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Civil Servant Responsible for Government STEM Restructuring Identified

Posted by Casey Dreier

30-07-2013 14:05 CDT

Topics: Explaining Policy

In an interesting bit of reporting, the journal Science highlights the key government employee behind the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education consolidation proposed in the FY2014 budget. This consolidation would cut many current outreach and education programs in agencies like NASA, and move the rest to the NSF, the Department of Education, and the Smithsonian.

Science identifies Kathryn Stack, a career civil servant, as the driver behind this consolidation:

Stack is deputy associate director for education and human resources at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The agency exercises vast sway over government spending and regulatory practices yet prefers to operate in the shadows. So Stack's position qualifies her for the Hall of Fame of faceless government bureaucrats. But she's learned a thing or two about wielding power during a 35-year career spanning six administrations.

Despite her professional mask of anonymity—OMB officials declined to make Stack available for an interview—2013 may be a breakthrough year for Stack. In addition to seeing her picture hang on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, Stack watched President Barack Obama unveil a budget initiative this spring in which she played an important role: a proposal to radically realign the federal government's $3 billion annual investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

This massive realignment of STEM programs within the government has proved to be extremely unpopular both with the scientific community and Congress: bills in both the Senate and the House prevent this restructuring in various agencies, and scientists around the country have spoken out loudly against cutting beloved outreach programs that reach out to local communities.

Now, I don't think this STEM reorganization and evaluation is necessarily a bad concept, but the proposal remains vague and implementation uncertain. The White House, inexplicably, has not provided details about the reorganization that would otherwise begin in October (if it passes):

Three months after the plan was sent to Congress as part of the president's 2014 budget request, STEM educators are still waiting for the White House to explain how it drew up the list of programs to be ended, merged, or expanded. They also worry that the reshuffling will damage existing activities by shifting resources away from agencies with unique expertise and tools to do STEM education and asking the lead agencies to take on too much

The whole article is worth a read, though you need access to the journal itself. It reminds us the importance (and power!) of civil servants in key positions, and what can happen when a well-intentioned program is poorly rolled out to those impacted by it. Judging by the bills we're seeing in Congress, this has almost no chance of happening. The lack of implementation details and poor communication have likely poisoned the well of any STEM reform in the future, and we're all left in pretty much the same place in which we started, except for those in STEM fields who have suffered from deep uncertainty about the future of their careers.

I see a common thread here between the White House's rollout of some major NASA initiatives that otherwise surprised the scientific community and Congress, like ending the Constellation program, commercial crew, or the Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Each one suffered from a lack of consensus when it was announced, inciting partisan and bureaucratic battles, ultimately making the goals of each far more difficult to achieve. Maybe the STEM restructuring would have saved the government money and led to more effective programs. Maybe it wouldn't. The point is that the conversation was never there, and now it's likely that no reform will happen in the near future.

See other posts from July 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Explaining Policy


Stephen Uitti: 07/31/2013 12:11 CDT

When i first heard about this proposal, it sounded like it might save money. It won't. As a computer professional who has worked for a number of companies, i've noticed that many, many companies put their computer people all in one spot, and tightly control what they do. It sounds like this might save money. What it really does is prevent departments (even engineering) from having the slightest clue about what they want from computers, how to get it, how to recognize when they've gotten it right, and limits them to only large (and since they're uncommon - overblown) projects, leaving small projects to cope with really crappy spreadsheets - often difficult to share text. What the departments need is a computer advocate whose job it is to be the computer local computer expert. Without this, the large computer department needs to do massive and expensive knowledge transfer to get the very few large and expensive projects going. Fred Brooks talked about this as "surgical teams" in his epic book "The Mythical Man Month". My advice: toss your other management books and read just this one, annually. This proposed public education program will do the same thing. It will prevent small, easy and cheap outreach projects from happening at all, and make a few large projects happen which will require huge amounts of knowledge transfer. This knowledge transfer will introduce errors and dumb down the effort. A quick tweet about where Voyager II is, an update on the progress towards launch of Insight, a quick video on what Curiosity just did and is likely to do next will all disappear, or at best become vastly more expensive and out of date at press time.

Casey Dreier: 07/31/2013 01:56 CDT

@Stephen: You have identified the core problem. This may work for large education programs, but it applies a one-size-fits-all solution to all areas, including mission-specific outreach programs (just like the Twitter accounts for spacecraft missions). It's a perfect example of a well-intentioned solution applied in an inflexible, opaque manner.

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