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The Week of April 15, 2019
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of April 15, 2019
(Image credit – USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)
Budget Negotiations to Intensify After Recess
Congress is out of session this week and next. When lawmakers return from recess, one of their top priorities will be to begin drafting the bills that apportion the federal government’s discretionary budget for fiscal year 2020, even as they continue negotiations to raise caps on overall spending. So far, Congress and the White House appear far from reaching a deal, and intra-party disagreements are complicating the process. Last week, House Democrats postponed a vote on a cap-raising bill due to divisions in the party over the appropriate balance between defense and nondefense spending, though they did approve a resolution that sets a $1.3 trillion topline. The Senate has yet to set such a figure. The White House has indicated it wants the current cap on nondefense spending to remain in place, but there is little appetite in Congress for the 10 percent cuts that would need to be imposed across the board if the budget caps are not lifted. Various scientific societies (including AIP) have urged congressional leaders to raise the caps and prioritize research spending this year.
DOD Discontinues Contract with JASON Advisory Group
The Department of Defense confirmed last week that it has ended its standing contract with the elite scientific advisory group known as JASON. Since its creation in 1960, JASON has undertaken technical studies for the department and other federal agencies, often on highly classified subjects. In a statement issued to DefenseNews, a DOD spokesperson indicated the department may still elect to contract for one study at a time, maintaining, “The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review. This change is in keeping with this commitment while making the most economic sense for the department, and it is in line with our efforts to gain full value from every taxpayer dollar spent on defense.” JASON last found itself without a contract in 2002, when it refused an attempt by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to name new members to the group. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who revealed DOD’s move at a hearing on April 9, has called on the department to reconsider the decision. Cooper chairs the subcommittee that oversees the National Nuclear Security Administration, which has commissioned studies from JASON on topics such as the viability of nuclear weapons’ plutonium cores as they age and the technical challenges associated with exascale computing.
Fossil Energy Innovation Bill Introduced in Senate
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a major energy innovation bill on April 12 titled the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology (EFFECT) Act. Co-sponsored by Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and three other Republicans, the bill would reconfigure and expand R&D programs in the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy. Within a newly combined Coal and Natural Gas Technology Program, the bill would recommend DOE spend $727 million on R&D, large-scale pilot projects, and demonstration projects in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 and larger amounts in fiscal years 2022 through 2024. It would also recommend funding levels for R&D programs in carbon capture, storage, and utilization. The bill is part of a larger push the committee is making to spur energy innovation.
Manchin Asks GAO to Assess DOE R&D Programs
On April 12, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) requested that the Government Accountability Office review the Department of Energy’s applied research, development, and technology deployment activities (RD&D). He states the review should assess “how — and how well — DOE addresses the so-called ‘valley of death’ and other obstacles to financing and commercializing technologies at each stage of its RD&D activities and across its portfolio.” It should also consider such matters as how DOE sets program goals, how well it meets them, and whether the department maintains a steady pace in awarding grants and making other financial disbursements. Manchin further asks GAO to consider how DOE’s goals have “enabled it to make an impact on larger national objectives such as competitiveness, innovation leadership, economic growth, reducing the U.S. contribution to climate change, and others.”
GAO Sketches Out Plans to Expand S&T Assessment Team
Last week, the Government Accountability Office released its initial plan for expanding the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team it established earlier this year. GAO plans to build up the current 49 member team to 70 members this year and anticipates that up to 140 staff may be required in subsequent years depending on the number of technical assistance requests from Congress. As part of the expansion, it plans to create an “Innovation Lab” that will “explore, pilot, and deploy new advanced analytic capabilities and emerging technologies.”
