In one of the less publicized proposed cuts in the 2012 Obama budget, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Centers are on the chopping block.
The Education and Research Centers (ERCs, previously called Educational Resource Centers) were originally established in the mid-1970′s, in direct response to the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act mandate to “conduct, directly or by grants and contracts, education programs to provide an adequate supply of qualified personnel to carry out the purposes of this Act” Their aim was to support academic institutions in developing interdisciplinary occupational health and safety training programs that ensured health and safety professionals had the best possible training.
There are currently 17 ERCs in the US, each of them equipping occupational health professionals with a unique skill-set to support safe and effective business practices. In the academic year 2009-2010, there were 689 graduate students enrolled in ERCs, of which, 423 (61%) were supported by NIOSH. Over the same period 287 graduated from ERC training programs. Of those, 234 (82%) entered occupational safety and health careers or more advanced occupational safety and health training.
Without a doubt, this $24 million per year program hits way above its weight in ensuring US businesses remain competitive and sustainable. And it does this by leveraging other resources, and by ensuring businesses do not making costly and unnecessary mistakes when it comes to health and safety. And as I argue at 2020Science.org, as businesses are increasingly facing the challenge of developing sustainable practices in a globalization and technologically complex world, the resources and training provided by the ERCs are more important then ever.
What is more, it appears that the thinking behind zeroing out the ERCs is more than a little sloppy. Celeste Monforton at the Pump Handle has already questioned the justification for killing the program. And the following rebuttal of the budget cuts justification has been compiled by folks at the University of Michigan ERC and others:
Justification: The original plan was to provide money for five years to develop and/or expand existing occupational health and safety training programs and to become self-sustaining over time. This original goal has been met.
- The statutory goal is to assure an adequate supply of trained professionals without a time limit.
- Centers now number 17 due to growing and unmet needs.
- There are unmet deficits in Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) professionals evidenced by inabilities to fill industry positions with qualified graduates nationally.
Justification: CDC does not have a means for tracking the location and employment of ERC graduates and numbers that have entered the field.
- NIOSH tracks the location and employment of ERC graduates annually.
- In the most recent year, 689 graduate students were enrolled in ERCs, of which, 423 (61%) were supported by NIOSH.
- In the most recent year, 287 graduated from ERC training programs. Of those, 234 (82%) entered OSH careers or more advanced OSH training.
Justification: The ERCs overlap Dept. of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Bureau activities.
- NIOSH conducts research and is responsible for training. OSHA regulates and enforces workplace safety. There is no overlap.
Justification: All of the grants are jointly funded by CDC and the Academic Centers. The budget eliminates the CDC portion and the non-federal portion could still be continued.
- Centers leverage NIOSH ERC funds with state and other grant sources. NIOSH funds are the foundation by which ERCs leverage state, university, and local funds, without which they would not exist.
- 60% of NIOSH ERC funds go directly toward student tuition and stipend support, which could not be made up by other support.
- State and private support for any academic program nationally is slim, particularly with current conditions of severe financial distress.
Justification: In FY 2012, Other OSH is funded entirely through the PHS Evaluation Transfer. CDC’s other OSH activities include mine research, surveillance, exposure assessment and outreach, as well as personal protective technology.
- The scope of these activities, while important, are very narrow and do not address all of the research needs, nor any of the training needs of the OSH profession.
- The interdisciplinary training provided by the ERCs produce graduates with a well-rounded breadth of knowledge in more than one health and safety specialty. They will be a greater asset to their employers, and the best qualified to meet the BLS projected increase of 11% employment of OSH specialists during the 2008-18 decade.
Which leaves the question – why cut a $24 million program that has proven its worth, and is probably more important to US growth and development now than at any time previously – especially where such a cut will be extremely costly to reverse once made?
It’s a question that I, and probably many others involved with making technology innovation work for Americans, are still trying to understand.
The proposed cuts to the NIOSH ERC budget are detailed in the Department of Health and Human Services fiscal year 2012 budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Update: 2/19/11: Clarified that the rebuttals above are a consolidation of many efforts, not just the University of Michigan ERC