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The Week of November 6
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 November 6
NASA Nominee Bridenstine Faces Committee Vote
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will vote Wednesday on whether to recommend Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be NASA administrator. Bridenstine appeared before the committee on Nov. 1, presenting himself as a bipartisan consensus-builder on space policy. However, committee Democrats grilled him on statements he has made as a staunchly conservative Republican politician on subjects ranging from climate change to LGBTQ rights. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the committee’s ranking member, flatly told Bridenstine that he is too divisive and lacks the technical expertise to be an effective leader of NASA. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Tom Udall (D-NM) asked Bridenstine to clarify his views on NASA’s scientific research. Bridenstine said he will protect NASA science from political interference and follow the guidance of the National Academies decadal surveys in setting NASA’s science agenda. Committee Republicans expressed support for Bridenstine and some castigated their Democratic colleagues for bringing his remarks as a politician into the proceedings.
At the same Wednesday markup, the committee will also vote on whether to advance the nomination of Panasonic Avionics chief atmospheric scientist Neil Jacobs to the position that oversees environmental prediction and observations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At his confirmation hearing, Jacobs only fielded a single question, from Committee Chair John Thune (R-SD), about his commitment to NOAA’s priorities of protecting life and property and providing forecasts to the American people. In his statement, Jacobs pointed to his academic background in observations and modeling as well as his private sector experience as critical to improving NOAA’s observation and prediction capabilities. He also stated that implementing the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, signed into law earlier this year, would be a top priority.
The National Science Foundation appears close to making a decision that will determine the future of the Arecibo Observatory, a 54-year-old radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The National Science Board, NSF’s 25-member governing board, is scheduled to take a vote this week during closed session related to the agency’s yet-to-be-released “Record of Decision” for Arecibo. NSF completed an environmental impact assessment of potential decisions this August, ranging from deconstructing the facility to establishing a partnership that would permit continued science-focused operations — the agency’s preferred option. The record of decision will also reflect NSF’s consideration of scientific, budgetary, and programmatic factors.
Arecibo aside, the board will discuss a wide range of topics when it meets in person on Wednesday and Thursday at NSF’s new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Among the open session agenda items are discussion of major research facility oversight, a new charge for the board’s Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce, NSF’s “big idea” for multi-messenger astrophysics, and the forthcoming release of the 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators — a biennial statistical overview of the U.S. and global research landscape.
Academies Board to Discuss First-Ever Atmospheric Sciences Decadal Survey
The National Academies’ Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate is holding its fall meeting on Monday and Tuesday in Washington, D.C. During open session on Monday afternoon, the board will discuss plans to launch the inaugural decadal survey for the atmospheric sciences, to be titled “Building a Community-Driven Vision for the Next Generation Weather Enterprise.” Among other things, the board will consider how to effectively involve the scientific community and federal agencies. The board will also discuss the recently released National Academies study on “Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise,” co-chaired by Bill Hooke, associate executive director of the American Meteorological Society.
The House Science Committee’s Environment and Energy Subcommittees are holding a hearing on Wednesday to ”assess the status of geoengineering research in the United States.” The witnesses are Phil Rasch, chief climate scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center; Douglas MacMartin, senior research associate in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University; and Kelly Wanser, principal director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project at the University of Washington. This is not the first time the committee has taken up the subject. During the chairmanship of Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), it held three hearings on geoengineering in 2009 and 2010 and issued a report on research needs and strategies for international coordination. Rasch was among the witnesses who testified then.
On Tuesday, the House Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing to solicit views from stakeholders on the benefits and challenges of working with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. In July, the House passed the first-ever comprehensive reauthorization bill for DHS. The bill includes a provision directing DHS to assess its management of R&D activities and to propose a new organizational structure.
House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith to Retire
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has chaired the House Science Committee since 2013, revealed on Nov. 2 that he will not run for re-election next year. He noted that he will be coming to the end of his six-year limit as committee chair, as dictated by House rules, making it a convenient time to step aside. However, he is also a part of a recent wave of Republicans who have decided to retire or are considering doing so. During his chairmanship, Smith has stoked controversy by arguing that research in the environmental and climate sciences suffers from systematic bias. In addition, he has broken with precedent by advocating congressional direction of how the National Science Foundation allocates funds among research fields and the imposition of a “national interest” criterion on grant selection. However, Smith has also advanced a number of bipartisan bills and has strongly supported certain fields of research, including most of the physical sciences. Smith joined the committee in 1987, his first year in Congress.