House Oversight Committee Opens New Front in Climate Debate
The House Oversight Committee added its voice to the climate change debate with hearings last week on national security impacts and reasons for inaction. Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) highlighted the impacts of extreme weather on military bases and said climate change will be a “top priority” for the panel, with its Environment Subcommittee launching a series of three hearings on the topic. Testifying before the committee on April 9, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed that climate change will be a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating existing instabilities around the world. Among his suggested policy responses, Kerry advocated for the U.S. to join other countries in committing to “Mission Innovation,” an initiative to double government support for clean energy R&D. While Republican members largely focused their remarks on the potential economic harms of certain policy responses, some questioned the scientific consensus on the subject. In a series of heated exchanges with Kerry, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) suggested natural variability could account for the observed changes and pointed to beneficial effects of elevated carbon dioxide.
NIH Director Pressed on IP Protection Efforts
At a hearing last week, members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for the National Institutes of Health asked for updates on the agency’s effort to protect intellectual property. Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) said he is “deeply concerned” about efforts by foreign governments, particularly China, to exploit the U.S. research enterprise and said NIH should do more to make the scientific community “fully aware of the exact threats they face.” Collins acknowledged that NIH has uncovered “egregious instances” of individuals breaking agency rules and disclosed that there are 55 ongoing FBI investigations at NIH-funded institutions related to the failure to report funding from foreign organizations, diversion of intellectual property, and theft of grant proposals. At the same time, Collins stressed that the problem is not unique to China and NIH must be careful not to “step into something that almost seems a little like racial profiling,” citing a recent letter by Chinese scientists raising such concerns.
Murray Calls for Stronger NIH Sexual Harassment Policies
At the same hearing, Subcommittee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) criticized NIH for not doing more to prevent sexual harassment at its grantee institutions. Murray argued it is unacceptable for NIH to “defer to its grantee institutions or other agencies to address harassment rather than actually requiring them to report when it happens in research settings, or by researchers funded by NIH grants, especially when NIH’s funding gives the agency such sway with the research community.” She noted the National Science Foundation has already adopted new reporting requirements following the release of the recent National Academies report on sexual harassment and indicated she would like to require NIH to take similar steps.
Academies and Universities Form Anti-Harassment Group
The National Academies announced on April 10 that it has joined more than 40 colleges and universities to launch an “action collaborative” focused on preventing sexual harassment in higher education. The effort stems from the Academies’ 2018 report on the topic, which found that “between 20 percent and 50 percent of female students and more than 50 percent of female faculty and staff experienced sexually harassing behavior while in academia.” The goals of the group include raising awareness about different forms of sexual harassment, implementing evidence-based policies to prevent malign behavior, and developing standards for measuring progress. Over the next four years, the Academies will convene working groups and public workshops to advance these goals. The announcement comes as the Academies is itself developing an approach to addressing harassment allegations against its own members. The National Academy of Sciences will vote later this month on a policy that would enable the group to formally reprimand or expel members found to have committed sexual harassment or other code of conduct violations.
NASA Hires Point Person for ‘Moon to Mars’ Planning
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on April 9 that he has appointed Mark Sirangelo, former head of space systems for Sierra Nevada Corporation, as his special assistant for the agency’s Moon to Mars program. Sirangelo will lead further planning for NASA’s new Exploration Campaign, including development of the agency’s strategy to undertake a crewed lunar landing by 2024. He will also head up NASA’s creation of a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate. According to the announcement, Sirangelo has participated in more than 300 space missions during his career, including more than 20 planetary missions and 70 NASA missions.
‘Planet-sized’ Telescope Resolves Image of Black Hole
(Image credit – House Science Committee)
At an April 10 press conference at the National Science Foundation, members of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project explained how they processed petabytes of data from eight ground-based radio telescopes around the world to produce the first-ever image of a black hole. NSF provided the project with $28 million over 19 years through 22 grants, making EHT a remarkable return on a modest investment. A fact sheet emphasizes that the success builds on the agency’s long history of support for long-baseline radio telescope arrays, interdisciplinary teams, and large-scale data accumulation and analysis. It also notes the project represents a major achievement in three of its Big Idea focus areas: Windows on the Universe, Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure, and Harnessing the Data Revolution.