President Donald Trump released his blueprint budget for the 2018 fiscal year on Thursday, and with it came the end for NASA’s Office of Education.
The budget calls for the elimination of the office, currently funded at $115 million annually, in exchange for “a more focused education effort” that will be led by another branch of the administration. “While this budget no longer funds a formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through our missions and channel education efforts in a more focused way through the robust portfolio of our Science Mission Directorate,” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a release. “We will also continue to use every opportunity to support the next generation through engagement in our missions and the many ways that our work encourages the public to discover more.”
NASA’s Office of Education works to stimulate interest in space science among high school and university students by doing things like arranging actual phone calls between young people and astronauts on board the International Space Station. The office encourages students to get involved in NASA research by participating in competitions or otherwise connecting with the administration’s activities. It also supports efforts to encourage careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, and math more generally, particularly among underrepresented groups like women and people of color.
What exactly NASA’s new, more focused education efforts will look like remains to be seen, but if it follows from the rest of the apparent priorities of the Trump administration, private space companies will be involved.
Instead of funding education efforts directly, NASA might give money instead to SpaceX or Virgin Galactic to do public outreach campaigns about their work, or to train young recruits for new missions. Just as Betsy DeVos seeks to put the basic education of Americans into the hands of companies, the same could be true for teaching kids about astronauts and space.
It’s easy to see how the ideals of public engagement might get superseded by the interests of making a buck in such a scenario. And it’s easy to see how folks who have been historically excluded from STEM and from space might continue to be marginalized.
“The Office of Education has experienced significant challenges in implementing a NASA-wide education strategy and is performing functions that are duplicative of other parts of the agency,” according to the budget blueprint. The message seems to be, if a worthy goal is difficult to accomplish, perhaps it’s better just to quit.