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The Week of October 16
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 October 16
Senate Resuming Consideration of Appropriations Bills
On Tuesday and Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider its fiscal year 2018 spending bills for the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Homeland Security. The committee has not yet released its draft of either bill, which respectively fund the U.S. Geological Survey and DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, among other programs. The Trump administration has proposed cutting USGS’s $1.1 billion budget by 15 percent, while the House’s spending bill would reduce it by 4 percent. It is not yet clear who will lead the full committee meeting on Thursday as Committee Chair Thad Cochran (R-MS) is still recovering from surgery. (Update: The markups were postponed, and have not been rescheduled as of Oct. 19)
The Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable of the National Academies is convening a meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday to examine the role of state governments in promoting economic development and R&D competitiveness. Among the questions to be addressed are “What role should each state ideally have in influencing the R&D agenda and competitiveness?” and “How can regional cluster development drive innovation and economic growth?” Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Governors Association, and Richard Celeste, a former governor of Ohio and president emeritus of Colorado College, will deliver keynote addresses.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is holding its fourth “Open Campus Open House” at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. In addition to providing an opportunity for researchers interested in partnering with the lab to meet lab staff and learn about their current focus areas, the event is meant to highlight the lab’s “Open Campus” initiative. The program permits visiting researchers to more easily collaborate with ARL scientists and engineers on basic and applied research projects. Congress has lauded the program in recent authorization bills, and the House is encouraging other Department of Defense laboratories to consider implementing similar programs. A recent Defense Science Board assessment of the DOD laboratory enterprise also praised the program, while acknowledging that inertia could inhibit its expansion since it “runs counter to the established notions of building a wall between the DOD scientific community and their peers on the outside.”
Astrophysics and Geosciences Advisory Committees Convening
NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee will be meeting on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Among the subjects to be discussed are the James Webb Space Telescope, which just saw its launch date slip back into 2019, and the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s CubeSats program. Also meeting this week are the advisory committees for the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate (GEO) and its Office of Polar Programs (OPP). The latter committee was reestablished this year after NSF separated OPP from GEO in its budget request. Among the agenda items for the GEO committee is discussion of the implications of this move. This is the first meeting of the committee since William Easterling became head of the directorate in June.
On Tuesday, the Hudson Institute is convening a day-long symposium in Washington, D.C. entitled “The Coming Quantum Revolution: Security and Policy Implications.” The event will consist of panel discussions on quantum computing, quantum cybersecurity, “the international quantum race,” and whether the U.S. should establish a “National Quantum Initiative.” Several physicists are among the speakers, including Altaf Carim, who helped produce a recent National Science and Technology Council report on advancing quantum information science. The event will be webcast.
Myers Nomination for NOAA Administrator Stirs Controversy
On Oct. 11, the White House announced that President Trump has nominated Barry Myers, CEO of the weather forecasting company Accuweather, to be administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Myers is a member of the American Meteorological Society and served on NOAA’s Environmental Information Services Working Group. The first pick for the top NOAA job from the private sector and America’s weather industry, Myers’ views on limiting the role of the National Weather Service in forecast communications are stirring controversy. Meanwhile, his views on NOAA research activities remain unclear. Myers’ nomination follows the nominations of former Oceanographer of the Navy Timothy Gallaudet as NOAA deputy administrator and Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics, as assistant secretary for environmental observations and prediction. In a statement, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research observed that Myers’ nomination comes “at a critical time as the United States works to strengthen its resilience to severe weather events and regain global leadership in the field of weather prediction.”
Former NASA Head Reportedly in Line for Top DOD R&D Post
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is the clear frontrunner to become under secretary of defense for research and engineering (R&E), according to an article published last week by DefenseNews. The Department of Defense is currently preparing to elevate the R&E job from the assistant secretary to the under secretary level, with a deadline of Feb. 1, 2018. Griffin would lend his significant stature to the new position. Aside from leading NASA from 2005 to 2009, he has held a series of senior positions in government and industry that span the defense and space sectors. He has also earned a variety of degrees in science, engineering, and business, including a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. If Griffin is nominated and confirmed, he will be expected to instill a stronger spirit of innovation and agility into DOD’s R&D activities while liaising closely with the department’s contractors and acquisition bureaucracy.
The Washington Post reports that the Government Accountability Office has accepted a request from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to evaluate federal agencies’ scientific integrity safeguards and determine if agencies are violating their integrity policies. Nelson made the request in a letter dated Sept. 25, citing “renewed” media reports of agencies removing access to scientific information, arbitrarily cancelling studies and grants, and censoring scientists’ public communications. In February, Nelson introduced a bill to reinforce agencies’ integrity policies following reports of interference with scientists’ work and communications in the opening days of the Trump administration. GAO indicates that it will begin its work in about four months once staff members become available. It is unclear how long the study will take.
