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The Week of December 18
Start your week fully informed with a preview of what's ahead in science policy and funding along with a recap of last week's news.
The Week of December 18
Editor’s Note: The next edition of this FYI This Week will be published on Jan. 2, 2018. Happy holidays!
Final Tax Bill Expected to Become Law
Congress will vote starting on Tuesday on final legislation to overhaul the tax code, and congressional leaders claim it has the votes to pass. The bill, which was unveiled by the conference committee on Dec. 15, preserves many existing higher education incentives, including the tax-exempt treatment of graduate student tuition waivers and the student loan interest deduction. However, the bill still includes a new 1.4 percent excise tax on investment income from certain college and university endowments that have a value of at least $500,000 per student. A bipartisan group of nearly 30 House members sent a letter to congressional leaders on Dec. 13 urging them to drop the provision as it “poses a serious threat to higher education institutions and their ability to provide need-based financial aid to their students.” If passed, the provision is expected to affect about 35 institutions.
Dec. 22 Government Spending Deadline Looms
With federal government spending set to expire on Friday, Congress is again tasked with reaching an agreement to keep money flowing to agencies over the holidays. Differences remain between the House and Senate on the preferred approach, with the House proposing to fully fund defense spending through the end of fiscal year 2018 and the Senate seeking to reach an agreement on both defense and nondefense spending. If the negotiations are unsuccessful, the government will shut down at the end of the week. More broadly, it is unclear if the White House and congressional leaders are any closer to striking a deal on overall fiscal year 2018 spending levels than when they last extended government spending.
The House is scheduled to vote Monday on several bipartisan bills pertaining to STEM education programs at the National Science Foundation. Among them is the “STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act,” which would direct NSF to assess the effectiveness of its efforts to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields and require federal science agencies to annually submit to NSF demographic information on all R&D grant applicants. The House will also consider the “Women in Aerospace Education Act” and the “Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act,” which would direct NSF to increase participation of women and veterans within certain STEM programs, as well as a resolution expressing support for the use of public–private partnerships to increase access to computer science education in K–12 classrooms. House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) has declared the day of the votes to be congressional “Science Day.”
DOE Reorganizing Science, Energy R&D
The Department of Energy announced on Dec. 15 that it is reorganizing its management structure, a move expected since summer. Moving forward, Paul Dabbar, the under secretary for science, will add DOE’s environmental cleanup efforts to his current responsibilities over the DOE Office of Science. Before becoming under secretary, Dabbar served on the DOE Environmental Management Advisory Board. As under secretary of energy, Mark Menezes will now take responsibility over DOE’s energy policy activities and its applied energy programs, which include, among other activities, the department’s renewable, fossil, and nuclear energy R&D portfolios. The separation of the Office of Science from the applied energy programs restores the state of affairs before a 2013 reorganization that aimed to foster stronger connections between research, technology development, and commercialization. At a DOE town hall meeting, Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the reorganization will improve efficiency, better serve the current administration’s goals, and realign the under secretaries’ responsibilities with the department’s authorizing statute. DOE’s updated organization chart can be found here.
On Dec. 11, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Lisa Gordon-Hagerty to lead the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. NNSA is the steward of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories. Gordon-Hagerty, who began her career as a health physicist, would bring to the job an extensive background in nuclear security policy. She was director of the DOE Office of Emergency Response for six years before joining President Clinton’s National Security Council in 1998. At NSC, she coordinated U.S. government activities to combat conventional and non-conventional terrorist attacks. She held a similar position in the George W. Bush administration. Currently, she is president of two national security consulting companies, Tier Tech International and LEG Inc. If confirmed, Gordon-Hagerty will replace Frank Klotz, who has been NNSA administrator since 2013. Klotz was one of only a few officials appointed by President Obama to be retained following Trump’s inauguration.
NOAA, DOI Nominees Clear Senate Committees
On Dec. 13, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the nomination of AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to be NOAA administrator by a party-line vote of 14 to 13. The day before, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved the nomination of Tim Petty to be assistant secretary of the interior for water and science, a position overseeing the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation. While Petty’s nomination has faced little resistance, Myers’ nomination continues to be controversial, with Democratic senators highlighting concerns related to his potential conflicts of interest. On the day before the committee vote, the Washington Post also reported that three former NOAA administrators who served in Democratic administrations — Kathryn Sullivan, Jane Lubchenco, and James Baker — have “grave concerns” about his nomination. Conrad Lautenbacher, a former NOAA administrator who served under President George W. Bush, is supporting Myers’ nomination.
