The human and economic impact of higher education and work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is profound. A mere 5.6 percent of the US workforce consists of STEM professionals, but because their life’s work is devoted to R&D, innovation, and technological advancement, they generate over 50 percent of the nation’s economic growth. STEM workers are trained at institutions of higher education - but at times, academic leaders, industry executives, and policy-makers appear as if they operate on different time scales and speak different languages. A little-known entity has been quietly helping to bridge these gaps for over 25 years: the Board on Higher Education and Workforce (BHEW) at the National Academies of Science. According to one of the BHEW’s newest members, Angela Byars-Winston, PhD, associate professor, General Internal Medicine, “All things pertaining to higher education and the STEM workforce are the purview of this board.”
The BHEW Brain Trust: Tackling Complexity
Created in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, the National Academies of Science were charged to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science." Tom Rudin, BHEW Director, wrote, “BHEW is a unit of the Policy and Global Affairs Division of the National Academies, so much of our work focuses on the ways in which we can use federal and state policy can improve the quality of higher education, particularly in STEM fields.” Thirteen scholars on the Board provide stakeholders and the public with insights and recommendations on critical higher education and science and engineering workforce issues facing the nation. Current members include university presidents and chancellors, a past president of the National Science Foundation, and leaders in engineering and aerospace.
Through deliberation and discussion, Board members choose projects and topics for reports. “Board members are not recruited to be the authors of the reports and projects, but are the brain trust that articulate what questions need to be asked,” explained Dr. Byars-Winston. “[The Board identifies] the leading thinkers in the country, who are then commissioned to author each report.” Once projects are determined, BHEW staff members write proposals to organizations such as the Carnegie Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, or the National Science Foundation to fund the work.
“Many of the hard-hitting reports out of this committee have been path-breaking,” said Dr. Byars-Winston, explaining that the publications are relied upon by members of the US Congress, the executive administration and federal agencies such as NSF and the National Institutes of Health, as well as state governments, administrative leaders at colleges and universities, and executives and labor experts in STEM industries.
Mr. Rudin wrote, “For example, a 2012 report, “Research Universities and the Future of America,” consisted of 10 broad, bold recommendations for federal and state policy that could substantially improve higher education and research among our nation’s research institutions.” Similarly, a 2006 report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” led to new categories of NIH grants designed to address gender disparities in STEM research. Other reports have become go-to documents on topics such as workforce trends in energy and mining, veterinary medicine, biomedical and clinical research, or geospatial intelligence. (For a list of available publications, all of which may be downloaded for free, click here.)
While considering which topics to pursue, the Board listens to perspectives from key figures. Dr. Byars-Winston said, “The first guest we had at our daylong meeting last month was Senator Lamar Alexander, senior ranking senator who is chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension committee (HELP).” Senator Alexander is leading the Higher Education Act reauthorization that is currently before Congress – a wide-ranging piece of legislation that affects higher education funding and accreditation policies. Members also heard from Dr. Ted Mitchell, under secretary of the US Department of Education, who focused on K-12 education as a leading concern during a discussion of forward-thinking views on the future of public higher education. Dr. Byars-Winston noted, “One of the ways that the Board has tried to tighten connections across stakeholders is to find convergence of concern” across all groups.
The Future Landscape of Higher Education
To triage projects, the BHEW focuses on tough problems. “The BHEW only takes issues that require complex responses to a question, but each issue has to be able to be distilled down to concrete actionable steps - at all levels,” said Dr. Byars-Winston. For example, one exceptionally far-reaching project that the BHEW will undertake in 2015-2016 is recommendations for creation of a “Morrill Act for the 21st century.” Dating to the late 1800s, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts were a series of statues that created public land-grant colleges and universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “That act, over 100 years ago, was a major driver of the idea that American citizens should have access to higher education” – including daughters and sons of farmers in agrarian states like Wisconsin, said Dr. Byars-Winston. An updated Morrill Act that recasts the importance of accessibility to public higher education in the 21st century would would, the BHEW believes, help strengthen support for public higher education, given its impact on industry and the technological labor market.
In addition to this topic, the Board has approved or is considering six other projects. These include industry-university partnerships, integrating STEM and the humanities, strengthening minority-serving institutions, convergence between STEM fields, undergraduate education in computer science and computational skills, and graduate education in STEM.
As a nationally-recognized scholar on diversity and mentoring in STEM education, Dr. Byars-Winston is also exploring the potential for future reports on these topics. One idea is to tighten the link between research on vocational psychology and the practice of mentoring, particularly to broaden participation in STEM careers for individuals from groups with historically low participation in these careers. Pointing out that the vocational psychologists have been establishing career development theories since 1909, Dr. Byars-Winston questions why, after over a century of research, “very few have looked at applying this scholarship to STEM fields.”
A Sense of Hope
Following her first meeting as a Board member in April, Dr. Byars-Winston said, “My overall impression…was the incredible sense of hope that I had as a mother of young children, thinking about their future and what [the world] will be 15 to 20 years from now. I thought about policy-making being a Sisyphean task, but the quality and the authority of my fellow committee members gave me hope that there are individuals in strategic places who really are not just caring and passionate, but systematically committed to the well-being of the US citizenry through higher education and a healthy workforce…They are talking and not giving up hope. They are really thinking about how we engage the country in higher education and work.”
- NAS Board of Higher Education and Workforce
- Publications by the BHEW - PDF versions may be downloaded for free