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The Week of January 1
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 January 1
(Image credit – Arecibo Observatory / NASA / NSF)
Congress Has Full Agenda as 2018 Session Begins
The Senate is returning to work Wednesday, while the House will resume its business next week. As they kick off the 2018 session of the 115th Congress, lawmakers are immediately facing several time-sensitive tasks, including finalizing spending legislation for fiscal year 2018. Since Oct. 1, federal agencies have been operating under continuing resolutions (CRs), stopgap measures that extend the previous year’s funding levels. The latest CR, signed into law on Dec. 22, extended government funding through Jan. 19. If Congress is unable to complete an appropriations package by then, it will have to pass yet another CR to avoid a government shutdown.
Struggles to reach deals on several difficult issues will complicate the negotiations. Congressional leaders are still working out details of a proposed increase in defense and nondefense budget caps. They are also considering a special appropriations bill to support ongoing hurricane and wildfire recovery efforts. The House has already moved on this issue, passing an $81 billion disaster relief package on Dec. 21 that included $340 million in one-time funding for science agencies, but the Senate refrained from acting before the holiday recess. Other issues that will weigh into negotiations over a final appropriations agreement include protection for undocumented immigrants who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Earth Science Decadal Survey Set for Release
The National Academies will release its second Earth system science decadal survey report, titled “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation on Space,” on Friday. The report will identify priorities and recommendations for U.S. space-based Earth system science. National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and study committee co-chairs Waleed Abdalati and Bill Gail will participate in a release briefing also taking place Friday. The event will be webcast here.
(Image credit – The White House)
Trump Signs Tax Bill
On Dec. 20, Congress passed its sweeping tax reform legislation before leaving for its end-of-year recess. President Trump signed it into law two days later. The reform does not include controversial proposals to revoke student loan interest deductions and the exemption of graduate student tuition waivers from taxable income. It does, though, institute a 1.4 percent excise tax on large private university endowments. FYI’s full roundup of the law’s science-related provisions can be found here.
On Dec. 18, President Trump released his National Security Strategy, a document that sets a broad framework for the nation’s military, diplomatic, economic, immigration, and homeland security policy. This latest version gives a prominent place to scientific research and technological innovation throughout. It specifically identifies a number of priority areas for R&D that federal science agencies are likely to consider as they manage their research portfolios. These include advanced computing, data science, artificial intelligence, autonomous technology, encryption, gene editing, novel materials, and nanotechnology. The strategy identifies nuclear technology, next-generation nuclear reactors, improved batteries, carbon capture technology, and opportunities at the energy–water nexus as means of preserving the nation’s “technological edge” in energy. As keys to maintaining U.S. strength, it spotlights the importance of maintaining the military’s overmatch capability, modernizing the nuclear deterrent, extending and protecting the nation’s presence in space, and defending against cybersecurity threats. The document also considers the need for training, attracting, and retaining innovators and inventors and for protecting intellectual property.
House Passes Three STEM Education and Workforce Bills
The House passed three bipartisan STEM education and workforce bills on Dec. 19. The most consequential of the three, the “STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act,” passed on a vote of 376 to 9. It would require the National Science Foundation to collect and analyze data on federal research and education programs aimed at broadening participation in STEM fields. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it would cost NSF and other agencies a total of $61 million to implement the activity from 2018 to 2022. The other two bills prescribe adjustments in existing STEM programs at NSF and NASA. The “Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act” passed on a vote of 420 to 1, while the “Women in Aerospace Education Act” passed on a vote of 409 to 16. The three bills now head to the Senate.
CDC Budget Language Restriction Sparks Backlash
Leaders in the scientific community reacted swiftly to news reports that Centers for Disease Control officials are being prohibited from using the words “diversity,” “entitlement,” “evidence-based,” “fetus,” “science-based,” “transgender,” and “vulnerable” in submissions for the president’s forthcoming fiscal year 2019 budget request. The Washington Post first reported on the restriction on Dec. 15, and a follow-up article the next day revealed that similar restrictions are in place throughout the Department of Health and Human Services. The presidents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a rare joint statement on Dec. 18, warning that, although the directive pertains only to the budget request, it “sends a dangerous message that CDC’s broader research and public health mission could be unduly politicized as well.” On Dec. 19, 45 scientific organizations, including the Optical Society, an AIP Member Society, issued a joint letter to White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, urging him to commit to grounding policies and decisions in scientific evidence.
On Dec. 20, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced the “IMPACT for Energy Act” in the Senate, and Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced a companion bill in the House. The legislation directs the Department of Energy to create an independent private–public “IMPACT for Energy Foundation” that would accept and channel private investments in technology development and commercialization efforts. The foundation would be authorized to expend its funds in a variety of ways ranging from support for collaborative projects to fellowships and prize competitions. It would be governed by a board of directors comprising the secretary of energy and congressional leaders from both parties, as well as appointees from universities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other stakeholder communities.
On Dec. 18, Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) introduced the “Low Dose Radiation Research Act,” which would compel the Department of Energy to reinstate its recently discontinued research program on the biological effects of low dose radiation. The legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), chair of the Science Committee’s Energy Subcommittee. The Science Committee held a hearing on the subject in November that showcased broad bipartisan support for the low dose program. The House passed similar legislation during the last two Congresses but the Senate never acted on it.
NASA Selects Planetary Science Mission Finalists
On Dec. 20, NASA narrowed down a list of 12 proposals for its next New Frontiers planetary science mission to two finalists. The Dragonfly mission would land a flying rotorcraft on Saturn’s moon Titan, which has seas of liquid methane, a feature unique in the solar system. Titan was briefly visited in 2005 by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe as part of NASA’s Cassini mission. The second finalist, the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission, would acquire a sample from the nucleus of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and return it to Earth. ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander previously explored the same comet from 2014 to 2016. Unlike NASA’s most expensive missions, New Frontiers missions are proposed and operated by independent teams and abide by strict cost caps. NASA expects to make its final selection in mid-2019 and to launch the mission in the mid-2020s.
Study Says ITER-Like Experiment ‘Critical But Not Sufficient’ for Fusion Energy
A National Academies study committee tasked with informing the Department of Energy’s long-term strategy for fusion research released its interim report on Dec. 21. In it, the panel states that a burning plasma experiment “such as ITER,” an international fusion facility under construction in France, is a necessary step toward developing a commercially-viable fusion energy source. The report comes at a precarious time for ITER, as the Senate has repeatedly proposed to zero out funding for the project in recent years. The panel does not directly weigh in on whether the U.S. should remain in the project, although it does warn that presently there is no “mature” alternative to ITER and that withdrawing could isolate the U.S. fusion research community absent a substitute effort. The panel also stresses that such a facility is “critical, but not sufficient” to achieving the goal of fusion energy, pointing to a need for further research and warning that recent closures of domestic fusion facilities “threaten the health of the field” in the U.S. The panel also notes that, in contrast to other countries, the U.S. does not have a “nationally endorsed” strategic plan for fusion energy research, and advocates for the development of a long-term strategy.