Science Policy in 2019: 10 Stories to Watch

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Publication date: 
10 January 2019
Number: 
5

FYI presents its second annual list of 10 science policy stories to watch in the year ahead.

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Crowd watching Antarctic sunset

(Image credit – Elizabeth Delaquess / U.S. Antarctic Program)

In 2018, a measure of predictability returned to federal science policy as Congress decisively rejected the Trump administration’s budget cut proposals as well as its policy of limiting support for later-stage R&D activities. However, the partial government shutdown that ensued at the end of the year serves as a sobering reminder of the volatility of the current political era. In addition, the sudden surge of interest last year in subjects such as quantum information science and technological competition with China demonstrate just how quickly the science policy landscape can change. Based on current trends, 2019 is set to be an eventful year. FYI has assembled a list of 10 stories to watch.

US–China tensions reverberating across research enterprise

The U.S. government's long-simmering allegations that the Chinese government orchestrates the theft of intellectual property and engages in unfair trading practices boiled over last year, with federal officials urging a more robust, “whole-of-government” response. The FBI in particular has worked to raise awareness in the private sector and academia about legal and illegal means China uses to acquire technologies. Based on concerns about espionage, the administration implemented new visa screening measures for Chinese nationals last summer and has reportedly considered taking more aggressive measures such as broad limits on visas for Chinese students. It also plans to establish new export controls to stem the transfer of certain “emerging and foundational technologies” to China and other nations. However, measures to protect U.S. companies and universities also run the risk of harming economic activity, stifling scientific collaborations, ensnaring innocent individuals, and creating bias against Chinese researchers. How the U.S. will develop its stance toward China in the coming year could have profound implications for the scientific community.

More budget battles on the horizon as spending caps return

Shortly after taking office, President Trump proposed steep and sweeping budget cuts, including to many science programs, leaving agencies with deep uncertainty about their budgets throughout 2017. Although Trump proposed similar cuts in his second year, a deal reached in early 2018 to raise statutory caps on the federal discretionary budget for two fiscal years enabled Congress to provide substantial spending increases for science programs. The swift advance of spending bills during the summer of 2018 signaled Trump’s new proposed cuts would find no more traction than his first ones. However, while some agencies also received a prompt appropriation for the first time in years, many others are now caught in a partial government shutdown. And uncertainties are likely to deepen later this year as the budget cap deal approaches its expiration at the end of September. Congress could agree to keep the caps high, but the budget deficit or any number of other politically volatile issues could also make an agreement elusive, threatening the return of tighter budgets and perhaps further shutdowns.

Climate change back in the spotlight

For much of the first two years of the Trump presidency, climate change receded as a policy issue as other matters dominated the headlines. However, following the release this past fall of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report and the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the divergence of Trump’s views from the scientific consensus has become a subject of renewed focus. Now, Democrats are making the issue front and center in the House. They have established a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis,” and several other committees are planning climate hearings early this year. As interest revives, there are signs the political contours of the subject could be changing. The network political news program Meet the Press recently devoted an entire show to the subject and excluded non-mainstream views on climate science. Additionally, some Republicans are proposing actions such as innovation-centered policy solutions or a carbon tax, while some Democrats are advocating for more aggressive action via a “Green New Deal,” even as others advocate a more measured approach.

White House science office gains a leader

The Senate confirmation of Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Jan. 2 ended the position’s historic two-year vacancy. It also brings the process of filling out the administration’s senior science leadership positions almost to a close. Whether President Trump intends to make Droegemeier his science advisor remains unclear, though the OSTP director has typically played that role in the past. Another key question is whether OSTP will now take on a more public role, following a long period in which it kept a relatively low profile as it advanced priorities such as artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and STEM education. In the near term, Droegemeier’s presence could trigger the revival of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A long-term sign of Droegemeier’s influence will be whether the administration changes its policy of favoring “early-stage” research, as he has said he favors a “comprehensive” science portfolio that includes “everything from fundamental research that is commercially risky but potentially transformative, to applied R&D further downstream.”