Trump Signs NDAA, Says Defense Sequester Should End
On Dec. 12, President Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018. He also used the occasion to call for an end to the budget sequestration measures that enforce budget caps on the nation’s overall defense budget. He did not reference the similar caps on non-defense spending, but congressional Democrats have insisted that any increases in defense discretionary spending should be accompanied by an equal increase in the nondefense discretionary budget. FYI’s summary of R&D-related provisions in the NDAA can be found here.
The National Science Foundation announced on Dec. 13 that Jim Ulvestad will be the agency’s first “chief officer for research facilities.” Ulvestad, who is currently the acting head of NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, will assume the role on Jan. 2. Congress recently directed NSF to create such a position to improve oversight of the agency’s large facilities throughout their lifecycles. Ulvestad told FYI that a primary role of the position is to provide the NSF director with strategic advice from a foundation-wide perspective that is independent from the agency’s research directorates. He also said that in the role he will work with the new Facilities Governance Board to develop more standards for facilities operations, flesh out policies for overseeing mid-scale research infrastructure, and make recommendations on future facility priorities. He expects that he and the board will play a particularly important role in providing strategic advice for facilities that are in the operations and divestment stages.
National Academies Focuses on Research Replicability
The National Academies’ new study committee on research reproducibility and replicability held its first meeting on Dec. 12 and 13 in Washington, D.C. Much of the first day’s discussion concerned how the committee should pursue a cross-disciplinary investigation of the issue. Officials from the National Science Foundation, which is sponsoring the study, encouraged the committee to view its charge broadly and to make recommendations applicable across the sciences. The committee also heard from speakers representing a variety of scientific and engineering fields. Their presentations revealed stark differences in the degrees to which different fields are concerned about reproducibility and replicability issues and in how they enforce research quality. Meanwhile, at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans, National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt brought up the reproducibility and replicability issue in a session on research integrity, saying she continues to worry that poor-quality research stems from a professional incentive structure that is “rotten at its core.”
GAO: DOE Acted Illegally in Freezing ARPA-E Grants
The Government Accountability Office has determined that the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy violated the 1974 Impoundment Control Act when, earlier this year, it withheld payments on $91 million in obligated grants. GAO explains that to avoid violating the act, which prohibits federal agencies from refusing to expend congressionally appropriated funds, President Trump would have had to transmit a message to Congress regarding the action. GAO also reports that ARPA–E informed them that, per the Energy Department’s instruction, the agency withheld the funds in anticipation of the enactment of the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, which called for ARPA–E’s elimination. House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) asked GAO to conduct the investigation after DOE claimed it was conducting a review of the grants. ARPA–E has already unfrozen the grant payments in question.
Trump Directs NASA to Return Humans to the Moon
President Trump signed a memorandum on Dec. 11 instructing NASA to make the Moon its next destination for human exploration, supplanting the Obama administration’s “Journey to Mars” initiative. While the principal aim of returning humans to the Moon is to jumpstart the expansion of humans’ presence in space, it would also provide new opportunities for research. In a SpaceNews op-ed, the chair and ranking member of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, Reps. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Ami Bera (D-CA), wrote that “space exploration has always gone hand-in-hand with scientific discovery,” and asserted that lunar missions would yield benefits for biomedical research, technology development, and geophysical studies. Trump’s memorandum does not specify a timetable for the return, nor does it indicate whether he will press for new funding.
Long-Term Microgravity Research Should be Prioritized, Says Academies Report
On Dec. 15, the National Academies released its midterm assessment of NASA’s progress towards advancing the priorities of the 2011 decadal survey on life and physical sciences research relevant to human space exploration. The report recommends that NASA prioritize research that addresses “the risks and unknowns of human space exploration,” including experiments that use existing capabilities of the International Space Station (ISS) and that focus on extended duration in microgravity. It also stresses that NASA should expedite development of its strategic plans for the ISS after commitments for its operation end in 2024. NASA’s long-term microgravity research, it argues, will be critical as the agency transitions to deep space exploration research.