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The Week of September 11
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 September 11
As Hurricane Irma leaves its impact on Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service continues a multi-week stretch in the national spotlight. The agency’s forecasts and warnings have played a central role in alerting national leaders and the public of the impending dangers of both Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which caused record-breaking precipitation event along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. According to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, “The record shows [National Hurricane Center] forecasters expressed the incredible threat posed by Harvey days in advance, ramping up the severity of predictions over time … another example of weather forecasts being really good but certainly not yet perfect.” The National Hurricane Center also largely correctly predicted Irma’s path and intensity. While NWS Director Louis Uccellini and other meteorologists have amply communicated in the media about the threats posed by the storms, the nation has endured this year’s hurricane season without an appointed head of NOAA. President Trump has not yet nominated a NOAA administrator, although Benjamin Friedman is currently serving in an acting capacity.
The Senate version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act will move to the floor this week, where senators will consider amendments and ultimately vote on its passage. The House already passed its own, very different version of the bill on July 14. The Senate version has a number of provisions bearing on R&D policy. Among them is a section distinguishing R&D activities from service activities, aiming to facilitate the use of contracting procedures tailored to R&D work. Another section expands the list of DOD’s “Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratories,” allowing the new designees to take advantage of special administrative authorities accorded to DOD research facilities. The bill would also authorize the new under secretary of defense for research and engineering to initiate reviews of DOD policies that inhibit the department’s research, engineering, and innovation missions. The White House’s policy statement on the bill does not touch on these provisions, but it does object to the bill’s direction to the Department of Energy to continue construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. Once the Senate completes work on its version, it will negotiate with the House to craft a final bill that Congress can pass and send to the president.
Senate Energy Committee Holding National Lab Hearing
The Energy Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be holding a hearing Tuesday titled “Fostering Innovation: Contributions of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories.” The witnesses will be Paul Kearns, interim director of Argonne National Laboratory; Bill Tumas, associate director for materials and chemical science and technology at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Anuja Ratnayake, director of emerging technology strategy at Duke Energy; and Brian Anderson, director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute. Anderson also testified in July at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing that was focused primarily on nuclear energy and carbon capture technology.
Graduate STEM Reform Committees Holding Joint Meeting
On Thursday and Friday, two National Academies committees focused on improving graduate education and training in STEM subjects — the “Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century” and the “Next Generation Researchers Initiative” — are holding a joint meeting at the University of California, San Francisco. During the open session on Thursday afternoon, former American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Alan Leshner will lead a discussion on “how changes to today’s system of graduate education and early research careers can ensure a future research enterprise that fosters innovation, promotes equity and inclusion, and advances U.S. national interests.” The committees will also hear perspectives from postdoctoral researchers. A full agenda and instructions for accessing the webcast are available on the committees’ websites. The committees are seeking community input by Sept. 22 and Oct. 1, respectively.
NASA’s Cassini mission to the Saturn system will end on Sept. 15, almost 20 years after its launch. Now almost out of fuel, the spacecraft has been directed to plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid any future contamination of the planet’s moons. Cassini has been exploring the system since 2004, and has transmitted back a wealth of knowledge about such features as the seas of liquid methane on Titan and the plumes of water emitted from a global subsurface ocean on Enceladus. The spacecraft and its Titan probe Huygens were a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, and had a total life cycle cost of about $3.3 billion. JPL reflected on Cassini’s legacy in a recent article, describing its influence on the upcoming Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and how it could influence other missions, such as ones to Uranus and Neptune currently under consideration.
In a surprise twist to the fiscal year 2018 budget cycle, President Trump and congressional leaders passed a bipartisan spending agreement last week that extends government agency spending at current levels and raises the federal debt ceiling through Dec. 8. At an Oval Office meeting last week, President Trump unexpectedly sided with congressional Democrats by backing the short-term debt limit increase. Republican congressional leaders had pushed for an 18-month increase. The three-month spending extension, which also includes $15 billion in emergency hurricane relief, was passed by the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 80 to 16, followed quickly by the House on Friday by a vote of 316 to 90. President Trump promptly signed the package into law, buying him and congressional leaders more time to negotiate agreements on the debt ceiling and a final budget for fiscal year 2018. In a provision sought by the scientific and university research community, the legislation explicitly prohibits the National Institutes of Health from altering its reimbursement rates for facilities and administrative costs, also known as indirect costs. The Trump administration has proposed capping those rates at 10 percent.
