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The Week of October 23
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 23
(Image credit – Y. Colombe / NIST)
On Tuesday, the House Science Committee is convening a hearing to discuss where the U.S. stands in the “international race” to develop commercially available, quantum-based technologies, with a focus on quantum computing. The hearing will also examine the state of public and private sector R&D efforts, what more can be done to advance quantum information science, and how to train the necessary workforce. The committee will hear testimony from two panels of witnesses, one comprising top officials from federal agencies with large stakes in quantum research and the second with individuals from industry and academia. The hearing comes as some are beginning to call for a national initiative focused on ensuring the U.S. remains a leader in quantum R&D. Whether such an initiative is needed was among the topics of discussion at an Oct. 17 event convened by the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Also on Tuesday, the House Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for the National Institutes of Health budget is holding a hearing on the role of reimbursement for facilities and administrative costs in NIH-funded research. Such “indirect” research costs began to receive substantial attention when the Trump administration revealed in March it would propose cutting back on the reimbursements to help pay for a nearly $6 billion proposed cut to NIH’s budget. If implemented, the policy would have consequences well beyond NIH as the agency negotiates many institutions’ reimbursement rates on behalf of the entire government. Universities have pushed back strongly against the idea of lowering the indirect rates, and, although some in Congress have questioned government indirect costs practices, many others in both parties appear to be listening. The continuing resolution currently funding agencies expressly forbids NIH from making changes to its indirect costs policies while the resolution is in effect. At Tuesday’s hearing, appropriators will be hearing from four research administrators who are likely to continue delivering the message that reducing indirect cost reimbursements would damage their institutions and the implicit contract between research institutions and the federal government.
EPA to Restrict Grantees’ Service as Science Advisers
At a Heritage Foundation event on Oct. 17, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said that he will issue a directive this week that will “ensure the independence and transparency and objectivity with respect to the scientific advice that we’re getting at the agency.” He questioned the objectivity of members of EPA’s science advisory boards who also receive grants from the agency, and said that his forthcoming directive would “fix that.” Pruitt did not describe the directive in further detail. However, it appears it will implement, at least in part, strictures from the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act,” targeted at EPA’s highest-level science board. The House passed that bill in March on a nearly party-line vote but the Senate has yet to take it up. In May, Pruitt unexpectedly began informing members of another EPA advisory body, the Board of Scientific Counselors, that their terms would not be renewed, though he said they could apply for reappointment. Critics have charged that Pruitt is aiming to fill EPA’s boards with members who are more willing to defer to industry viewpoints.
Senate Appropriators to Consider EPA, USGS Spending Bills
Citing uncertainties in the timing of votes on the Senate’s budget resolution for fiscal year 2018, Senate appropriators postponed last week’s scheduled appropriations bill markups to this week. With the budget resolution now having passed, Senate consideration of the bills funding the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, and science and technology programs at the Department of Homeland Security should proceed. The Senate Appropriations Committee website will have further information once the markups have been scheduled. The text of the bills and accompanying bill reports are expected to be made publicly available shortly following the subcommittee and full committee markups, respectively.
Capitol Hill Briefings to Spotlight Role of Science in Innovation
On Monday, the Energy Sciences Coalition and American Chemical Society are hosting a congressional briefing on the value of scientific infrastructure entitled “U.S. Science Facilities: Unlocking American Innovation.” And on Wednesday, the Science Coalition is holding another congressional briefing in conjunction with the House R&D Caucus on companies that have been successfully spun off from federal research support. At Monday’s briefing, Robert Rosner, a physics professor at the University of Chicago, will moderate a panel discussion on topics including scientific infrastructure, existing federal user facilities, and international competition. Speakers include John Hemminger, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Irvine, and former chair of the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee; Richard Arthur, senior director for digital engineering and research at the General Electric Global Research Center; Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and a professor of medicine at Cornell University; and Arnold Chen, managing director of the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship at Purdue University.
National Academies Space Studies Board Gears Up for Fall Meeting
Several committees of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board will convene this week in preparation for the board’s upcoming fall meeting. The Astronomy and Astrophysics Committee will meet on Tuesday to discuss preparations for the next decadal survey. As part of a decadal survey focus session, the committee will hear from Rachel Ivie, director of AIP’s Statistical Research Center, on updated demographics capabilities available since the last decadal survey, and will discuss the town hall event planned for the January 2018 AAS Annual Meeting. On Wednesday, the committee will hear from Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, about the results of an external review of the in-development WFIRST telescope which was released last week. The Solar and Space Physics Committee will also meet on Tuesday and Wednesday for a focus session on data and to continue planning for the upcoming midterm decadal review.
