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Training, employment, and education > 31. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education

Strategic planning is needed to better manage overlapping programs across multiple agencies.

Why This Area Is Important


Federal agencies obligated $3.1 billion in fiscal 2010 on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education programs. These programs can serve an important role both by helping to prepare students and teachers for careers in STEM fields and by enhancing the nation’s global competitiveness. In addition to the federal effort, state and local governments, universities and colleges, and the private sector have also developed programs that provide opportunities for students to pursue STEM education and occupations. However, research shows that despite this investment, the United States lacks a strong pipeline of future workers in STEM fields and that U.S. students continue to lag behind students in other highly technological nations in mathematics and science achievement.

Over the decades, Congress and the executive branch have continued to create new STEM education programs, even though there is a general lack of assessment of how well the programs are working. Recently, both Congress and the administration called for a more strategic and effective approach to the federal government’s investment in STEM education. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 requires the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within the Executive Office of the President to establish a committee under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to (1) develop a 5-year strategic plan that includes common measures to assess progress towards the plan’s goals, (2) coordinate STEM education activities and programs among respective federal agencies, and (3) develop an inventory of federal STEM education programs and identify areas of duplication among those programs.[1]

[1]Pub. L. No. 111-358, § 101 (2011).

What GAO Found

In fiscal year 2010, 173 of the 209 (83 percent) STEM education programs administered by 13 federal agencies overlapped to some degree with at least 1 other program in that they offered similar services to similar target groups in similar STEM fields to achieve similar objectives (see fig. below).[1] Federal STEM education programs are also fragmented across a number of agencies. The number of programs each of the 13 agencies administered in 2010 ranged from 3 to 46. Three agencies—the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation—administer more than half of all programs—112 of 209. These programs range from being narrowly focused on a specific group or field of study to offering a range of services to students and teachers across STEM fields. Agencies obligated over $3 billion to STEM education programs in fiscal year 2010. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Education programs account for over half of this funding. Almost a third of the programs had obligations of $1 million or less, with 5 programs having obligations more than $100 million each.


Overlapping Federal STEM Education Programs

This complicated patchwork of fragmented and overlapping programs has largely resulted from federal efforts to both create and expand programs across many agencies in an effort to improve STEM education and increase the number of students going into STEM fields. Program officials reported that approximately one-third of STEM education programs funded in fiscal year 2010 were first funded between 2005 and 2010. Indeed, the creation of new programs during that time frame may have contributed to overlap and, ultimately, to inefficiencies in how STEM programs across the federal government are focused and delivered. Overlapping programs can lead to individuals and institutions being eligible for similar services in similar STEM fields offered through multiple programs. Without information sharing, this could lead to the same service being provided to the same individual or institution (see fig. below). Fragmentation and overlap can frustrate federal officials’ efforts to administer programs in a comprehensive manner, limit the ability of decision makers to determine which programs are most cost-effective, and ultimately increase program administrative costs.

Many programs provided services to similar target groups, such as K-12 students, postsecondary students, K-12 teachers, and college faculty and staff. The vast majority of programs (170) serve postsecondary students. Ninety-five programs served college faculty and staff, 75 programs served K-12 students, and 70 programs served K-12 teachers. In addition, many programs served multiple target groups. In fact, 177 programs were primarily intended to serve two or more target groups. In addition, as the figure below illustrates, many STEM education programs provide similar services.

Services Provided by Federal STEM Education Programs

Services Provided by Federal STEM Education Programs

Furthermore, it is important to compare programs’ target groups and academic STEM fields that are a focus of the program (a STEM field of focus) together to get a better picture of the potential target beneficiaries that could be served within a given STEM discipline. As the table below illustrates, many programs are designed to serve multiple target groups across multiple STEM fields of focus. The majority of programs served target groups across four or more STEM fields of focus, with only 23 programs focusing on one specific STEM field.


