Tuesday, November 12, 2013
STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – are career fields in the U.S. jobs market that tripled in recent years. In fact, current projections are that the demand for these skills will outstrip the supply by at least one million jobs.

Since the late 1950s, after the Russians launched Sputnik to the surprise of America, the federal government has promoted the development of a national workforce skilled in the sciences as a national security priority.  But the government also invests in developing similar skills for the federal workforce, given the hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, computer specialists, and doctors its employs.

As a result, federal agencies have created multiple programs over the past 55 years promoting the sciences.  In fact, according to the Office of Management and Budget, the federal government currently supports 226 different STEM programs, some at the K-12 level, some at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate and post-graduate levels.

In recent years, the Government Accountability Office has been charged with ferreting out duplicative and overlapping federal programs.  During the course of their reviews, they focused on STEM programs, highlighting overlaps and a lack of collaboration across the many programs. It found that these programs were embedded in 13 different agencies, spending about $3 billion a year.  Most of these monies were spent via programs sponsored by the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Science Foundation.

The Administration, in an effort to provide greater cohesiveness, designated “increasing national STEM education” as a Cross-Agency Priority Goal (CAP Goal) under the new Government Performance and Results Modernization Act provisions.  It has also undertaken efforts to improve collaboration by creating shared strategic intent and establishing a governance framework.  It is currently developing networks and people with collaborative skills in the federal STEM education community, and institutionalizing a set of collaborative processes across agency and program boundaries to improve outcomes.


Creating a Shared Strategic Intent.  Studies over the years, led by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, have clearly laid out the challenges.  For example, fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college with the intent to get a STEM-related degree actually graduate with one.  The challenge is to develop strategies to change that trend so that all 13 agencies and 226 programs can support a common outcome.

A 2010 law requires the White House’s science group to develop a plan to better coordinate the federal government’s STEM education investments.  In May 2013, the White House released the first-ever governmentwide 5-year STEM education strategic plan.  The plan highlighted five investment areas, such as improving STEM instruction by preparing 100,000 highly-qualified STEM teachers in grades K-12.  But one of its investment areas targeted the closing of the one-million-person gap in STEM-educated college students.  This area was designated as a “cross-agency priority goal” under the authority of the new GPRA law and receives special attention, with quarterly progress reports.

That goal is to increase the number of students who received STEM-related degrees by more than 30 percent over current rates by 2020.   This would result in an additional one million STEM graduates.  The objective is to change retention rate of STEM majors from 40 percent to 50 percent – this will generate three-quarters of the 1 million needed.  The strategy is to improve undergraduate teaching practices by partnering with universities, foundations, and industry.


Creating a Governance Framework.  There are different types of collaborative governance frameworks, ranging from information-sharing networks, to networks that coordinate activities, to networks that merge their authority and capabilities, where they pool capabilities to address a common challenge.

In the case of STEM education, there are multiple pre-existing collaborative arrangements, but most of these are bilateral coordination agreements between agencies, not a multiple agency network that pools resources.

The White House’s Committee on STEM Education, the designation as a Cross-Agency Priority goal – with its quarterly progress reviews -- and the development of the 5-year strategic plan have collectively resulted in a growing cross-agency information-sharing network that is increasingly working together.


Developing Cross-Agency Networks.  While formal authority to act is essential in a hierarchical arrangement, in cross-agency networks, it is often the informal network brokers who have the ability to work with others to achieve common goals.  For example, one of the strategic priorities is to increase the number of women and minorities in STEM fields.  A pre-existing informal network among agencies to recruit women and minorities into federal STEM careers is expanding to embrace this goal.

The CAP Goal leader, Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who is with the National Science Foundation, is working with her peers to create working groups around each of the five priority areas in the five year plan, with an emphasis on the “one million students” goal.


Developing Cross-Agency Collaboration Processes.  Dr. Jane Fountain, an expert in collaborative networks at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is conducting research on the administrative opportunities and barriers for collaboration on behalf of the Administrative Conference of the U.S., with a focus on administrative processes.  In her research, she highlights the following processes as helpful to success:

  • Set significant goals
  • Specify roles and responsibilities
  • Formalize agreements
  • Develop shared operations
  • Obtain adequate resources
  • Create effective communication channels
  • Adapt through shared learning.

These processes are being used in some cases, especially bilateral memorandums of understanding among agencies around common STEM education programs.  But the other collaborative processes are open for further development.


Conclusion.  The STEM CAP Goal, the 5-year strategic plan, and the GAO report on duplication and overlap (and OMB’s proposed consolidation efforts to cut the number of STEM programs in half) seem to have been catalysts to stakeholders in the STEM education community to work more collaboratively toward now-defined common outcomes.  The sustainability of the effort can be monitored quarterly through OMB’s performance.gov website!


Graphic credit:  courtesy of Grant Cochrane via FreeDigitalPhotos