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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Analysis of STEM Education Funding at the NSF: Trends and Policy Discussion


Heather B. Gonzalez
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Federal policymakers have a longstanding interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that dates to at least the 1st Congress. In its contemporary construct, this interest largely focuses on the connection between STEM education and the U.S. science and engineering workforce, which, in turn, is often perceived as instrumental to national security and the U.S. economy.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a key component of the federal STEM education effort. Several inventories of the federal STEM education portfolio have highlighted NSF’s important role—both in terms of funding and in the number and breadth of programs. The NSF is also the only federal agency whose primary mission includes supporting education across all fields of science and engineering. As such, funding for STEM education at the NSF impacts not only the agency, but also the entire federal STEM education effort.

Congress reduced enacted funding levels (from the prior year) for NSF’s main education account in both FY2011 and FY2012. Those year-over-year reductions followed several years of varying funding, as well as changes in the distribution of the Foundation budget that reduced funding for the main education account as a percentage of the total NSF budget. For the most part, these changes appear to result from a combination of holding the main education account more-or-less constant while applying most of the Foundation’s FY2003-FY2011 budget growth to the main research account. However, in constant dollar terms, it appears at least some of the increase in funding for research activities during the observed period may have come at the expense of education activities.

It is not clear if these funding changes reflect evolving congressional and Administration policy priorities and an intentional prioritization of research over educational activities at the NSF or if they reflect the cumulative impact of funding decisions made in response to specific conditions in specific fiscal years that happen to have had this effect. Further, the significance of these changes for NSF’s STEM education and research missions—and for the overall federal STEM effort— depends, in part, on how they fit within the broader policy context. In particular, it depends (among other things) on how policymakers perceive and assess the policy rationale behind STEM education funding at the NSF; the character of NSF’s STEM education activities; the Foundation’s role in the federal STEM education portfolio; and the impact of changes in NSF’s education account on the Foundation’s other primary mission, research.

This report analyzes NSF funding trends and selected closely related STEM education policy issues in order to place conversations about FY2013 funding in broader fiscal and policy context. It concludes with an analysis of potential policy options.



Date of Report: April 9, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42470
Price: $29.95

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