The Energy Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee welcomed Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Oct. 12 for a discussion of the Energy Department’s “mission and management priorities.” In a memorandum sent to subcommittee members before the hearing, committee staff explained,
How DOE orients its energy-security related missions in light of the nation’s current energy abundance and amidst ongoing budget constraints and other agency responsibilities remains a critical question for Congress and the current Administration. Answers will inform future budget priorities and how the Department focuses its core science, R&D, and energy policy responsibilities in the coming decades.
Under the supervision of Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the committee is preparing authorizing legislation expected to propose revisions to the scope and organization of DOE’s activities. While there were scattered mentions of that effort at the hearing — including by Barton, who said he is aiming for a bipartisan bill — most of the discussion concerned specific issues in energy policy. Committee members focused a great deal of attention on DOE’s controversial proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a rule that would give a price advantage to utilities that store fuel reserves onsite, notably coal and nuclear power. Perry attested that the move was “a way to kick start a national discussion about resiliency and about reliability of the grid.”
Reps. Steve Knight (R-CA) and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) announced the launch of a new caucus focused on NASA on Oct. 11. With 28 members at the time of its launch, the caucus’ stated goal is to “strengthen awareness of NASA’s many connections to our national security and economic interests, provide a bipartisan forum to discuss the scientific and technological challenges to American flight and space exploration endeavors, and serve as a focal point for public and private sector air and space expertise that cover the full range of NASA’s initiatives.” This is not the first time Knight and Kaptur have teamed up to champion NASA. They are also lead co-sponsors of the “Aeronautics Innovation Act,” which would authorize large funding increases for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate over a five-year period and legislatively establish a national policy for aeronautics research.
US Withdrawal from UNESCO Could Inhibit Scientific Cooperation, Say Societies
The State Department announced on Oct. 12 that the U.S. will withdraw from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, effective at the end of 2018, citing “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.” The U.S., which stopped funding UNESCO in 2011, has pulled out of the organization once before under the Reagan administration and rejoined in 2003. The U.S. government will seek to obtain non-member observer status “in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise.” The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society have expressed concern the withdrawl could inhibit international scientific cooperation. UNESCO organizes a number of scientific coordination bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and International Hydrological Program. APS President Laura Greene commented on the decision in an Oct. 13 statement:
Through UNESCO, scientists transcend national boundaries and other differences to work together and apply science and technology to global challenges that affect everyone. The withdrawal of the U.S. as a member of UNESCO would damage U.S. participation in critical international efforts. APS hopes that the U.S. remains engaged in UNESCO to help influence international cooperation in UNESCO goals.
Last week, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), saying it “marks the next crucial step in a new era of transparency based on sound science.” Smith has often argued that many environmental regulations are predicated on faulty, opaque research, and that climate scientists’ long-term predictions are inherently inconsistent with proper scientific methods. The Committee’s Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said she believes repealing the CPP would be an “historic misstep.” EPA issued its notice of the proposed rulemaking on Oct. 10, claiming the move will “facilitate the development of U.S. energy resources and reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens associated with the development of those resources.” Launched in 2015, the CPP was the Obama administration’s most ambitious initiative to limit U.S. carbon emissions.
$338 Million Upgrade to DOE Nuclear Physics Lab Completed
The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility announced on Oct. 5 that it has completed a $338 million, nearly decade long upgrade to its Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF). One of the Department of Energy Office of Science’s user facilities, CEBAF is a particle accelerator designed to probe the quark structure of atomic nuclei. The upgrade doubled the accelerator’s maximum beam energy from 6 to 12 GeV and added a fourth hall for conducting experiments. The facility is scheduled to begin full operations in December. Allison Lung, director of the upgrade project, told Physics Today that the lab expects to run CEBAF for 12 weeks in fiscal year 2018 and that the upgrade should increase its overall scientific output by 25 percent while it is running.
NIST Gets Bipartisan Grilling for Security Shortfalls
At an Oct. 11 hearing, members of the House Science Committee expressed bipartisan alarm at the results of a Government Accountability Office review of physical security practices at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. During the investigation, undercover GAO officials succeeded in breaching security at NIST’s campuses in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, in 15 out of 15 attempts. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) said the investigation demonstrates that NIST’s security is a “sieve.” Representatives from the Department of Commerce and NIST sought to assure the committee that they are taking a number of corrective actions to implement GAO’s recommendations.
On Oct. 11, the House passed a bill that would make various updates to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which provide private companies with federal R&D funds to support technology commercialization. According to an analysis of the legislation by the State Science and Technology Institute, its most significant provision is a five-year extension of an authority agencies use to fund certain administrative activities, including outreach efforts such as the SBIR Road Tour. In contrast to several SBIR/STTR bills considered during the last Congress, the legislation does not modify the percentages of agency R&D budgets that are set aside to fund the programs.