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The Week of April 16
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 April 16
Science Committee to Vote on NASA Authorization Legislation
The House Science Committee will be holding a markup session on Tuesday, at which it will consider a newly unveiled authorization bill for NASA. As in past Republican committee proposals for NASA, it recommends cutting funding for the agency’s Earth Science portfolio while boosting its Planetary Science portfolio. It also places a development cost cap of $3.2 billion on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and notes that until NASA completes a lifecycle cost estimate for the mission, Congress has insufficient information to decide whether WFIRST should proceed. The Trump administration has proposed discontinuing the mission even though it received the highest recommendation for space-based observations in the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. Among its many other provisions, the bill would direct NASA to proceed with its International Space Station Transition Plan that calls for transferring its operations to commercial entities over the next decade, demonstrate a nuclear electric power reactor, fund a space-based near-earth object camera mission, and partner with private and philanthropic organizations to search for signatures of “life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.”
...and a STEM Career and Technical Education Bill
The Science Committee will also consider the “Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act,” sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The bill would direct the National Science Foundation to issue grants that support associate’s degree and certificate programs in STEM fields as well as applied learning opportunities, such as internships and apprenticeships, for students in four-year STEM degree programs. The bill would also direct NSF to support research on best practices for online STEM courses and on the efficiency of labor markets for the skilled technical workforce, which it defines as workers with high school diplomas and two-year degrees or certifications that “employ significant levels of STEM knowledge in their jobs.”
NIST Convening Tech Transfer Policy Symposium
On Thursday, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is convening top representatives of government, academia, and industry for a half-day symposium on “Unleashing American Innovation” in Washington, D.C. The event is a part of NIST Director Walter Copan’s Return on Investment Initiative, which seeks to reduce barriers to the commercialization of federally funded R&D. Copan will be joined by other top political appointees, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Andrei Iancu. Michael Kratsios, the top appointee in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, will speak about how improving federal R&D commercialization is one of the Trump administration’s priority goals and will also moderate a discussion about federal perspectives on technology transfer. Panels on university and industry perspectives will be moderated, respectively, by National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and Katharine Ku, director of Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing.
Griffin Giving First Testimony on the Hill as DOD R&D Chief
Mike Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, will appear before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on Tuesday, accompanied by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who chairs the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Board. On Wednesday, Griffin will testify on his own before the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The subject of both hearings will be DOD’s ability to develop and implement innovative defense technologies. Griffin’s position was created earlier this year in the expectation that its occupant will be empowered to introduce a more innovative spirit into DOD’s R&D and acquisition bureaucracy, which has been criticized as too cautious and rigid. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a HASC subcommittee chair, has called on Griffin to lead a larger national conversation on science and technology policy. Griffin previously testified before SASC as part of his confirmation process to be under secretary.
Reproducibility in the Physical Sciences on Academies Meeting Agenda
On Wednesday, the National Academies committee examining reproducibility and replicability issues across all scientific disciplines is holding its third meeting. The committee has been inviting leaders from individual disciplines to discuss the degree to which their respective fields have been grappling with such issues. For the latest meeting, the committee has asked Peter Mohr, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Joan Brennecke, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to discuss “reproducibility in the physical and earth sciences.” There will also be a session focused on reproducibility in industry and industrial engineering as well as a panel discussion of “the economics of addressing reproducibility issues in science.” The event will be webcast.
DOE Scientific Computing Advisory Committee to Meet
The Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee, which serves the Department of Energy, is meeting on Tuesday. Among the presentations on the agenda, Fermilab Deputy Director Joe Lykken will discuss quantum information science, while John Sarrao of Los Alamos National Laboratory will offer an update on exascale computing. On April 9, DOE announced plans to build its second and third exascale computers; the first, Argonne National Laboratory’s Aurora system, is scheduled to come online in 2021.
NASA’s Exoplanet Hunter Satellite to Launch
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to launch Monday evening on a two-year mission, during which it will make observations of about 200,000 bright, nearby stars scattered across 90 percent of the sky. The mission’s objective is to identify large numbers of stars that are likely orbited by planets, enabling follow-up studies using other telescopes. TESS is a medium-size Explorer mission led by researchers at MIT with an anticipated lifecycle cost of about $350 million, and it will be the first NASA science mission to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. As a short survey mission, TESS is an important part of a growing complex of efforts to identify and study exoplanets. A National Academies study committee is currently working to develop an exoplanet science strategy that will inform the next astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, which in turn will set priorities for future missions and research. The exoplanet committee is holding its sixth meeting this Thursday and Friday.
Shelby Now Appropriations Chair, Moran Gets CJS Gavel
Last week, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) took the helm of the Senate Appropriations Committee from Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), who resigned from the Senate for health reasons. Shelby also opted to leave his post atop the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee to take the gavel of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls by far the largest amount of spending among all the subcommittees. Nevertheless, Shelby will likely continue to have considerable influence over the CJS subcommittee, which funds facilities in his state such as NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and NOAA’s National Water Center. The new chair of the CJS subcommittee is Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). Moran has not been particularly vocal on science subjects in recent years, but he has expressed support for federal investments in research that helps grow the economy and has co-sponsored legislation to accelerate commercialization of university research. He is also co-chair of the Senate Aerospace Caucus.
Senate Confirms James Reilly as USGS Director
On April 9, the Senate confirmed by voice vote former astronaut and geologist James Reilly to be director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Reilly will be joining USGS as it finalizes its fiscal year 2018 spend plan after Congress provided a 6 percent increase to the agency in final fiscal year 2018 appropriations. At his March 6 confirmation hearing, Reilly emphasized the importance of USGS providing unbiased, high-quality scientific information and pledged that he is “fully committed to scientific integrity.” William Werkheiser has been serving as acting USGS director since 2017.
