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NIH to stop funding K-12 and public education programs

On Oct. 1, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) closed the doors of its Office of Science Education (OSE), but this was not part of the government shutdown. After being forced to decrease its budget by $1.5 billion dollars due to sequestration, the NIH has ended its involvement in K-12 education and health literacy programs.  

According to ScienceInsider, the OSE shutdown has multiple impacts. First, the nine former OSE staff members have been reassigned. Second, most of the materials on the OSE website, including its information on health careers and its Ask a Scientist series, have been taken down. Third, once its popular curriculum-supplement handouts run out they'll be gone for good; it's unclear whether the web version of these handouts will remain available. The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research says 100,000 educators nationwide have used these handouts. And fourth, the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program will end once funding runs out for existing projects.

While many people find these changes to be an appropriate return to the mission and funding priorities of the NIH — at least the NIH's Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak has implied as much in some of his comments to ScienceInsider — the death of the SEPA program has angered many educators and scientists. They argue that these outreach projects give a public face to the NIH and help fill gaps in science literacy while exposing students to various health-related careers.

There are SEPA grant projects in 108 institutions in 40 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico). The projects are diverse in their target audiences and topics, and they range from informal learning opportunities like this museum exhibit designed to help people make informed decisions about diseases, to a formal inquiry-based curriculum program that brings Tufts University graduate and medical students into Boston high schools. Many SEPA projects are specifically aimed at underserved populations — such as this University of Nebraska Medical Center project, which seeks to improve science literacy and involvement in health careers by the Native American community.

While the OSE is probably dead for good, there may be some hope for the SEPA program. It has support in the Senate; a spending panel told the NIH that they should continue funding the program in 2014. But unless Congress specifically stipulates funding for SEPA in the budget, support or dissolution of the project will be up to the NIH (which has made its position clear).

This is just one change among many in the world of science education funding. In his 2014 budget, President Obama proposed consolidating STEM education (pdf) programs under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian. It remains to be seen whether the newly proposed programs under these departments will replace the varied roles of the OSE in promoting health education. 

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Summer Allen