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The Week of March 5
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 March 5
(Image credit – ITER Organization / EJF Riche)
Fusion Energy Debate Returns to House Science Committee
The House Science Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday to address U.S. participation in the France-based ITER project and the future of fusion energy research. Invited witnesses are leading figures in the nuclear fusion community: Bernard Bigot, director-general of the ITER Organization; James Van Dam, acting head of the Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences program; Mickey Wade, director of advanced fusion systems for General Atomics; and Mark Herrmann, director of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In its budget request for fiscal year 2019, the Trump administration is proposing an 11 percent cut to DOE’s fusion program, and at a January hearing, DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar testified that the administration is currently reviewing U.S. participation in ITER. Science Committee leaders in both parties have been supportive of fusion energy research.
Acting NASA Administrator Lightfoot to Defend Budget
The House Science Committee Space Subcommittee will welcome Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot on Wednesday to discuss the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for the agency. The budget’s proposed cancellation of the long-planned $3.2 billion Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope has triggered alarm bells in the astronomical sciences community. In the past, Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) has supported trailblazing astrophysics missions such as WFIRST, particularly where they might lead to the discovery of exoplanets capable of supporting life. However, at a hearing in December, Smith questioned whether WFIRST is being well managed. Another potential subject for discussion is the administration’s proposed expansion of lunar research and planetary defense efforts.
Exoplanet and Astrobiology Panels Convening at National Academies
A National Academies committee charged with developing an exoplanet science strategy for NASA will be holding its public kickoff meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. Committee members will hear from NASA Astrophysics Director Paul Hertz and Mary Voyteck, who heads the agency’s astrobiology program. They will also hear from representatives of forthcoming and proposed space telescope missions and from scientists who will discuss promising methods for future exoplanet research. NASA is sponsoring the study to satisfy a provision in last year’s NASA Transition Authorization Act. Harvard University astronomy professor David Charbonneau is the committee chair. A separate National Academies committee that is developing an astrobiology strategy for NASA will be holding its second in-person meeting Tuesday through Thursday. Members of the two committees will participate in a closed joint executive session on Wednesday afternoon.
USGS Nominee Jim Reilly to Appear for Confirmation Hearing
On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is holding the confirmation hearing for Jim Reilly, President Trump’s nominee for director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Reilly holds a Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Texas at Dallas and worked for almost two decades as an exploration geologist for mineral, oil, and gas companies. He was a member of NASA’s astronaut corps from 1995 to 2008 and flew on three shuttle missions. Since retiring from NASA, he has worked principally in consulting, lecturing, and online continuing education. One potential barrier to a smooth confirmation is that Reilly has never led a large scientific organization. His nomination will be the only one under consideration at the hearing, and he may face difficult questions about the implications of the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the USGS budget by over 20 percent.
APS Strategy Town Hall Among Policy Highlights of March Meeting
Thousands of physicists are convening in Los Angeles, California, this week for the American Physical Society’s annual March Meeting. Among the policy-relevant sessions, APS President Roger Falcone and APS CEO Kate Kirby are holding a town hall to receive input on a new strategic planning initiative that the society is conducting this year. Other highlights include sessions on engaging physicists in science policy, the role of physics organizations in shaping the field, federal and private funding opportunities in condensed matter physics, and the life and legacy of Millie Dresselhaus.
National Academies Climate Communications Advisory Board Convening
The advisory board for the National Academies’ new Climate Communications Initiative will be convening its first open public meeting on Tuesday. Board members will hear from a number of experts about research in climate communication and the field’s current landscape, as well as from stakeholders across sectors on the potential needs and opportunities the initiative can address. Chaired by former chief oceanographer of the Navy, retired Rear Adm. David Titley, the board will use input from the meeting to inform the development of a strategic plan on how to raise public awareness of climate science, coordinate efforts across the Academies, and create “a suite of authoritative and objective materials and engagement opportunities.”
Exascale Computing and Quantum Science Prioritized in DOE Budget
Quantum information science (QIS) and exascale computing stand out as top priorities for the Department of Energy Office of Science in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, which would keep the office’s overall funding at the current level of $5.4 billion. The administration proposes a large funding influx for Advanced Scientific Computing Research to accelerate pursuit of exascale computing capabilities, while the other five program offices would experience topline cuts, with the brunt of the reductions falling on Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, and High Energy Physics. QIS funding would increase substantially across several programs to a combined level of $105 million.