STEM Fields of Focus and Target Groups of Federal STEM Education Programs

Target groups

Agricultural sciences



Computer science

Earth sciences




Social sciences


K-12 students











Postsecondary students











K-12 teachers











College faculty and staff











Source: GAO analysis of survey responses

Note: Many STEM education programs serve multiple target groups with multiple STEM fields of focus. The totals cited in this table do not sum to 209, the number of programs in GAO’s review. Earth sciences includes atmospheric and ocean sciences; social sciences includes psychology, sociology, anthropology, cognitive science, economics, and behavior sciences.

However, even when programs overlap, the services they provide and the populations they serve may differ in meaningful ways and would therefore not necessarily be duplicative. There may be important differences between the specific STEM field of focus and the program’s stated goals. For example, there were 31 programs that provided scholarships or fellowships to doctoral students in the field of physics. However, one program’s goal was to increase environmental literacy related to estuaries and coastal watersheds while another program focused on supporting education in nuclear science, engineering, and related trades. In addition, programs may be primarily intended to serve different specific populations within a given target group. Indeed, of the 34 programs providing services to K-12 students in the field of technology, 10 are primarily intended to serve specific underrepresented, minority, or disadvantaged groups and 2 are limited geographically to individual cities or universities. As NSTC develops its 5-year strategic plan, it will need to conduct more analysis of each program to avoid potential duplication and ensure that the federal investment in these programs advances the governmentwide goals expressed in the strategic plan.

In addition to the fragmented and overlapping nature of federal STEM education programs, little is known about the effectiveness of these programs. Since 2005, when GAO first reported on this issue, GAO found that the majority of programs have not conducted comprehensive evaluations of how well their programs are working. Agency and program officials would benefit from guidance and information sharing within and across agencies about what is working and how to best evaluate programs. This could not only help to improve individual program performance, but could also inform agency- and governmentwide decisions about which programs should continue to be funded. Without an understanding of what is working in some programs, it will be difficult to develop a clear strategy for how to spend limited federal funds.

Finally, although NSTC is in the process of developing a governmentwide strategic plan for STEM education consistent with the requirements of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, GAO found that agencies in its 2005 review do not use outcome measures for STEM programs in a way that is clearly reflected in their own performance plans and performance reports—key strategic planning documents.[2] The absence of clear links between the programs and agencies’ planning documents may hinder decision makers’ ability to assess how agencies’ STEM efforts contribute to agencywide performance goals and the overall federal STEM effort. Moving forward, the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 requires agencies to identify program activities and other activities that contribute to each performance goal, and as agencies implement this provision, more information about STEM education efforts in performance plans and reports can be expected. In addition, NSTC’s ongoing strategic planning efforts provide an opportunity to develop guidance on how to incorporate STEM- and program-specific education goals and measures in agencies’ performance planning and reporting process.

[1]For purposes of GAO’s engagement, we defined a federally funded STEM education program as a program funded in fiscal year 2010 by congressional appropriation or allocation that includes one or more of the following as a primary objective: (1) attracting and preparing students throughout their academic careers in STEM areas, (2) improving teacher education in STEM areas, (3) improving or expanding the capacity of K-12 schools or postsecondary institutions to promote or foster education in STEM fields, or (4) conducting research to enhance the quality of STEM education provided to students.

[2]These strategic planning documents were required under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and continue to be required under the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010. We did not assess agencies’ plans and reports for compliance with GPRA and the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 requirements, and our findings that some agencies did not include STEM education programs in their plans and reports should not be read to suggest that we identified instances of noncompliance. For example, we did not assess whether a particular STEM education program is a “program activity” as that term is defined by GPRA for purposes of determining what STEM education programs are required to be covered in agency performance plans and reports. 31 U.S.C. § 1115(h)(11).

Actions Needed



GAO recommended in January 2012 that the Director of OSTP direct NSTC to take several actions related to STEM education programs and related activities.