Democrats at helm of House Science Committee

For the first time in eight years, Democrats control the House Science Committee, which has long been Congress’ focal point for science policy debate and legislation. The new majority will set the committee’s tone as it crafts legislation, calls hearings, and as new leaders emerge from its ranks. The committee chair, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), is the first woman and first African American to lead the panel. Her predecessor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), sparked controversy over issues such as his use of subpoena power, challenges to climate science, and efforts to reshape how the Environmental Protection Agency uses science. Johnson has often expressed her desire that the committee be more bipartisan, and in her first action as chair, she introduced bills with the new ranking member, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), to combat sexual harassment and promote research at the energy-water nexus. She has also said she plans to focus on climate change, diversity in the sciences, and “neglected” oversight activities.

Further action expected in fight against sexual harassment

Efforts to combat sexual harassment in the sciences that took shape last year are set to continue in 2019. Leaders of the House Science Committee have already introduced bipartisan legislation directing the adoption of a uniform approach to the problem across science agencies and instructing the National Science Foundation to support research on sexual harassment in the STEM workforce. Additionally, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has said she plans to reintroduce legislation requiring higher education institutions receiving federal grants to report findings of sexual harassment to funding agencies, which are to consider the reports when awarding new funding. Incoming OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier has also expressed support for developing a government-wide effort. Meanwhile, individual agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are expected to continue advancing their own policies, while the National Academies expects to move soon on a policy relating to its elected members.

Federal quantum R&D program ramping up

During the course of 2018, interest in quantum information science (QIS) surged across the federal government, culminating with the signing of the National Quantum Initiative Act on Dec. 21. Efforts are now beginning to translate that wave of enthusiasm into the development of a coordinated, long-term program of federally supported R&D. As part of the initiative, the White House will establish a national QIS coordinating office and advisory committee, while science-supporting agencies are set to increase the share of their portfolios dedicated to QIS. The Department of Energy and National Science Foundation will begin to stand up between two and five QIS research centers each, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology will organize a “quantum consortium.” Meanwhile, the Defense Department is establishing a coordinated QIS R&D program in line with separate legislation. The scope and shape of these efforts remains to be seen, but work is already beginning on a national infrastructure of testbeds, “foundries,” and prototype communication networks.

Space science programs face turning points

In 2018, NASA began planning to renew lunar research as part of its broader agenda to make the Moon a destination for human and commercial exploration. This year, NASA will begin working to realize plans to use the lunar campaign to combine science with exploration and to integrate its own efforts with those of commercial partners. Meanwhile, the departure from Congress of key NASA appropriator Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) raises the prospect that certain research initiatives he pushed could fall by the wayside, most notably a lander mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Another matter that Congress must address is how to handle the fallout from last year’s news that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will breach its $8 billion cap on development costs by an estimated $800 million. That project is likely to continue, but it could siphon funding from the follow-on Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, causing it to be delayed or possibly even cancelled.

Plan S jump-starts open access movement

Discussions about moving scholarly publishing toward an open access model received a jolt last year when 11 European funding agencies committed to an aggressive plan to accelerate such a transition. Known as Plan S, it requires that, by 2020, all articles resulting from research funded by signatory organizations be published in journals that provide immediate free access. This sweeping requirement could pressure leading publishers and non-participating funding agencies to move toward a similar policy. Important questions moving forward are whether the plan’s implementation will proceed smoothly and whether it will gain broad backing beyond Europe. Some major Chinese scientific institutions have already expressed support for the plan, while in the U.S. only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has signed on to date. Some scientific societies and publishers have urged caution, arguing that disrupting established business models could harm the scientific publishing ecosystem. The U.S. government continues to abide by a 2013 policy that generally requires articles from federally funded research be made open access within one year of publication, though the Trump administration has been reviewing that policy. (Disclosure: AIP operations are funded by profits from its publishing arm AIP Publishing.)

EPA to advance controversial science transparency rule

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to remain a center of attention in science policy under Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, whom President Trump has now officially nominated to lead the agency. Wheeler has said he plans to move forward this year with implementing the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule advanced by his predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The rule would require EPA to rely on studies with publicly available data when advancing many types of regulations. It could also have implications for regulatory policy more broadly and has already inspired a similar proposal within the Department of the Interior. It is not yet clear, though, whether EPA will narrow the rule in the face of numerous objections to it. Several scientific societies, for instance, oppose it, arguing the rule would unduly restrict the use of important studies for which it is infeasible to release the underlying data. Wheeler has defended the rule as an important transparency measure, telling The Hill it is partially intended to “send a signal to the research community that you need to make your data available to the public — particularly if the U.S. government is paying for it.”