NSF Bets on ‘Big Ideas’ in Budget
In the National Science Foundation’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, released last week, the agency’s topline funding level is held steady relative to its fiscal year 2017 level of $7.5 billion. Underneath that, however, the agency is proposing a major new NSF-wide investment to support its 10 Big Ideas for the future of science and engineering. Within a total investment of $343 million, each of the six research-focused big ideas would receive $30 million through NSF’s research directorates, the four process-focused big ideas would receive a total of $103 million, and $60 million would go toward two new “convergence accelerators,” which will further support two of the research ideas that have demonstrated “readiness for convergent and translational research.” To pay for these and other new investments, NSF proposes to reduce support across-the-board for “core” disciplinary research.
Sexual Harassment Impacts on STEM Workforce Highlighted at Hearing
House Science Committee leaders aired their concerns over the broad impacts of sexual harassment in science at a hearing held on Feb. 27. Research and Technology Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-VA) noted that “women in science are particularly vulnerable to harassment and abuse” and that the effects of harassment extend beyond its victims to the broader economy. “This isn’t just doing the right thing,” she said, rather it also “is economically an issue that is costing our economy if we don’t get this right.” Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) raised concerns that harassment may hinder federal efforts to encourage women and girls to enter STEM fields. He also said that the scientific enterprise has a responsibility to ensure a “fair, functioning process” process for adjudicating complaints so that scientific workplaces are safe. Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) expressed a similar perspective, saying “we cannot lose another brilliant scientist because she did not feel safe in her lab.” Members highlighted the National Science Foundation’s proposed new reporting requirements for sexual harassment by grantees and efforts made by scientific societies to update ethics policies and codes of conduct as promising steps toward establishing safer, more inclusive work environments.
GAO Recommends S&T Investments to Support Five Tech Frontiers
A new Government Accountability Office report on emerging trends affecting government and society highlights five frontiers in science and technology that “demonstrate the potential for concurrent, possibly disruptive technological revolutions.” They are 1) genome editing, 2) artificial intelligence and automation, 3) quantum information science (QIS), 4) brain-computer interfaces and augmented reality, and 5) blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Concerning QIS, GAO says the field has “the potential to drastically improve information acquisition, processing, and transmission by using the behavior of individual atoms or molecules to obtain and process information in ways that existing systems cannot.” GAO says that a focus on continued investments in these R&D areas will be “critical” given that technological advance is key factor in maintaining U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.
NNSA Nonproliferation Nominee Appears Before Senate Committee
Brent Park, a nuclear physicist and head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Global Security Directorate, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 1 for a hearing on his nomination to be deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Park faced several questions about the threat of nuclear proliferation presented by Iran and North Korea. He stressed the role of emerging technologies for monitoring nuclear proliferation efforts, with or without cooperation of nations seeking nuclear technologies. Asked about a potential deal to transfer nuclear energy technology to Saudi Arabia, Park said it is important to balance nonproliferation goals with the need to not cede control of technology transfer to other nations. The nominations for director of the National Security Agency and head of the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management were also considered at the hearing.
Livermore Plasma Physicist Selected for Senior NNSA Post
On Feb. 26, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Charles Verdon to be deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. In the position, Verdon would have responsibility over NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program and the bulk of the agency’s R&D activities. Verdon earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of Arizona, all in nuclear engineering, and went on to make plasma physics the focus of his work as a researcher. Verdon has held a series of senior positions with Livermore’s Weapons and Complex Integration Directorate and has been its leader since 2013.
Intelligence Tech Exec Picked for Deputy DOD R&D Chief
President Trump announced on March 2 his intention to nominate Lisa Porter to be deputy under secretary of defense for research and engineering (R&E), a new position. Porter is currently director of IQT Labs, the research arm of In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit venture capital firm funded by the U.S. intelligence community. Porter holds a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering from MIT and a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University. She has previously worked at MIT and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and she was NASA’s associate administrator for its Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate during Mike Griffin’s tenure as the agency’s administrator. After leaving NASA in 2008, Porter served as the first director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and was president of Teledyne Scientific and Imaging before her move to In-Q-Tel. Pending her confirmation, she will return to working closely with Griffin, who was sworn in as under secretary of defense for R&E on Feb. 20.