There is no question that the United States has some serious budgeting problems—namely that we’ve far overspent and are finally realizing the consequences of acting like a teenager on a shopping spree with mom’s credit card. The problem with coming up with and following a tighter budget, as always, is determining which items need to and should continue to be funded—and which should be cut out or reduced.

One of the items being reviewed by the Senate is the reauthorization of the 2010 America COMPLETES Act, which is in charge of several research and education programs. The act was originally created in 2007, with the major goal of doubling the budgets of three large organizations—the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Doing so would grant much-needed federal support for basic research and STEM programs.

“Where will the money come from,” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) asked during a November hearing. He answers the question himself, saying, “There are plenty of things we do that are less important” than funding these research organizations. Reinstating the COMPLETES Act and upping funding miraculously received bipartisan support in the Senate, though making it through the far more conservative House of Representatives could prove to be an issue.

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) offered the only opposition of the day, saying, “I’d love to talk about spending more money on basic research.” He pointed to the country’s massive $17 trillion in debt, saying, “But until we deal with the fact that two-thirds of our budget is out-of-control, on automatic pilot… we are really stealing the future of our kids.”

Johnson’s point is certainly valid, and at some point this country will need to grit its teeth and be far more conservative on spending habits. On the other hand, students who aim to be successful in todays economy—both domestic and global—often find the greatest success in applied fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Unfortunately, a less-than-ideal number of students find these fields exciting or appealing. That’s a situation that can only be remedied by creating better programs—something that needs to start at the federal level.

Programs like the M3 Challenge, funded by Ray McDaniel-led Moody’s (which also supports the education initiative Posse) and organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, have the power to give students passion for these fields.

The Challenge attracts students who already enjoy mathematics, and what’s really rewarding each year is to see its positive influence on those who are uncertain about pursuing the subject,” said Program Director Michelle Montgomery of SIAM. “Hearing from students who feel more strongly about STEM after their participation… reassures us that the Challenge helps students to see math as a viable and exciting profession.”

Getting more students excited about STEM fields is certainly something that could help the U.S. stay competitive in the global economy—but without research to support these programs, doing so could be tough. How do you weigh in? Is it the government’s responsibility to federally fund these science organizations and their research? Or should we primarily focus on making severe spending cuts and let these groups fend for themselves?

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