May 9, 2024 - Health

Nurses push for a STEM designation

Illustration of a nurse working and holding a chart in a glass beaker.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the country struggles with nursing shortages, some in the field are pushing for a federal solution: a new STEM designation.

Why it matters: Classifying nursing as a STEM field would unlock millions in federal funding for recruitment programs and expand opportunities for international students.

  • The move could help stabilize and grow the profession as nurses leave the workforce in droves.
  • While nurses must take classes in biology, chemistry, statistics and physiology, federal agencies have long split on whether nursing should be considered a STEM field, which consists of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Catch up quick: To help maintain America's competitive edge, the Department of Homeland Security keeps an annually updated list of STEM degrees.

  • International students studying in the specified STEM fields can get extended visas to work in the United States after graduating.
  • Other federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation, fund programs to help low-income students go into STEM disciplines.

Driving the news: A new coalition of nurses on Monday will submit a petition asking DHS to include nursing in its next update to STEM degrees.

  • "This eliminates a barrier for the profession of nursing to achieve parity as a profession in the eyes of the global community," said Rebecca Love, a nursing professor and coalition co-chair.
  • The coalition is starting its push at DHS with the hopes that other departments, like the Department of Education, and nongovernmental organizations will follow suit, Love said.
  • A few agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, already count nursing as eligible for STEM scholarships.

Between the lines: DHS and the National Science Foundation don't consider other degrees in patient-care fields like medicine or pharmacy as part of STEM.

  • STEM degrees generally involve research, innovation or development of new technologies via engineering, math or science, DHS said in its 2023 update.
  • Degrees added to its list last year include landscape architecture and demography.

Nurses argue their profession meets DHS requirements, given how much the field now incorporates math and science in daily practice.

  • "What was once thought of as a technical job evolved into a rich profession with its own body of research, innovations, and evidence-based practices," the Nursing is STEM Coalition writes in its petition.
  • Nursing requires "marrying intuition and data," said Joe Squire, a nurse who leads analytics and data science at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
  • Including the female-dominated career path in STEM designations also helps counter perceptions that women aren't going into rigorous scientific fields, the coalition members say.

The bottom line: Classifying nursing as STEM would open up more funding to a vital profession that's in short supply, supporters of the idea say.

  • Nursing has been operating with a chronic shortage "for forever, pretty much, and I don't foresee it ever changing unless there's more effort put into it, more opportunity put into it, more funding put into it," Squire said.
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