The Education Department’s R&D Arm Faces a Dire Budget Shortfall — Just as We Need It Most

Kumar Garg: Deprioritizing funding for education R&D isn’t just a missed opportunity for researchers but hinders America’s growth and competitiveness

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On Tuesday May 24, a small item appeared in the Federal Register, offering an update on the Education Department’s research grant programs. 

The item noted that the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) “will not compete the Education Research, Statistical and Research Methodology in Education, or Systematic Replication in Education Research grant programs in FY 2023.”

This may seem like a minor, jargon-filled programming note, but for the researchers hoping to compete for these grants, as well as the field of education, it is deeply significant. More broadly, the announcement speaks to the limited budget at IES that will continue to curtail programs and may soon jeopardize other highly needed programs like Learning Pulse — which tracks learning loss — due to funding cuts. 

As Mark Schneider, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, told me, “IES has been forced to limit competitions this year because we don’t have enough money to meet all the demands we face — including funding continuing projects, supporting new innovation competitions, and meeting other demands to fund the creation of a new and modern education R&D infrastructure.”

The NCER grant programs now put on hold are vital. The education research competition, in particular, is NCER’s main grantmaking competition. It aims to carry out some of the central functions of IES’s mission to support rigorous research addressing longstanding education problems for the diverse learning needs of American students.

Similarly, statistical and research methodology grants help build the field of education research through the development of methodology products that ensure the highest quality of research. This is especially important in the learning sciences, where it can be difficult to generate studies with large sample sizes, statistically significant datasets, and generalizability. And systematic replication grants allow for further study of promising educational interventions that ensure students are provided with materials, curricula, and tools that work for them according to their individual contexts and needs. Replication — too often neglected in the social sciences in general — is vital to build a robust and reliable evidence base for various interventions. 

While the announcement omits an explicit reason for the cancellation of these programs, the underlying issue is budget constraints. Over the last decade, the budget of IES, which is the R&D arm of the Education Department, has increased from $609 million in 2011 to just $642 million in 2021. That’s just a 5.4% increase during the decade, one that is far below the approximately 19% rate of inflation during the same period. 

In other words, adjusting for inflation, IES’s budget was actually cut by around $80 million. 

For the sake of comparison, other fields show substantial and much-needed increases in R&D, according to a federal analysis. From 2010 to 2020, federal spending on R&D (calculated by budget function) increased by approximately 79 percent in the energy sector, 40 percent in health, and 14 percent in agriculture. 

By contrast, R&D spending in the combined sector of “education, training, employment, and social services” actually decreased by 1.5 percent. 

Another issue is COVID, which has forced the tightening of personnel budgets across the Department of Education and cut into the funding for staffing line items. Practically speaking, the lack of staffing line items means that the money to support the people who work on projects like the National Assessment of Educational Progress — better known as the nation’s report card — needs to come from other budget lines.

Given this reality, NCER grants are only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of cuts and rollbacks IES may soon be forced to make. 

The deprioritization of funding for education R&D isn’t just a missed opportunity for research; it hinders the country’s growth and global competitiveness. American students score below average in math, according to the international exam known as PISA. Indeed, the US lags behind many Asian and European countries in education outcomes. This challenge is especially pronounced around STEM subjects, where future job growth will be concentrated.   

There is some hope on the horizon, to be sure. A House committee recently released a draft bill that includes a much-needed $100 million increase in education research dollars. But the draft bill still faces a number of hurdles to passage — and our collective voice will be critical to make the case for such investments. 

I know the public servants at IES will continue to prioritize students and schools, particularly during an ongoing pandemic. But as a nation, we need to do more to support — and properly fund — education research in ways that will aid our educators and help students thrive.   

Kumar Garg is the Vice President of Partnerships at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt. Schmidt Futures bets early on exceptional people making the world better.

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