Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) declared the House Science Committee a “political free zone” Wednesday before the committee overwhelmingly  approved a package of legislation  that aims to bolster America’s science competitiveness and keep the National Science Foundation in the education game.
The “Science and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act” would breathe life back into the NSF’s Math and Science Partnerships program  , which matches colleges with schools to develop science curricula and teachers. The NSF program was slated for huge cuts, and eventual extinction, in President Bush’s budget proposal for the 2007 fiscal year. A second bill, the “Early Career Research Act,” would provide NSF and Department of Energy grant money for cutting edge research and lab equipment that can be used for interdisciplinary projects.
Under the president’s budget, the Department of Education would take over the task of teaming institutions of higher education with local schools to improve math and science education. The Education Department's Math and Science Partnership program  gives money to states based on student population and poverty rates, and the states then give out grants, whereas the NSF grants are administered through NSF’s proposal review process.
“We think it’s important that NSF does play a role in this,” said Tobin Smith, associate director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities. “The program at the Education Department never really provided any role for universities. The money went straight to school districts.”
The bill would also increase scholarships for math and science undergraduates who commit to teaching after graduation.
Gordon said that the president’s plan to run the partnerships solely through the Education Department “is a mistake” and that the committee needs “to work on this with the appropriators” to make sure it gets funded. “We can’t screw this up,” added Gordon, who suggested that his pre-school daughter’s future is on the line.
“I’m worried about the competitiveness she will face,” he said of the tike who graduates Thursday.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the committee, said “shame on” the government if science teacher training and curriculum implementation is left to the Education Department. He then condemned the current climate of partisanship, which kicked off Democratic applause and a slew of endorsements. Boehlert and Gordon sent a letter to members of the House Appropriations Committee urging them to finance the bill sufficiently in the name of American competitiveness. Committee members said they hoped the strong bipartisan support would speed the bill through the House.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) chimed in to break up the “love fest of bipartisanship,” he said.
Rohrabacher’s was the lone voice of dissent. “I hate to be the skunk at the lawn party,” he said, before adding that mandating federal money for teacher development amounts to overregulation.
Rohrabacher said people in his district are “bemoaning that control” from No Child Left Behind, and that more bills will further stifle the ability of communities to decide what they need to do. “We’re just taxing money away and giving it back the way we think it should be used,” Rohrabacher said. He said that the market would solve science teacher shortages if the “union environment” were dissipated and schools were allowed to pay science teachers more than “people who teach basket weaving and physical education.”
Other representatives responded that a pool of qualified science teachers has to be created in the first place. “The private sector has not worked in this area,” Gordon said.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment, which was approved, to have NSF study the retention in the teaching profession of students who receive scholarships in exchange for committing to teach.
Several committee members emphasized the need to include underrepresented minorities and women in all efforts. Gordon said that targeting underrepresented populations is the best way to get “bang for your buck,” and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) withdrew her amendment to authorize NSF to give money to local educational agencies to purchase lab equipment and establish partnerships for its use with low-income schools. Her efforts to make sure that underrepresented minorities do not slip below the competitivness radar, however, drew praise. “Kids need to see how these subjects apply to everyday life,” Johnson said.
Another Texas Democrat, Rep. Al Green, pointed out that even students who have a slow start can become the brightest minds. He noted that “even Einstein” was considered a slow learner as a boy, a notion that has been debunked numerous times, including by an April 24, 2001 Washington Post article.
The committee unanimously approved the “Early Career Research Act,” which authorizes NSF and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science to give grants to young faculty members for high-risk research. Some of the money would be given as funds matching corporate contributions. The bill would also expand an NSF program that gives grants to colleges and universities to purchase equipment, like telescopes and supercomputers, that can be used collaboratively by both science and engineering departments.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) did not propose an amendment, but wanted further discussion and perhaps a report on a particular aspect of future supercomputing research. Sherman said that, based on the opinions of experts, there is reason to believe that in about 25 years a supercomputer will be built that “exceeds human intelligence.” Sherman said he hopes that some of the future researchers that the bills would cultivate will be steered toward the potentially emerging field of making sure that the super-intelligent computers “avoid self-awareness … and ambition,” he said.
To which Boehlert responded: “My grandson has a Gameboy that exceeds my intelligence.”