Senate Advances NIH and DOEd Appropriations Bill
At a Sept. 7 markup, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2018 spending bill for the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education on a vote of 29 to 2. The committee report accompanying the bill, which contains detailed funding and policy direction for agency programs, is available here. The bill would boost NIH funding by 6 percent, or $2 billion, doubling the House’s proposed 3 percent increase. Like the House, the Senate committee flatly rejects the Trump administration’s proposal to cap NIH research overhead costs at 10 percent, and proposes funding increases for each of NIH’s institutes. DOEd grant programs fare better in the Senate bill than the House version, with programs that fund STEM-related state activities and initiatives seeing level or slightly higher funding levels. FYI’s analysis of the House and Senate committees’ funding and policy proposals for NIH is available here.
At the same markup, members approved an amendment to the State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill offered by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) restoring $10 million that had been cut from the U.S. contribution to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The amendment passed by a vote of 16 to 14. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Susan Collins (R-ME) were the only Republicans to vote in favor, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the only Democrat to vote no. The final outcome for the year, however, will depend on budget negotiations between the House and Senate. After the amendment’s passage, Merkley issued a statement:
It’s critical that America has a seat at the table when it comes to international climate policy. Climate disruption is the biggest challenge our planet faces in the 21st century, and we can’t afford to be missing in action. … Today’s vote shows that Democrats and Republicans are prepared to work together to keep America engaged in the international dialogue on climate.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and a number of university associations issued statements in opposition to President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Instituted by President Obama, DACA allowed close to 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation. Trump has given Congress a six-month window to replace the program. In the AAAS statement, the society’s CEO Rush Holt remarked, “Many DACA students make significant contributions to the scientific and engineering enterprise in the United States; we agree with the university community’s statement that ‘high-achieving young people in DACA contribute in many ways to our nation.’ Many are studying to become scientists, engineers, medical doctors and entrepreneurs. Given the administration’s decision, we urge Congress to craft legislation that provides long-term protection for these young people who seek to continue their education and contribute to society.” On Sept. 6, the University of California system filed a federal lawsuit against Trump’s decision, arguing that it is unconstitutional.
As part of its Next Generation Researchers Initiative, the National Institutes of Health issued a policy statement on Aug. 31 directing its institutes and centers to prioritize grant applications that include funding for early career researchers who only have one active NIH award or who are at risk of losing all NIH funding. The policy change is in part a response to a provision of the recently enacted 21st Century Cures Act that directs NIH to “promote opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence, such as policies to increase opportunities for new researchers to receive funding, enhance training and mentorship programs for researchers, and enhance workforce diversity.” NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer explained that the policy change is intended to increase the number of NIH-funded early-stage investigators at a time of “worsening hyper competition that has led to severe challenges for biomedical scientists early in their career.” In May, NIH had considered a bolder policy change, proposing to cap the amount of funding individual investigators could receive so that the agency could support more researchers, but it quickly abandoned the idea after it met with considerable pushback.
A group of nine House members, led by Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), introduced legislation on Sept. 6 to reauthorize the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The bill, which authorizes increases in funding for ARPA–E through 2022, defies the Trump administration’s request and a House Appropriations Committee proposal to eliminate the agency, which funds grants supporting the development of promising high-risk energy technologies. Explaining his support for the bill, co-sponsor Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) remarked, “Accelerating American energy innovation requires a strong and sustained commitment to new and transformative research. Reauthorizing ARPA–E is a necessary step.” A recent National Academies assessment affirmed ARPA–E’s early progress but indicated that it was still too early to tell if it would meet its long-term goal of jump-starting transformative energy technologies.
On Sept. 5, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Director Charles McMillan said that he will step down from the role at the end of 2017 after a six-year tenure. Making his announcement, McMillan remarked that the lab is on a “trajectory for success” and cited increased budgets and hiring as indicators of its health. However, his departure comes as the lab’s safety practices have been under increased scrutiny after a series of incidents came to public attention. It also comes amid an anticipated transition in the lab’s management contract. In 2015, the National Nuclear Security Administration decided to recompete the contract, and the bidding process started this June. NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz said in a statement that the agency expects to announce in the late fall a successor for McMillan to lead the lab until the current management contract expires on Sept. 30, 2018. In a statement provided to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) said, “Director McMillan’s departure comes at a crucial time of transition at LANL … As the Department of Energy moves forward with a new contract and new leadership, worker and community safety must be paramount — LANL must be a no tolerance environment for lapses or security breaches.”