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The Week of October 2
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 2
As Fall Arrives, New Fiscal Year Begins with Uncertainties
Fiscal year 2018 began on Oct. 1, and federal agencies are now operating under the terms of the continuing resolution (CR) enacted on Sept. 8. The interim measure extends government funding through Dec. 8 at levels close to those enacted in fiscal year 2017 appropriations. The White House Office of Management and Budget issued its guidance for the CR to federal agencies on Sept. 28, which includes a schedule of budgetary rescissions. Science agency operations should continue largely unimpeded. However, agencies will be mostly unable to begin new projects until a final fiscal year 2018 spending package is enacted. In addition, agencies typically pare back their spending until they are assured of their funding levels for the coming year. This year, the picture is especially murky as congressional negotiations will address not only spending but also statutory budget caps, and any future standoff between Congress and the Trump administration could still result in a government shutdown when the CR expires. As they navigate these uncertainties, agencies are also in the middle of negotiations with the White House over their plans for the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2019.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning to consider four bills and five nominations, including Walter Copan to be director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and retired Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet to be deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both nominees received bipartisan praise and encountered no opposition during their Sept. 27 confirmation hearing, so the committee is expected to advance their nominations to the full Senate for consideration.
Vice President Mike Pence will be chairing the first meeting of the new National Space Council on Oct. 5 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The meeting will lay out a vision for space exploration under the Trump administration, with the council hearing from representatives from civilian and military space programs and the commercial space industry. Council members expected to attend include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coates, Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva.
House Effort to Overhaul DOE Heating Up
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is meeting with Democratic members of the committee this week to discuss potential legislation to restructure the Department of Energy, according to reporting by E&E News. Committee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR) tasked Barton with spearheading development of the legislation, which would be the first comprehensive overhaul of the department since its founding in 1977. Barton told E&E News that portions of the legislation could fall under the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee.
Senate Energy Panel Examining Two Energy R&D Bills
On Tuesday, the Energy Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing on seven pending energy bills, including two R&D-focused bills: the “Advanced Nuclear Technologies Act” sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and the “Energy Technology Maturation Act” sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM). While the subcommittee will not vote on the bills at this time, the hearing is an opportunity for senators to learn more about and consider the merits of the legislation. The “Advanced Nuclear Technologies Act” would establish advanced nuclear research goals and require the Department of Energy to work with the private industry to carry out at least four advanced nuclear reactor demonstration projects before the end of 2028. The “Energy Technology Maturation Act” would authorize DOE to provide funding to its facilities for “technology maturation projects” that would facilitate the commercialization of energy technologies. The full Senate Energy Committee is also meeting on Tuesday for a separate hearing on the state of the nation’s energy storage technologies.
On Wednesday morning, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science Committee is holding a hearing to review progress in producing radioisotopes that will power future robotic space exploration missions, and to discuss lessons learned from the recently completed Cassini mission. In light of the U.S.’s dwindling stockpile of plutonium-238, the Department of Energy recently restarted production of the isotope on behalf of NASA. The witnesses include David Schurr, deputy director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division; Tracey Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear infrastructure at DOE; Ralph McNutt, a chief scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and a member of the Cassini team; and Shelby Oakley, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.
Science Committee Also Examining Electric Grid Resiliency
On Tuesday morning, the full committee is holding a hearing entitled “Resiliency: The Electric Grid’s Only Hope.” Among the topics it will cover are “the impact of early-stage applied research on the development of resilient grid technology” and the recommendations from the National Academies’ July 2017 report on enhancing resilience of the nation’s electricity system. Last week, DOE announced it is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to implement new energy pricing regulations to help maintain grid stability — a move likely to benefit coal and nuclear plants. The decision comes in the wake of a DOE study on grid reliability and resiliency that concluded that utilities should be compensated for contributions to grid robustness, but also that the grid remains manageable despite recent coal and nuclear plant retirements.
