it harder for college graduates to maintain a prosperous middle class existence. We are seeing increasingly that college students are taking on more debt to get a college degree to get jobs that might not actually be there in the end.

There are three major ideas to address this crisis. Senator Rubio has offered a market-based proposal that would create a legal structure for income-share agreements. Essentially an investor would front money to students. The repayment and presumably the interest rate would be based on a percentage of future income. Senator Warren has proposed to make available to private student loans the same interest rate as federally-backed ones. She has also proposed to set federal loan interest rates to those that the big banks can get from the Federal Reserve. And she has proposed to put an end to the profits that the federal government makes on the direct student loan program. The President has offered the Student Loan Forgiveness Program and Pay As You Earn Student Loan Repayment Plan.

All these approaches need to be codified in the authorization language of the US Department of Education. Moreover the bankruptcy law should be changed to allow the discharge of student loan debt.

STEM Education

Most of the action in K-12 education is at the state and local levels. But the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called the No Child Left Behind Act) is actively being debated in Congress. The Act has long been expired, but is provisions are still undertaken by the Department of Education through a system of waivers to the various states. Efforts to formally renew the law via a bill called the Student Success Act have stalled as last month House leaders suspended debate on the bill and delayed voting on it. The Senate still has not revealed its version of the renewal.

One should note that the National Science Teachers Association and the STEM Education Coalition have opposed the Student Success Act. Others have opposed it as well on the grounds that it still leaves too much federal involvement in K-12 education. The Administration has issued a veto threat on the current form of the bill.

Adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is probably the most consequential K-12 policy debate today. CCSS has opponents from all quarters, including those who call it ‘Obama’s national curriculum’. But it is important to note that the standards are not curriculum, and CCSS was initiated and developed by the state governors and chief state school officers. The Obama administration did heavily incentivize the adoption of CCSS through billions in federal grants and NCLB waivers, but CCSS and NGSS are not federal programs.

So far the NGSS has not garnered the kind of opposition that CCSS has. There is a growing recognition though that the math part of NGSS should be harmonized with NGSS since math maturity plays such a heavy role in science literacy.

Another issue that is very important to schools and libraries is something E-rate. This program provides funding for urban and rural schools and public libraries for broadband internet, thus is very important for closing the digital divide. The program is administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has proposed a major budget increase for the program. Several members of the House and Senate, including Senator Cory Booker, have urged the FCC to increase funding for E-rate, to modernize the program authorization given new technology availability, and to reduce the program’s administrative overhead.

Engaging the Process

Perhaps the best way to stay informed is through professional associations, advocacy groups, think tanks and focused news outlets like The Hill, Roll Call and Politico. Bills in the US House and Senate as well as legislation in the various states can be tracked by online tools like govtrack.us.

You should constantly engage your political leaders through calls, letters, visits and Twitter campaigns. Many professional associations have online engagement tools, and sponsor congressional visits days. The Science and Engineering Working Group has a congressional visit day event every year in March where they award to Members of Congress the George E. Brown Leadership Awards. This year the award was bestowed upon Representative Donna Edwards. Last year it was bestowed upon Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson. Both serve on the House Science Committee. Representative Johnson is the ranking member. #BLACKandSTEM individuals and organizations need to get more involved in congressional visits days. Follow @STEMontheHILL and mark your calendar for next year’s event during the 2nd week of March.

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