In recent days, the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the U.S. Department of Education had removed "evolutionary biology" as an eligible major under the Department's new SMART grant program. The SMART grant program was authorized by Congress in 2005 to help encourage qualified students to pursue college degrees in high-demand areas, such as in STEM fields and foreign languages. Shortly after the national media reported that the evolution had been removed from a list of eligible degrees in an interim rule being developed by the Department of Education, senior personnel at the Department of Education issued statements saying that evolutionary biology remains an approved degree. On 24 August 2006, Education Department Chief of Staff, David Dunn said: "The misunderstanding occurred as the result of a draft document that omitted evolutionary biology from a list of majors put forth for use by colleges. As soon as the omission came to our attention, we took steps to correct it. However, regardless of its omission on that one document, evolutionary biology was and continues to be National SMART grant eligible."

While many were impressed by the Department's prompt response, scientists have remained vigilant; waiting to see that the final program guidance does indeed include evolutionary biology. The omission also caught the eye of some on Capitol Hill. On 25 August, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) sent a letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Waxman, the ranking democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, requested that the Department replace evolution in the list of accepted degrees and take steps to ensure that no students are penalized as a result of the omission. Further, Rep. Waxman requested an "explanation of how and why evolutionary biology was excluded from the list of fields of study. I request copies of any communications (1) between the Department and private organizations or individuals or (2) within the Department or other parts of the federal government that relate to the preparation of the list of eligible fields of study or the exclusion of evolutionary biology from the list." Waxman requested that the Department provide these materials by 1 September.

As of 29 August, a Dear Colleague letter from the Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the Department of Education was available on a Department of Education Federal Student Aid web site. According to the letter, the Department has updated the list of eligible programs to correct the omission of evolutionary biology, which is once again a listed major.

Additionally, the letter notes that the Department has received other public comments that might result in additional changes to the final list of eligible programs. On 1 August 2006, the president of the North American Benthological Society (NABS) sent a letter to the Secretary expressing a concern that several undergraduate degrees in the natural resources and conservation field were not included in the guidance. NABS president N. LeRoy Poff wrote, "Some of the eligible majors in the Life Science series of CIP codes (beginning with 26) include environmental science majors such as Ecology and Environmental Biology. Due to an apparent oversight, several equivalent undergraduate majors in Natural Resource and Conservation sciences (CIP codes beginning with 03) do not qualify for the grant." Poff continued, "Each university self-assigns majors to different codes for statistical and comparative purposes, yet the difference in academic requirements between CIP 26 and CIP 03 majors is essentially non-existent. Solutions to complex environmental problems require a broad multidisciplinary scientific approach and the excluded Natural Resource and Conservation majors pursue rigorous science-based curricula. Students trained in the excluded environmental science programs will provide critical services to our nation in the future and deserve to be included in the SMART Grant program."

The degrees included in the draft SMART grant program guidance were drawn from the academic classification developed by the National Center for Education Statistics to track educational trends.

 


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