Science Policy in 2020: 10 Stories to Watch

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

Parabolic reflectors of a solar heating system.

Parabolic reflectors of a solar heating system.

(Image credit – Randy Montoya / Sandia National Labs)

As President Trump enters the final year of his current term, the contours of the science policy landscape have become much clearer relative to the deep uncertainty that accompanied the early months of his presidency. For instance, although Trump has consistently sought steep budget cuts across many science agencies, Congress has firmly and repeatedly rejected them on a bipartisan basis. A number of agencies are instead experiencing a high tide of funding that seems unlikely to recede this year. The administration and Congress also now seem to agree on prioritizing specific R&D areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum science as a way to spur emerging industries.

Should a new president take office next year, certain issues marking the Trump presidency are apt to diminish, such as the current conflicts around science at the Environmental Protection Agency. Others are likely to persist regardless. Heightened tensions with China will likely continue to impinge on research collaborations, for example, and perennial issues such as climate change will demand attention however much an administration prioritizes them. And, as ever, surprises are always potentially just around the corner. Here are 10 issues FYI will be watching in 2020.

Science policy and the election

Although science policy will not be at center stage during the coming election season, the prominence of issues such as climate change and competition with China could lead candidates to emphasize major R&D initiatives in their campaign platforms. In addition, if Democratic candidates revisit President Obama’s rhetoric about putting “science in its rightful place,” subjects such as scientific integrity in government could see additional exposure. If President Trump does not win a second term, numerous administration jobs will turn over and the president-elect could potentially name nominees for some science-related positions by year’s end. Shifts in control of the House or Senate could of course also affect the prospects for major legislative initiatives and oversight priorities, though Republicans and Democrats have not been poles apart on day-to-day science policy matters. Accordingly, most research programs are unlikely to face fundamental changes hinging on the election’s outcome. However, the congressional panels that oversee science programs could see some turnover, as happened in 2018. Notably, the swing-district Democrats who took on House Science Committee leadership roles this year will now be looking to cement their place in Congress.

Climate politics in flux

The politics of climate change continued to evolve this past year, but it remains unclear whether momentum is building toward action commensurate with the scale of the problem. In Congress, Democrats are preparing to unveil an expansive climate policy bill, and some Republicans have become increasingly engaged with the issue, evidenced by the establishment and growth of the bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. Within the Trump administration, some federal agencies remain disengaged with the subject, exemplified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s recent exclusion of climate change from the latest National Preparedness Report, even as Congress pushes the Defense Department to keep climate clearly in view. Even still, open hostility to climate science has been restrained, with the White House blocking an internal push to probe consensus conclusions about climate change. Beyond the government, social and economic pressure to address climate change is becoming increasingly potent. For instance, the financial giant BlackRock just announced plans to center climate risk in its investment strategy and the insurance industry is also heeding projections of future impacts. Likewise, within the scientific community, there are increasing calls for climate change to be treated as a “crisis.”

Showtime for energy innovation push

Last year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Science Committee began to develop energy innovation legislation, citing the need to combat climate change. Their work has yielded bills covering R&D and technology demonstration in areas such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and energy storage. The sponsors are likely to assemble the legislation into a major bipartisan package this year, but a critical question is whether they will sacrifice ambition to increase its chances of becoming law. In the House, Science Committee Democrats have clashed with Republicans over spending recommendations and struck compromises to secure bipartisan support for some bills. Meanwhile, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has expressed interest in passing an ambitious energy R&D package, but it is unclear how the legislation will fare on the Senate floor. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Senate’s lead appropriator for DOE, has said he would like the federal government to double spending on energy research over five years. Although he has pushed through funding increases the last several years, a successful policy bill could help build support for his vision following his retirement next January.

Emerging emphasis on ‘future’ industries

Proposals have begun to proliferate for shoring up U.S. investments in strategic research and technology areas. Building on the National Quantum Initiative Act enacted in 2018, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation that aims to launch large-scale initiatives for artificial intelligence research and 5G telecommunications technologies. Among the most ambitious ideas floated to date is a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to create a new government entity that would spend $100 billion over five years on research in areas such as AI. Notably, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has embraced the Trump administration’s “Industries of the Future” rubric — which encompasses AI, 5G, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing, and synthetic biology — introducing legislation that would require the White House to sketch plans for ramping up spending in these areas. The administration’s own plans for these areas are still under development, and it has asked the reconstituted President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to weigh in. Meanwhile, the administration is reaching critical junctures in its implementation of laws from the last Congress, with the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation gearing up to create research centers called for in the National Quantum Initiative Act, and the Commerce Department advancing new export controls for emerging technologies that are expected to be narrower than initially feared.

