The Water is Not So Wide, After All (2010 PI Meeting Reflection)

Jennifer Hope, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Accountability has certainly become a theme in educational pursuits, and so when I write that I found it to be a thread running through and connecting my experiences at the December meeting of DR K-12 project principal investigators, you may not be surprised—but I was. I am talking here not of accountability in terms of completing the many reports required of National Science Foundation (NSF) grantees in a timely fashion, but of a call to action on behalf of our collective projects. At the Nuts & Bolts meeting for new grantees, Program Director David Campbell suggested that NSF program officers as well as congressional representatives really like to receive photos, hometown news clipping, and notices of awards from the projects supported by federal funds. This idea struck me as so simple (like sending a report card or school photo to Grandma), but how many of us, in NSF projects or others, regularly communicate with funders about our day-to-day achievements? How difficult would it really be to drop a line every once in a while in return for the support that makes our work possible? While perhaps such a gesture will not result in refrigerator decoration as it would at Grandma’s house, or even an “atta boy,” Campbell suggested that it is exactly the images and grant products that program officers convey to government leaders that cross decision-makers’ minds when the congressional budget is under consideration.

Throughout the subsequent sessions of the meeting, I became more conscious of the relatively short distance between our projects and congressional decision-makers. This impression was confirmed by James Brown, co-chair of the STEM Education Coalition, in his remarks in the final plenary presentation. Brown’s description of the current state of STEM education policy emphasized the importance of personal interactions between constituents active in STEM and lawmakers, especially as national priorities for STEM education are being set within the reauthorization of the America Competes Act. Considering the current economic climate alongside the fact that the NSF Educational and Human Resources budget has not grown at the same rate as the R&D directorate, Brown suggested that STEM professionals should hope for the best—a flat budget—but be vocal as a community by working within our universities to promote our programs within the community and by visiting the district offices of our representatives once each year to share with them what we do and how it depends on their budgetary decisions. Doing so, according to Brown, enables “the people who agree with you to do something about it.” In response to this call to action, the PI of the project on which I work and I spent the hours between the meeting adjournment and our flight back home navigating Capitol Hill to find the office of our senator in order to share news of our project with one of her staffers. Doing so gave me a feeling of true participation in my democracy, as well as even more pride in the work that we are doing in the SciJourn project. What will you do, this year, to cross the short divide between your project and our government and strengthen the bridge to a stronger STEM future for our country?