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This blog from ASPB's public affairs unit will provide updates on policy developments in Washington and other plant biology news impacting the ASPB community. Please send any news, comments, or suggestions to ASPB's public affairs director, Adam Fagen, at Policy Archives available under Group Pages.


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PCAST Releases Report on Undergraduate STEM Education and Obama Administration Announces New Initiatives

Posted By Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, Friday, February 24, 2012

Lewis-Burke Associates LLC – February 22, 2012

On February 7, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the report, "Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).” This report on undergraduate education is a follow-up to an earlier PCAST report on K-12 STEM education that was released in September 2010, and both are centered on the goal of creating a STEM-capable workforce. The new report focuses on the first two years of undergraduate learning, which PCAST considers a crucial step in the STEM pipeline.

The recommendations are:

  • Catalyze the adoption of empirically-validated teaching techniques through the alignment of incentives for faculty, the expansion of disciplinary models that prepare new faculty in research-based STEM teaching, and the creation of a new grant program for institutional transformation. The report also recommends that the National Academies create metrics to evaluate STEM undergraduate teaching and learning.
  • Create new research courses for first and second year students to involve students in research early and move away from "cookbook” experiments. Scale-up model research and design courses and change federal rules to allow the expansion of opportunities for students in faculty research laboratories.
  • Engage mathematicians and scientists in a national postsecondary mathematics education experiment to improve math education and ensure that early math courses are connected to science learning needs.
  • Encourage stakeholder partnerships to diversify pathways to STEM careers, including connecting high school students to summer STEM learning opportunities, strengthening pathways from two to four year institutions, and catalyzing the creation of public-private partnerships to advance STEM learning that establishes industry-relevant skills.
  • Create a Presidential council to provide leadership on undergraduate STEM education. This council would involve various stakeholders from academia, business, foundations, and scientific societies to inspire changes to undergraduate education and make recommendations on specific federal activities.

In response to the PCAST report, the President announced new initiatives in the fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget request to support the recommendations:

  • Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence-based Reforms (WIDER): $20 million would be provided (a 150 percent increase over FY 2012) to increase the use of evidence-based undergraduate STEM education practices through institutional reforms.
  • Expeditions in Education (E2): NSF would establish a new program E2 to connect EHR with NSF research directorates and offices to "integrate, leverage, and expand STEM education research and development” with NSF research activities. E2 would be supported at $49 million in FY 2013 with a focus on undergraduate education, sustainability, and cyberlearning.
  • K-16 Math Education: NSF will work with the Department of Education to develop an "evidence-based initiative to improve K-16 mathematics and knowledge building.” In FY 2013, the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Education and NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) will each contribute $30 million, with EHR’s support through the Discovery Research K-12 and Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) programs. Funding for other TUES activities would also be increased.
  • STEM Teacher Training: $80 million would be provided through the Department of Education for a new competitive program as part of the Effective Teachers and Leaders program. The new funding would support STEM teacher preparation programs, such as those modeled on the University of Texas UTEACH program that allows undergraduate students to earn a STEM bachelors degree and a teaching certificate at the same time.

The full PCAST report can be found at

Additional information, including a shorter fact sheet and a webcast of the report release can be found at

Information on the White House commitments announced in response to the report are available at

Tags:  education  PCAST 

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PCAST meeting focuses on R&D at USDA and NSF

Posted By Adam Fagen, Thursday, January 13, 2011
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) devoted significant discussion to research and development (R&D) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) at its January 7, 2011, meeting in Washington, DC.  PCAST is an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the President and the Executive Office of the President (EOP).


The meeting featured a presentation and discussion with Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics at USDA, and Roger Beachy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

In her presentation entitled "Why Science Matters to Agriculture,” Dr. Woteki cited 21st Century challenges in food security, food safety, nutrition and health, bioenergy, and climate change; among USDA initiatives was the training of more plant scientists as we seek to understand and develop new crops.  She mentioned that agriculture contributes $121 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), provides 2.1 million jobs, and contributes $20 billion in net exports; food manufacturing adds another $165 billion to GDP and 1.6 million jobs.  She cited that every dollar invested in agricultural research contributes $20 to the economy.

In his comments, Dr. Beachy noted that the NIFA reorganization had taken place with the programs divided into four new institutes (see October 21, 2010, issue of the ASPB Washington Report for more information); NIFA is currently recruiting principal scientists who will co-lead each institute along with a senior administrator.  One take-home message from Dr. Beachy’s presentation is that there is much more demand for NIFA funding than the available resources will support: for example, the climate change challenge area received $815 million in requests but only had $58 million to allocate.  He mentioned a desire to broaden the base of institutions interested in AFRI funding.  Of nearly $4 billion in total grant requests this past fiscal year, $574 million in applications were from non-land grant institutions including some of the nation’s most prestigious private universities and institutions.  In fact, over 500 different institutions applied for AFRI funding in fiscal year 2010, well beyond the 107 land grant colleges and universities.  Finally, Dr. Beachy noted some new initiatives in which USDA was partnering with other funding agencies, including joint programs with NSF in phenomics in plants and hydrological modeling, with NSF and the National Institutes of Health in systems approaches to plant and microbial biology and in genomics and phenomics; and with NSF in education initiatives to target middle school students and teachers.

During the discussion that followed, PCAST co-chair John P. Holdren, who is assistant to the President for science and technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within EOP, said that there’s "a whole new world for research at USDA” and called the initiatives as "impressive as could be.”

One PCAST member asked whether there was a prospect of full indirect cost recovery on USDA grants.  In addition to suggesting that this was unlikely at present, Dr. Woteki pointed out that if indirects were raised, funding for USDA R&D would have to increase substantially just to keep pace with the current support for direct costs.

In addition to the participation of Woteki and Beachy, nearly all of the 13 public comments offered during the meeting were made in support of research investments at USDA and NSF.  In its comments, ASPB noted that "One of the most effective ways to invest in the future and address urgent needs in food, health, energy, and environment is by increasing support for competitive grants and especially those at USDA.”  And CropLife America said that "federal funding for food and agricultural research, extension and education represents a top national priority and a necessary long-term national commitment.”

Public comments:  ASPB, AFRI Coalition, Agronomy/Crop/Soil Science Societies, American Dietetic Association, American Meat Institute, American Veterinary Medical Assocation, Biotechnology Industry Organization, CropLife America, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Federation of Animal Science Societies, Institute of Food Technologists, National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research.


Subra Suresh, who has been in place as NSF director for about three months, focused on some of the big initiatives at NSF, including basic research for market viability; the pipeline in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent; U.S. leadership in STEM fields; and interdisciplinary opportunities for discovery.  He noted that the United States devotes about 35.5% of the world’s investment in R&D, but other countries are noticeably increasing their investments and have surpassed the United States in the percentage of GDP spent on R&D.  Suresh discussed troubling statistics on the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in their pursuit of scientific careers.  He also cited the challenges posed by increasing opportunities for international scholars to pursue training and careers in countries around the world.

Other items

Other items on the PCAST agenda included a discussion about national security and international affairs within OSTP and a presentation on a new report from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues on the ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies.

PCAST is co-chaired by John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for science and technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within EOP, and Eric S. Lander, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, professor of biology at MIT, and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School.


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