US–China tensions rattling researchers

The federal government is ramping up its efforts to guard the U.S. research system against exploitation by foreign governments, with a particular eye toward China. Last year was marked by an array of firings and indictments tied to scientists’ undisclosed participation in talent recruitment programs supported by the Chinese government. Under pressure from security officials and lawmakers, federal science agencies are continuing to develop their policies, converging toward a focus on disclosure in grant applications as a tool for identifying researchers with problematic ties to foreign institutions. But there remains widespread uncertainty in the scientific community about the scope of recent policy changes. And further actions are in the works. Late last year, Congress directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to implement the findings of a recent JASON study, a Senate panel plans to develop legislation that follows up on a recent investigation of Chinese recruitment programs, and Florida has just launched the first state-level legislative inquiry into the subject. The assertiveness of the U.S. response to research security threats has raised fears of a new “red scare” that may engender bias against Chinese and Chinese American researchers and inhibit the extensive collaborations that U.S. researchers maintain with Chinese colleagues.

The White House weighs in

Now one year into the job, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier has fleshed out his agenda, including his ideas for improving U.S. research conditions and reinforcing the role of “American values” within the research enterprise. Last spring, Droegemeier created the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), an interagency body with four subpanels focused on thematic policy concerns: research security, integrity and rigor, inclusivity and safety, and administrative burdens. To inform its work, the committee convened a summit of research community leaders and solicited input broadly through a request for information that closes Jan. 28. This year, federal science agencies, university leaders, and other stakeholders are awaiting JCORE’s guidance on a host of pressing issues, including ways to combat sexual harassment in science and what sorts of foreign collaborations researchers must disclose.

Visa issues prove vexing

University leaders across the U.S. reported last year that international students and scholars have been increasingly encumbered by visa delays. Surveys by the American Physical Society also identified visa delays as a primary barrier facing its international student members and documented steep declines in international applications to physics doctoral programs outside of the top tier. In a bid to better recruit and retain international STEM students, APS and the Optical Society are working to build support for the Keep STEM Talent Act, which would smooth their path to remain in the U.S. after graduation. (APS and OSA are AIP Member Societies.) Separately, competing proposals emerged last year to address delays faced by immigrants seeking employment-based green cards. The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act would eliminate country-level caps on green cards to clear backlogs faced by immigrants from countries with a large number of applicants, such as India. However, as the legislation does not raise the total cap on green cards, it could significantly increase delays for other countries, which has sparked tense debates between immigrant advocacy groups. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) blocked the bill to push his Resolving Extended Limbo for Immigrant Employees and Families (RELIEF) Act, though he announced late last year he had reached an agreement to amend the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.

Open access policy at flashpoint

With the White House weighing an executive order that would require papers from federally funded research projects to be freely available upon publication, debate about open access policy has suddenly returned to the front burner. Federal science agencies currently abide by a 12 month public access embargo standard set in 2013 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In letters to the White House late last year, more than 100 scientific publishing organizations argued that eliminating embargos would upend the publishing industry and harm the research enterprise. The issue is especially fraught for scientific societies, which use publishing profits to finance their activities but may have members who advocate for stronger open access requirements. In the face of such pressure, the Association for Computing Machinery recently clarified its stance on open access and expressed “regret” to its nearly 100,000 members for signing a letter that opposed the potential order. Apart from developments in the U.S., a coalition of research funders primarily based in Europe are pressing ahead with the Plan S open access initiative. Though its implementation has been pushed back to 2021, a key question is whether a critical mass of research funders outside of Europe will embrace the plan. (Disclosure: AIP is sustained through profits from a subsidiary that publishes scientific journals. It has not taken a formal stance on the potential executive order or Plan S.)

EPA clashes with scientists continue

Early this year, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release revisions to a proposed rule that would limit its use of scientific studies that do not have publicly available data. The revisions respond to an avalanche of public comments on a prior version, and the agency hopes to finalize the rule later in the year following another round of comments. EPA is also awaiting input from its Science Advisory Board, which voted to review the entire rule though the agency only requested more limited input. A draft the board released last month criticizes ambiguities in the original proposal and argues the selective exclusion of scientific literature from consideration could “easily undercut the integrity of environmental laws.” The board is similarly critical of the agency’s treatment of science in draft reviews it released of three other proposed rules. According to a leaked document, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is now considering limiting the power to initiate reviews to the board’s chair. Meanwhile, clashes over EPA’s use of science have also spread to unionized EPA employees, who have drafted a bill of rights that includes, among other points, a “right to scientific integrity in EPA work” and a right to “work on control of greenhouse gases, to discuss solutions to climate change, and to conduct climate change research.”

Big decisions concerning tiny particles

The long-term future of particle physics will come into clearer focus this year. The European Particle Physics Strategy Update, set for release in May, will offer crucial direction for the field. One of its most important contributions will be its assessment of the Future Circular Collider, an enormous potential facility at CERN that could operate through this century’s end. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is expected to return to its deferred decision about whether that country should host the International Linear Collider, another planned vanguard facility. China will also continue working on its bid to become a global particle physics leader with ongoing preparatory work for the proposed Circular Electron Positron Collider. Amid these developments, U.S. physicists will begin to consider their role in the field as preparations ramp up for the country’s next particle physics planning exercise. One emerging priority is accelerator R&D. While the path to global leadership has traditionally involved building ever-larger, more powerful machines, smaller and more efficient accelerators are promising to expand applications in science, medicine, defense, and commerce.