Commentary: U.S. needs to invest more in STEM education


As a kid, I spent winters dreaming of snow days. While classmates were sledding or making snow angels during unexpected snow days, my brother and I were mixing “treatments” in beakers and peering at blastocyst cells through a microscope.

That’s because my mother, like many mothers all over the country, needed to take us to work when child care wasn’t available. Her office was a laboratory. As a molecular biologist, she’s contributed to research on many devastating health concerns including Parkinson’s disease, which took her father. Seeing her in the lab on those frosty mornings taught me to be curious, passionate and solution-focused.

While most of the world recognizes the increased need for STEM research, in the United States there’s been a steady decline in scientific funding over the last decade. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget includes cutting an additional $900 million to the Department of Education’s Office of Science, which runs 10 out of 17 of our national laboratories and supports research at 500 American universities, including the University of Texas. The National Institute of Health, which has lost 22 percent of its funding since 2004, faces a $5.8 billion cut. The institute funds over 10,000 medical research projects nationwide.

Though Trump’s administration argues that private industry is better equipped to fund scientific research, research driven by profitability is neither objective nor robust. Over half of National Institute of Health funding goes to “basic research” that “supports a broad understanding of human behavior and biology.” It is almost impossible to get for-profit companies interested in funding basic research that doesn’t have an associated product to sell.

That’s to be expected. They are a business, not an institution for public good. When pharmaceutical companies pay researchers, there is a pressure for scientists to return favorable results. When the National Institute of Health does fund research, the pressure is to return accurate results.

The funding slowdown has other consequences. With fewer opportunities for students to learn in labs — and the United States’ appalling 38th ranking in science education worldwide — we have a shortage of qualified STEM workers. One way employers fill the gap is through H-1B visa program.

The program is designed to help companies that cannot find qualified domestic candidates to sponsor foreign workers for that job. Though critics say the program takes jobs away from Americans, companies must prove that they advertised the position to Americans first. As a former business immigration paralegal, I amassed the substantial paperwork necessary to prove due diligence was met and that no qualified American applicant was available.

Some critics are concerned that hiring foreign workers keeps wages low, though in fact companies must prove they will pay the employee higher than the industry standard to combat underbidding. The companies I worked with would prefer to hire an American worker to avoid the higher costs and legal fees associated with immigration sponsorship. These employers simply cannot find enough qualified American workers like my mother to take up the pipette.

Another added pressure that employers face is the federal cap on H1-B visas. The U.S. opened its yearly cap 85,000 H-1B visas earlier this month. The cap filled in four days. Ninety percent of those workers are in high-demand STEM fields requiring advanced degrees. Trump wants to significantly reduce the H-1B visa program. Until we catch up in educating our citizens, it behooves us to continue bringing the best and brightest from around the world — lest the lab bays languish unfilled.

If you believe promoting STEM education and research should be a nonpartisan issue, join the March for Science at the Texas Capitol on Saturday. Spend Earth Day with others who believe in being curious, passionate and solution-focused.

Without federal funding for scientific research on issues like climate change, future generations may never get the thrill of a snow day.

Hipkens is a graduate student and research assistant at the University of Texas School of Social Work.



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