On 27 February President Trump signed into law two bipartisan bills that leverage existing programs at NASA and NSF to encourage the advancement of women in STEM fields. Although the bills are relatively minor in scope, they represent Trump’s first encounter with legislation concerning science policy. And his remarks at a brief Oval Office press event constituted his first extemporaneous comments on the subject.
“We want American women who graduate from college with STEM degrees to be able to get STEM jobs that can support their families and help these American women to live out the American Dream, which they are so qualified to live out,” Trump said.
The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act adds a new provision to existing law pertaining to NSF’s promotion of women in STEM. The new legislation mandates that NSF “encourage its entrepreneurial programs to recruit and support women to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and into the commercial world.”
The Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act directs NASA to “encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, pursue careers in aerospace, and further advance the Nation’s space science and exploration efforts.” The legislation, which was introduced by Representative Barbara Comstock (R-VA), supports three existing initiatives: the NASA GIRLS and NASA BOYS mentoring programs, the Aspire to Inspire outreach program, and the Summer Institute in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research for middle school students. The bill also directs the agency to plan to facilitate and support engagement by women astronauts and STEM professionals with girls studying at the K–12 level.
Both chambers of Congress advanced the bills swiftly, with no amendments or opposition. “The passage of our two bipartisan bills is an excellent step forward that will grow our economy and help women from all walks of life break into fields where they have been underrepresented,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), who introduced the NSF bill, in a statement. She did not attend the signing; Comstock did.
Discussing the bills before signing them, Trump pointed to US Department of Commerce statistics indicating that only about 25% of women with STEM degrees have jobs in STEM fields. (The figure for men is 40%.) “It’s unacceptable that we have so many American women who have these degrees but yet are not being employed in these fields,” Trump said. “So I think that’s going to change. That’s going to change very rapidly.”
Trump said the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act enables NSF “to support women inventors—which there are many—researchers, and scientists in bringing their discoveries to the business world, championing science and entrepreneurship, and creating new ways to improve people’s lives. So important.” He explained that the INSPIRE Women Act “ensures that the existing NASA programs recruit women to STEM-related jobs and aerospace careers.” He added, “Great news. Really the way to go. Very heavy into the whole NASA situation. So women will be a big, big part of it.”
The president also said that “protecting” holders of STEM degrees is related to his campaign against job offshoring, which he cited as “a tremendous problem that displaces many of our best American workers and brains.” Trump suggested that he would support further legislation promoting women in STEM and in the workforce more broadly: “We need policies that help support women in the workforce, and that’s really very much going to be addressed by my administration over the years, and to get more and more of these bills coming out, and address the barriers faced by females and those in STEM fields.”
The signing event offered a rare glimpse into Trump’s views on science policy. Virtually the only clues during the campaign came in the form of written answers to a questionnaire submitted by the nonprofit group Science Debate. The degree to which Trump prioritizes science should become clearer later this month, when he presents an outline of his federal budget proposal to Congress. Reports that his first budget will slash nondefense discretionary spending indicate that research activities could be subject to steep cuts.
This article is adapted from a 2 March post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.