To ensure the federal government strategically invests limited funds in an efficient and effective manner that achieves the greatest impact in developing a pipeline of future workers in STEM fields, the Director of OSTP should direct NSTC to

  • work with agencies, through its strategic planning process to identify programs that might be candidates for consolidation or elimination. Specifically, this could be achieved through an analysis that includes information on program overlap, similar to the analysis conducted by GAO in this report, and information on program effectiveness. As part of this effort, OSTP should work with agency officials to identify and report any changes in statutory authority necessary to execute each specific program consolidation identified by NSTC’s strategic plan.

To ensure NSTC’s strategic planning process enhances the federal government’s ability to assess what works and the process for identifying potential program consolidation includes information on program effectiveness, the Director of OSTP should direct NSTC to

  • develop guidance to help agencies determine the types of evaluations that may be feasible and appropriate for different types of STEM education programs and develop a mechanism for sharing this information across agencies. This could include guidance and sharing of information that outlines practices for evaluating similar types of programs.

To ensure agencies’ efforts are better aligned to governmentwide STEM education goals and federal resources are concentrated on advancing those goals, the Director of OSTP should direct NSTC to

  • develop guidance for how agencies can better incorporate each agency’s STEM education efforts and the goals from NSTC’s 5-year STEM education strategic plan into each agency’s own performance plans and reports.

To improve transparency and strengthen accountability of NSTC’s strategic planning and coordination efforts, the Director of OSTP should direct NSTC to

  • develop a framework for how agencies will be monitored to ensure that they are collecting and reporting on NSTC strategic plan goals. This framework should include alternatives for a sustained focus on monitoring coordination of STEM education programs if the NSTC Committee on STEM terminates in 2015 as called for in its charter.

How GAO Conducted Its Work


The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section as well as additional work GAO conducted. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and relevant literature and past reports. GAO interviewed officials from OSTP and OMB, and officials from other federal agencies that administer STEM education programs. In addition, to gather information on federal STEM education programs and to assess the level of fragmentation, overlap, and potential duplication, GAO surveyed over 200 programs across 13 agencies that met GAO’s definition of a STEM education program, asking questions about program objectives, target populations, services provided, interagency coordination, outcome measures and evaluations, and funding. Furthermore, to gather information on program effectiveness, GAO reviewed evaluations provided by program officials, as well as agencies’ annual performance plans and reports. See pages 378-385 of the PDF version of this report (appendix III) for a list of the programs GAO identified that may have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation may not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact


GAO provided a draft of its January 2012 report to OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review and comment. OSTP provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. OMB stated it had no concerns with GAO’s report.

GAO also provided a draft of this report section to OMB and OSTP for review and comment. OMB provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. OMB stated that GAO’s four recommendations are critical to improving the provision of STEM education across the federal government. OSTP provided written comments and noted that its analysis of overlap and duplication in STEM education programs identified no duplicative programs. In cases where it identified overlapping programs it found that some program characteristics differed. As an illustration, OSTP explained that there could be two STEM education programs, one that worked with inner city children in New York City and another with rural children in North Dakota. GAO notes that while it may be important to serve both of these populations, it is not clear that two separate administrative structures are necessary to ensure both populations are served. OSTP agreed to consider program consolidation or elimination as part of its strategic planning process, but also said that it would consider other approaches such as strategic alignment of program goals, joint solicitations, improved program design and execution, and memoranda of understanding to increase efficiency and effectiveness of federal STEM Education spending. OSTP stated that they will address GAO’s recommendations in the NSTC 5-Year Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan, which will be released in spring 2012. OMB added that joint administration of programs across agencies is also an effective measure at eliminating duplication and overlap and guaranteeing that the best resources are devoted to programming. As part of GAO’s routine audit work, GAO will track agency actions to address these recommendations and report to Congress. All written comments are reprinted in appendix IV of the PDF version of this report.


For additional information about this area, contact George A. Scott at (202) 512-7215 or


Comments from the Office of Science and Technology Policy

Comments from Office of Science and Technology Policy (Page 1)

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