Jim Green Selected as NASA Chief Scientist
NASA announced on April 10 that Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green will be the agency’s new chief scientist, beginning May 1. Green received his Ph.D. in space physics from the University of Iowa in 1979 and served from 1985 to 1992 as head of the NASA’s National Space Science Data Center, and he led the agency’s Space Science Data Operations Office from 1992 to 2005. He has directed the Planetary Science Division since 2006. During his time as director, Green has overseen the launch of high-profile missions such as the Juno mission to Jupiter and the Mars Curiosity rover. The Office of the Chief Scientist is responsible for advising senior NASA leaders and orchestrating agency-level science policy. Green succeeds Ellen Stofan, who left NASA in December 2016 and was picked last week to direct the National Air and Space Museum. Gale Allen, who has been serving as acting chief scientist, is leaving NASA to become executive director of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientist Lori Glaze will serve as acting Planetary Science Division director.
National Academies Proposes Weather Enterprise Study
At a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advisory committee meeting last week, National Academies Board on Atmospheric Studies and Climate (BASC) Director Amanda Staudt discussed a proposed new study on the next-generation weather enterprise. The study would engage members of the weather community to develop a long-term vision for the enterprise that would “consider the full continuum from research to decision making,” including different research disciplines, modeling and data assimilation capabilities, observations, education, and weather-related decision making. BASC will continue the planning process for the study at the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Community Meeting to be held this August in Boulder, Colorado.
Theft of US R&D by Other Nations Grabs Attention of House Panel
At an April 11 hearing, House Science Committee members examined the scope of foreign nations’ efforts to exploit or outright steal the fruits of R&D conducted at U.S. academic institutions. Both Republican and Democratic committee members agreed that such espionage efforts warrant serious concern. They also stressed that countermeasures should balance strengthening security safeguards with maintaining an open research environment and continuing to welcome international scholars. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) called for improving cybersecurity, better educating researchers about espionage threats, and further screening foreign students seeking to study in the U.S. Democratic committee leaders called on the law enforcement and intelligence communities to increase their outreach to academia, noting that the FBI recently disbanded the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, a high-level body designed to improve mutual understanding between the bureau and academia.
Key Senate Appropriator Says FY19 DOE Funding Will Resemble FY18 Level
On April 11, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Department of Energy’s budget held a hearing on DOE’s budget request for fiscal year 2019. Subcommittee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said the subcommittee’s spending bill will “reflect funding levels much like the [fiscal year] 2018 bill and will provide the department more, not less, money than the [president’s] budget requests.” He also said the subcommittee expects to move quickly in drafting fiscal year 2019 appropriations legislation, as the overall budget allocation has already been set. Alexander and Subcommittee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also expressed interest in receiving DOE’s views on the France-based ITER nuclear fusion project before advancing the bill. The Senate subcommittee has not supported ITER in recent years, but House members have pressed to reinvigorate U.S. commitment to the project in view of managerial reforms it has implemented. Asked by Feinstein about the prospects for achieving fusion, Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar said that the management of ITER has greatly improved, but also stated that DOE’s estimate of the overall construction cost has risen to $65 billion and that the U.S. is responsible for about $6.4 billion of the total.
Key House Appropriator Keeps Focus on NASA’s Long-Term Future
On April 12, the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget welcomed Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. Subcommittee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) showed little interest in the Trump administration’s proposed budget for NASA, saying the committee would follow its own lead on issues such as the future of the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST). He also did not express deep concern about the delay and likely cost cap breach of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). He said the subcommittee is tentatively planning on holding a hearing on WFIRST, JWST, and the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey on May 9, and that its spending bill would also address these issues. Culberson stressed he is intent on giving NASA a better ability to conduct long-term planning and also highlighted the 50-year roadmap that Congress has directed NASA to chart on achieving an interstellar propulsion system capable of reaching velocities up to one-tenth the speed of light.
Acting NOAA Administrator Affirms Climate Research as Priority Despite Cuts
On April 11, the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget heard from Acting Administrator Tim Gallaudet on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget request. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) questioned Gallaudet about the exclusion of climate change from the agency’s top priorities and whether it is cause for concern given that “for years NOAA has played an essential role in deepening our understanding of climate change.” Gallaudet responded that climate is encompassed within the priorities, pointing out the weather and water priority focuses on “events on scales that are in weeks to seasonal to even sub-seasonal, and climate type of scales.” Despite the administration’s proposal to zero out funding for competitive climate research grants and an Arctic climate research program, he assured the committee that NOAA has not eliminated its climate work in the fiscal year 2019 request, saying “it is important to continue our NOAA research behind climate change, because there’s much we still don’t know.”
NIH Director Highlights Priority Needs and Programs at Budget Hearing
At an April 11 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins thanked Congress for the “incredible increase of $3 billion” for NIH that it appropriated in fiscal year 2018 and highlighted a few of NIH’s ongoing initiatives as well as its current needs. Collins said NIH’s backlog of maintenance and repair for scientific facilities and infrastructure exceeds $1.8 billion and warned that “the condition of NIH laboratories ranks near the lowest in the federal government due to the high likelihood of floods, power outages, and mechanical failures.” NIH is currently working with the National Academies to identify which facilities and infrastructure are most in need of repair. Among the programs and initiatives Collins highlighted were the “All of Us” Precision Medicine Initiative, a national medical data resource, which NIH will launch with a public rollout in the upcoming weeks, and the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, an $100 million fund that supports the development and retention of the next generation of biomedical researchers.