On Thursday, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is convening a workshop on “Building the Foundations for Quantum Industry” at its campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with sessions focused on quantum sensors, communication, and computing. Participants will discuss policy issues identified in a report released last year by the Interagency Working Group on Quantum Information Science, including emerging R&D opportunities, methods of building collaborative efforts, means of supporting emerging market areas, barriers to application, and workforce needs. Federal agency activities related to quantum information science have been expanding in recent years, and the field will likely continue to find support. The Trump administration’s recent memorandum outlining its R&D priorities specifically called out quantum computing as an area it believes is important to increasing the nation’s economy prosperity.
Committee on Sexual Harassment in Academia Meeting
On Wednesday, the National Academies committee examining the impact of sexual harassment in academia is convening in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for its fourth meeting. The committee will hear from three panels, including one that will discuss data collected on sexual harassment among undergraduate and graduate students in science, engineering, and medicine included in the Campus Climate Surveys conducted by the Administrator Researcher Campus Climate Collaborative (ARC3). Speakers include Kevin Swartout, assistant professor at Georgia State University and overseer of the ARC3 consortium, and representatives from two universities that participated in the survey: Rose Marie Ward, a professor at University of Miami of Ohio, and Adam Christensen, director of student affairs research and assessment at Penn State.
Trump Memo Promotes STEM & Computer Science Education
On Sept. 25, President Trump signed a memorandum directing the Department of Education to establish STEM education as one of its priorities, as well as to commit at least $200 million in existing grant program funds to STEM education, particularly for computer science. The president justified the prioritization saying, “Greater access to STEM and computer science programs will ensure that our children can develop the skills they need to compete and to win in the workforce of tomorrow.” The president’s profession of support for STEM education stands in contrast with large cuts the administration proposed for DOEd in the fiscal year 2018 budget request, including the elimination of three programs that can be used to support state STEM activities. The memo is part of a larger initiative led by the president’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, focused on workforce development. At a Sept. 26 event in Detroit, Michigan, she was joined by technology industry leaders who announced they are pledging over $300 million in private funding over the next five years for K–12 computer science programs, including $50 million each from Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.
Trump Renews PCAST Charter
President Trump issued an executive order on Sept. 29 renewing the charter of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology alongside the charters of 31 other federal advisory committees. The charter had been set to expire on Sept. 30. The move does not necessarily mean that Trump will name council members in the near future. Notably, he has yet to nominate a director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who would likely co-chair the council and play a role in selecting its members.
On Sept. 30, in his latest set of nominations, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corporation, to be assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Stephen Volz, the head of NOAA’s satellite programs, is currently serving in that position in an acting capacity. At Panasonic, Jacobs has been leading an effort to develop a numerical weather model that can outperform the National Weather Service’s Global Forecast System in its predictive capability. Jacobs is also currently chair of the American Meteorological Society’s Forecast Improvement Group. He has testified before the House Science Committee two times within the past two years about the state of cooperation between the public and private sector weather enterprises. Trump has yet to select a nominee to head NOAA.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, sent a letter on Sept. 25 to the Government Accountability Office requesting a review of federal agencies’ progress in implementing their scientific integrity policies. The letter also asks for an assessment of the adequacy of those policies in ensuring the impartial conduct and communication of federally funded scientific research. Referencing media reports, Nelson further asks GAO to determine “if the administration has violated scientific integrity policies by suppressing federally funded science, interfering with research grant activities, interfering in typical scientific processes, or restricting the freedom of federal scientists to communicate findings with the public.” And he asks GAO to evaluate the process for reporting policy violations and how well “federal scientists understand their rights under scientific integrity policies and whether the workforce feels their work is protected from political interference.” Nelson is the lead sponsor of the “Scientific Integrity Act,” which would reinforce existing agency policies. The bill has not advanced since Nelson introduced it in February.
GOP Tax Reform Plan Preserves R&D Tax Credit
On Sept. 27, the Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders released their blueprint for overhauling the nation’s tax code. Although the document does not catalogue the full set of tax breaks they will seek to eliminate in order to partially offset revenue lost by lowering tax rates, it does explicitly say that they intend to preserve the tax credit for business R&D activities. This credit was made permanent by a provision in the final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016, a move that a coalition of over 500 industry, higher education, and scientific organizations had requested in their “Innovation: An American Imperative” call to action.
