Agency STEM workforces in decline, report finds

A new committee report details the dramatic decline in the STEM workforces of federal science agencies. Lawmakers talked ideas to rebuild the workforce at a hearing on Wednesday.

AFGE Local 704 union President Michael Mikulka speaks as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. By John Gress Media Inc

EPA workers protest job cuts at a 2017 rally in Chicago. (Photo credit: John Gress Media/

Several federal agencies have seen their science workforces shrink dramatically over the last decade, with especially steep declines under the Trump administration, according to a new report covering seven agencies by the Democratic staff at the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

"The departure of so much scientific talent and institutional knowledge from the government represents a competitive disadvantage for the United States. We must fix this," said Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), chair of the subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

The report pins the beginning of the shrinking of science workforces on budget cuts in the early 2010s but states that the situation got markedly worse due to the Trump administration's "open hostility towards federal scientists and the federal workforce in general."

Overall, some agencies have seen dramatic declines in the science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) workforces, even as other science agencies have kept steady numbers.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have suffered particularly steep workforce losses since fiscal year 2009. Total agency employment at EPA declined by 16.6% in that period. Within the Trump administration alone, the agency's workforce shrunk by 3.9%. Over half of this decline is attributable to STEM job loss.

This has impacted their work as employees balance low staffing, outdated IT and lack of science equipment, said Dr. Betsy Southerland, former director of Science and Technology in the Office of Water at EPA.

"The lack of staff and resources has forced EPA to focus primarily on those rules with statutory or court order deadlines," she said. "Rules without deadlines …. are often postponed for years."

Several witnesses and lawmakers focused on problems in hiring and on onboarding, like lengthy time-to-hire windows.

Agencies have a wide range of existing hiring and pay authorities to help fill gaps in the STEM workforce, said Candice Wright, the acting director of Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics, U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Using special payment authorities to offer higher wages to cybersecurity employees can help in that high demand field, Wright said. Agencies can also use direct hire to fill critical positions.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, pointed to the promise of internship or fellowship programs. The number of Presidential Management Fellows at science agencies has plummeted over the last four years, according to the report. The program offers two-year fellowships to recent graduates with advanced degrees.

Among the eight agencies tallied in the report, the number of fellows dropped from 136 to 49 since fiscal year 2016.

The report details enduring gender and racial disparities in federal STEM workforces. Overall, agency STEM workforces are less diverse than agency workforces. In NOAA, for example, there are 8.5 male engineers for every 1 female.

This problem is wrapped up into recruitment, said Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, the Director of the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists. Agencies often recruit from the same places every year without seeking out students at minority-serving institutions.

"How the government responds – or doesn't – to face its human capital challenges today will have lasting effects for the future workforce it needs," Wright said.

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