NSF Appoints New Director for Math and Physical Sciences
On Nov. 1, the National Science Foundation announced that Anne Kinney will become the head of its Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate on Jan. 2, 2018. Currently the chief scientist of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, Kinney’s career as an astronomer and science administrator has spanned both ground- and space-based observation. After receiving a doctorate in physics and astronomy from New York University in 1984, she spent 14 years as a researcher at the Space and Telescope Science Institute. She then transitioned into science administration, leading the astrophysics division at NASA from 1999 to 2006 and the solar system exploration division at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center from 2008 until 2015. Kinney will take the helm of the directorate from Jim Ulvestad, who has been serving in an acting capacity since January 2017.
On Nov. 2, the Senate confirmed by voice vote three of President Trump’s nominees for top posts at the Department of Energy: Paul Dabbar to be under secretary of energy for science, Mark Menezes to be a separate under secretary of energy, and Steven Winberg to head the Office of Fossil Energy. What the exact delineation of responsibilities between Dabbar and Menezes will be is not yet clear, although the department’s $5.4 billion Office of Science will fall within Dabbar’s portfolio. However, there is as yet no indication of which will have authority over DOE’s applied energy offices. Trump has yet to announce a nominee to head the Office of Science.
NOAA Deputy Administrator Outlines New Agency Priorities
Last week, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deputy Administrator Tim Gallaudet made his first appearance before NOAA’s Science Advisory Board to present the administration’s new priorities for the agency and provide an operations and personnel update. The new priorities include leading the world in Earth system observation and weather prediction, minimizing impacts from severe weather, and increasing sustainable economic contributions of U.S. fisheries and oceans. To achieve these goals, Gallaudet said NOAA will focus on establishing new partnerships and examine private sector innovation processes that could be replicated to improve agency efficiency and efficacy. He also said NOAA will be “focusing on people,” which will include improving its ability to recruit and retain employees.
Science Committee Wants DOE Role in Low Dose Radiation Research
A bipartisan consensus emerged at a House Science Committee hearing on Nov. 1 that the Department of Energy should resume research on the biological effects of low dose radiation, which it discontinued last year. Energy Subcommittee Chair Randy Weber (R-TX) explained, “DOE must re-prioritize basic research in low dose radiation so we know we are using the best available science to set [regulatory] standards.” Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) agreed the work should restart, saying, “With a proven track record of success, it is puzzling why such a program has been targeted for elimination.” The Science Committee’s bipartisan “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act,” which the House passed in January, would direct DOE to restore its research program.
EPA Administrator Implements Major Advisory Panel Reforms
At a press event on Oct. 31, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a new directive that no serving member of the agency’s advisory committees may receive an agency grant. He also said that current committee members who have grants would be notified that they would need to choose between their membership and continuing to use grant funding. Casting his directive as a measure to prevent apparent conflicts of interest, Pruitt also declared he would seek to diversify the committees’ membership to include representatives from a broader geographical distribution as well as from a broader range of stakeholders, including industry. Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, released a statement denouncing the move, charging that it is “motivated by politics, not the desire for quality scientific information.”
Controversial Nominee for USDA Chief Scientist Withdraws
Sam Clovis asked President Trump on Nov. 1 to withdraw his nomination for the position of under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics, citing the “political climate inside Washington.” The choice of Clovis for the job, which encompasses the role of chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), had met with widespread criticism, not least because he has no scientific background. In Clovis’ own responses to Senate questions relating to his scientific credentials, he simply wrote, “None.” Court documents released last week also linked him to the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. USDA now plans to retain Clovis in a position not subject to Senate confirmation.
On Nov. 3, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the Climate Science Special Report, which serves as an update on the physical climate science presented in the Third National Climate Assessment published in 2014. Of note, the report confirms that humans are a primary driver of climate change, as stated in its executive summary:
This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities … are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.
Concerns were raised over the summer that Trump administration officials may alter the report during its review, although USGCRP officials at the release event assured that there was no interference and that the report is “an excellent example of an open science assessment.” The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy approved the report’s release.