Two of the nation’s leading research organizations last week reiterated their ongoing dismay with President Trump’s effort to bar travel to the U.S. from certain nations. The new statements from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of American Universities are in response to the Trump administration’s Sept. 24 announcement that it has once again updated the travel ban. The list of restricted nations now consists of Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, and the new restrictions will go into effect on Oct. 18. In addition, restrictions will now vary from nation to nation. For example, entry to the U.S. by nationals of Iran under valid student and exchange visitor visas is not being suspended. After President Trump signed his first travel ban executive order in March, over 160 research organizations quickly issued a statement in opposition to it.
Assessment of DOE Contractor Data Calls Requested by House Committee
Leaders of the House Energy and Committee sent a bipartisan letter on Sept. 27 requesting a Government Accountability Office review of the Department of Energy’s procedures for eliciting program data from its contractors, which operate 16 of the department’s 17 national laboratories. The committee members ask GAO to examine the purpose, method, and effectiveness of these data calls, citing the findings of several congressionally chartered panels that recently assessed the lab system. One such panel, the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, concluded that the relationship between DOE and the labs had “eroded,” with a mutual lack of trust leading DOE to micromanage the labs in some situations.
Webb Space Telescope Launch Date Slips into 2019
NASA announced on Sept. 28 that it will be delaying the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from October 2018 into the spring of 2019. During its early development, the flagship project experienced a steady increase in projected cost, leading NASA to rebaseline it in 2011. That exercise lifted its price tag from $5.1 billion to $8 billion and pushed back its launch date, previously scheduled for 2014, by four years. At the same time, Congress placed a firm cap on the project’s cost and subjected it to intensive oversight. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explained that the new delay stems from integration of the spacecraft taking longer than expected and not from any technical problems. He also said that the project’s budget will accommodate the delay.
Damage to Arecibo Observatory Less Serious Than Feared
After initial reports suggested that Hurricane Maria had seriously damaged the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the National Science Foundation indicated last week that the damage appears less significant than was feared. At a meeting of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee on Sept. 27, the deputy director of NSF’s Astronomical Sciences Division, Ralph Gaume, said that “Information as far as what the damage is is still coming in, but overall, the word that we have is much more optimistic than what initially heard from Arecibo.” The hurricane struck at a time of transition for the observatory, as NSF has been seeking partners capable of supporting the facility as NSF ramps down its funding from about $8 million per year to $2 million per year over a five-year period. NSF also recently completed an environmental impact analysis of various alternatives, including deconstructing the facility. Gaume said that the hurricane has delayed the process, but he expects a final decision will be made early this fall. Jim Ulvestad, acting director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, said in a statement that NSF will assess the hurricane’s impacts on the environmental review process, but emphasized that for now, “The number one priority for NSF is the safety and recovery for Puerto Rico's population and any concerns regarding NSF activities are secondary to that top priority.”
Sun Science, Public Excitement Around Eclipse Celebrated at Hearing
At the House Science Committee’s Sept. 28 hearing on the recent total solar eclipse, committee members and witnesses reflected on various facets of the event’s significance. Much of the attention focused on the experience of the millions who were able to either experience totality or a partial eclipse, and the extraordinary opportunity it presented to inspire young people to pursue a career in science. Representatives from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and other astronomical institutions discussed specific efforts to engage the public through the eclipse, including through citizen science projects. They also took the opportunity to discuss special scientific observations enabled by the eclipse as well as the more general importance of heliophysics and space weather research and resiliency.
Six Scientists Receive Golden Goose Awards
On Sept. 27, six scientists were honored with Golden Goose Awards, which celebrate obscure or odd-sounding federally funded research that had significant impacts and are meant to highlight the value of curiosity-driven research. A video of the ceremony is available here. The congressional speakers at the event were Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN), Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Bill Foster (D-IL), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), and Paul Tonko (D-NY). Gardner, the newest sponsor of the award, spoke of his desire to “always make science bipartisan.” Gardner has recently emerged as a leading advocate for federally funded research among Senate Republicans, playing a lead role in the development of last year’s American Innovation and Competitiveness Act and often speaking highly of the many federal labs in his home state during committee hearings.