Several Federal Science Advisory Committees Convening
Among the many advisory panels convening this week is the NSF/NASA/DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, which will discuss a concept definition team report for the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Stage Four project, a potential experiment that would unify the efforts of several CMB research teams. Other advisory committees meeting include those for the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate; NASA’s Earth Sciences Directorate, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Integrated Ocean Observation System. See “Upcoming Events” for details.
(Image credit - Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee)
Sen. Rand Paul Takes Aim at Federal Research Grant Process
Frustrated by what he views as wasteful spending on research grants, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill to overhaul the federal research grant system. The bill would make several significant changes to agency peer review processes, such as requiring that a “taxpayer advocate” sit on all research grant review panels. It also includes several open access provisions, incorporating almost all of the “Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act” and also requiring agencies to make all grant applications public. As of today, Paul has not found fellow senators who will sign onto his bill, although he is seeking co-sponsors.
Backers of a House bill to reauthorize the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy are circulating a “dear colleague” letter around Capitol Hill to recruit additional co-sponsors. Currently eight Democrats and four Republicans have signed on to the legislation. The letter cites the favorable marks given to the agency by a recent National Academies review as well as remarks supporting it by Bill Gates, Norm Augustine, Chad Holliday. The letter also notes the legislation's endorsement by a large group of industrial and academic institutions.
ARPA–E’s fate has been hanging on the outcome of the fiscal year 2018 budget process, after the Trump administration and House appropriators proposed defunding it, leaving Senate appropriators to hold the line. However, there seems to be some momentum in the agency’s favor not only within the House but the administration as well. At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Oct. 12, Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified that he thinks it is unwise to simply eliminate ARPA–E, saying, “I didn’t write [the administration’s] budget, and my job is to defend it, which from time to time is counter to what I think is good public policy. This happens to be one of those.” Perry also said reorganizing ARPA–E rather than shutting it down might be an appropriate move, and that he had discussed the matter with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), who is working on a full reauthorization bill for the Department of Energy.
[Correction: The original version of this item erroneously stated that the letter cites Gates, Augustine, and Holliday as supporting the legislation; the letter actually states that they have supported increased funding for ARPA–E. None of the three have taken a position on the legislation.]
New Head of NSF Geosciences Outlines His Vision
William Easterling, who began a four-year term as director of the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate this summer, described his vision for organization at an Oct. 18 advisory committee meeting. Noting that his thinking has been particularly influenced by the book Pasteur’s Quadrant, he said that the directorate must continually maintain a balance between support for pure and use-inspired basic research. He also said that the directorate should not shy away from research on politically contentious topics such as climate change and hydraulic fracturing, remarking, “I can’t imagine a world in which this directorate would make decisions on proposed research simply because it was politically unpalatable.” Furthermore, he stressed that it has to “take back our narrative of what the value of the geosciences is” and work harder at “convincing those particularly who are in power to provide resources for research that goes on in the directorate to better understand why it is important to fund the geosciences.” Easterling’s presentation slides are available here.
National Academies Hosts Roundtable on States’ Role in R&D
The Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable of the National Academies convened an event on Oct. 17 and 18 that explored the role of state governments in promoting economic development and R&D competitiveness. Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Governors Association, said that governors are interested in understanding how innovation can solve public policy problems, and encouraged universities to explain how their research could help spur state economic development. Richard Celeste, a former governor of Ohio and president emeritus of Colorado College, emphasized during his keynote speech that states can increase their impact on R&D through such means as investing in a balance of “instrumentation and people infrastructure,” creating fresh partnerships that include private sector leadership, and educating stakeholders about the value of curiosity-driven research and how it links to practical applications.
On Oct.19, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, sent a memorandum to Christopher Scolese, the director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), outlining the agency’s response to the recommendations of the WFIRST Independent External Technical/Management/Cost Review (WIETR). NASA commissioned the WIETR earlier this year following a recommendation of the National Academies’ midterm assessment of the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. The assessment expressed concerns about the growing cost and complexity of the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) mission, targeted for launch in the mid-2020s. Much of the increase is due to the mission’s inclusion of a new coronagraph technology, which should enable the telescope to image certain exoplanets.
Zurbuchen reports that the WIETR concurred with a recent estimate that WFIRST’s cost had grown to $3.6 billion, and directs GSFC, which is managing the WFIRST project, to descope it to bring its cost back to $3.2 billion. Zurbuchen says WFIRST should retain its “basic architecture,” including the coronagraph, but lists the instrument among several areas where GSFC should reduce costs. NASA will provide further details about its response to the WIETR on Wednesday at the meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics. The agency has not released the WIETR report itself.