Has the STEM Funding Craze Gone Too Far?

In today’s education philanthropy, if you can’t find a funder for your STEM project, you just aren’t trying.

It’s like a battle cry across the country: America needs more scientists and engineers! Funders nationwide have responded, writing checks—often very large ones—to entice more students into science, technology, engineering, and math fields. There are programs aimed at making STEM disciplines more appealing through improved teaching, efforts to encourage more underrepresented students to pursue STEM majors, and even programs to help new STEM faculty get research funding.

What's more, just about every kind of funder has jumped on the bandwagon: Top legacy foundations, corporate philanthropies, smaller family foundations, and big individual donors. The torrent of grants and gifts is remarkable, and we've reported on many of them over the past year. 

Related - Seven Ways Any College Can Get In On the STEM Gold Rush

The emphasis on STEM is understandable and is driven by a number of trends. Chief among them are a technology-reliant economy, as well as international comparisons that show American students consistently in the lower middle of the pack when it comes to science and math achievement.

However, this laser-like focus on STEM has been accompanied in many cases by attitudes toward the humanities and social sciences that range from de-emphasis to outright dismissiveness. Studies in the liberal arts often are viewed as irrelevant in today’s world. Some policymakers have even suggested defunding such majors. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, expressed doubt that more anthropologists serve vital interests. Such attitudes are not limited to Republicans, however. President Obama took a well-publicized jab at art history majors, questioning the value of such a degree. The elevation of STEM and the dismissal of a broad liberal arts education is something quite unique in a politically polarized nation: an issue with bipartisan consensus.

But these trends may not be good for us in the long run. At least that’s the argument from columnist Fareed Zakaria in a recent Washington Post column. Zakaria is a CNN commentator and the author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education.”

While not disputing the need for greater scientific and technological literacy among Americans, Zakaria contends that a broad liberal arts education has set American higher ed apart from that of other countries, and that such an education is vital for the kinds of innovations that have driven the U.S. economy.

Innovation is not the sole product of technological chops, but also of creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Zakaria cites as examples Apple and Facebook for their successes in understanding the intersection of technology and human society. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who studied psychology before dropping out of college, has maintained that his popular social networking site is as much about sociology and psychology as technology.

A look at the world of higher education philanthropy suggests, at least on the surface, a preference for STEM. There are far more funders for STEM projects than the liberal arts and humanities. STEM funders include big names such as the Sloan Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as an array of corporate funders such as American Honda, Motorola, and Broadcom. On the liberal arts side, Mellon is the biggest name. Other funders include the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Templeton Foundation.

A look at the types of activities funded, however, suggests that funders may not be so segregated in their different silos and that more cross-pollination is happening than you might think. Templeton stands out, of course, for its interest in funding projects that intersect science with ideas from philosophy, theology, and literature. But this cross-pollination of STEM and the liberal arts goes deeper.

Besides programs to increase the diversity of students entering the STEM disciplines, many science and technology funders are supporting projects that involve not only scientific knowledge and technological chops, but also the use of creativity and problem-solving skills. Recent grants from the Lockheed Martin, Toyota USA, and American Honda foundations have advocated creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving applied to scientific issues.

On the liberal arts side, funders increasingly acknowledge the importance of technology and its influence on the arts and humanities. Recent A.V. Davis grants, for example, have supported the use of technology in liberal arts teaching, as well as curriculum reviews to support more interdisciplinary liberal arts teaching that includes a focus on quantitative and scientific literacy. Other grants from humanities-oriented funders have focused on such topics as “digital arts” and the history of such works.

Come to think of it, maybe higher education funders in both STEM and the liberal arts recognize the value of the broad-based education Zakaria advocates, and are showing that in their grantmaking. So, here’s some unsolicited advice: Keep it up. STEM funders should continue encouraging an approach to science and technology that integrates the human element and calls for the use of creativity and problem solving. Liberal arts funders should continue the embrace of technology.

Is it so crazy to encourage students to learn to code while reading the great books for that literature degree? Definitely not.