As per current federal statutes, the inability of Congress to agree on ways to reduce the United States deficit will result in $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts in federal spending, referred to as sequestration, effective March 1, 2013. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), this could translate into as much as a $21.9 billion1 reduction in total funding for non-defense research and development (R&D) over the first five years following sequestration, and would significantly impact our nation’s research funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with cuts of $2.5 billion, the National Science Foundation (NSF) with cuts of $586 million and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with cuts of $417 million for science and $309 million for exploration.2 The Director of NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) recently met at a press conference to discuss the realities of the impending funding cuts, and concluded that sequestration “would slow scientific progress, delay clinical trials, and put a generation of young researchers at risk…”3 The greatest impact would arguably be felt at our academic institutions where the bulk of scientific research training takes place. These include institutions in states like California, Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts, all of which receive substantial amounts of federal funding for research.1
But what about organizations that rely heavily on federal funding to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for underrepresented minorities? These include our nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and U.S. colleges and universities in general which have long sought to diversify their student bodies. It is well known that economic factors that impact our nation as a whole take an even greater toll on minority populations. Unemployment rates are a good indicator of this fact. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rates last month were 13.8% for African Americans and 9.7% for Latinos but 7.0% for Whites (no data was available for Asian Americans).4 Furthermore, these trends were similar in past months. In a country where higher education has traditionally been associated with greater earnings and lower unemployment rates5, it is imperative that we ensure equal access to education for all. With respect to STEM education, the National Academies of Science have argued that increased diversity in the STEM workforce in needed to maintain the global competitiveness of the United States in science and engineering (S&E).6 They further highlight the important role HBCUs play in accomplishing this goal by awarding a large number of bachelor’s degrees to African Americans who then pursue advanced degrees in fields like natural sciences and engineering.7 Therefore, it is crucial that we do not lose funding for programs like NSF’s HBCU-UP, which provides awards for research focused on improving undergraduate STEM programs at HBCUs and NIH’s Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, which seeks to increase the number of highly-trained underrepresented biomedical and behavioral scientists in leadership positions.
In his February 12, 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama brought the importance and economic value of scientific research into the national spotlight by arguing that “every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy -- every dollar…. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.” We argue that preserving funding for minority institutions that promote STEM education represent another investment that can also enhance innovation and drive competitiveness within the United States in years to come.
By Dr. Anika Lalmansingh.
OGTV STEM Research Specialist.