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The Week of April 23
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 23
Science Committee Shining Light on Space Weather
On Thursday, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing entitled “Surveying the Space Weather Landscape.” Neil Jacobs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be making his first appearance before Congress since being confirmed in February as assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction. Also testifying are Jim Spann, chief scientist of NASA’s Heliophysics Division; Sara Gibson, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Kent Tobiska, president of a space weather forecasting company. The hearing comes on the heels of NOAA’s annual “Space Weather Workshop,” which featured discussion of agencies’ ongoing implementation of the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan. Released in 2015, the plan is designed to improve interagency coordination of space weather research, forecasting, and preparedness efforts in light of the disruption that solar storms could cause to the electric grid and other systems. NOAA issued a request for information last week seeking input as part of a planned update to the strategy.
EPA ‘Secret Science’ Regulation Under White House Review
On April 19, the Environmental Protection Agency submitted a proposed regulation, titled “Strengthening Transparency and Validity in Regulatory Science” to the White House for approval. Although the details of the regulation are not public, internal EPA emails released last week show EPA has been coordinating with House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to implement Smith’s “EPA Secret Science Reform Act.” The bill would restrict EPA from using scientific studies whose data are not made publicly available online “in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” While Smith has argued that the bill would increase the transparency of scientific inputs to EPA decision-making, scientific organizations — including the American Meteorological Society, an AIP Member Society — have warned it could place additional burdens on researchers and lead to the best available science being bypassed or underutilized. Pruitt embraced another controversial policy impacting how EPA uses science last fall, issuing a directive that disqualifies current recipients of EPA grant funding from serving on the agency’s scientific advisory committees.
... as Administrator Pruitt Heads to Capitol Hill to Testify on Budget
On Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, under scrutiny for multiple alleged ethics violations, will defend EPA’s fiscal year 2019 budget request in back-to-back appearances before the House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. The administration is proposing to cut funding for EPA’s Science and Technology account by 36 percent to $449 million. Congress held the account flat at $706 million in final appropriations for fiscal year 2018, despite the administration’s request for similarly deep cuts last year.
AMS Washington Forum Featuring NOAA Leadership Team
The American Meteorological Society’s 2018 Washington Forum is convening Tuesday through Thursday in downtown D.C., with participation from weather and climate community leadership as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new leadership team. NOAA Acting Administrator Timothy Gallaudet will deliver a Tuesday morning keynote address, while the agency’s top policy and communications staffers will speak together on a panel Tuesday afternoon. In addition, on Monday afternoon, former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco will deliver the annual public James R. Mahoney Memorial Lecture entitled “Science in a Post-Truth World.” Lubchenco will also deliver a public lecture at the Carnegie Institution for Science on Wednesday.
National Academy of Sciences Convening Annual Meeting
The National Academy of Sciences is convening its 155th Annual Meeting this Saturday through Tuesday in downtown D.C., and some sessions will be webcast. Among them, NAS President Marcia McNutt will address the meeting next Monday morning, followed by an “Energy Transition” symposium featuring a talk by former Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy Director Ellen Williams on “driving change in the electric power system and how the overall production and transmission of power is evolving.” On Friday morning, Margot Lee Shetterly will discuss her book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” which inspired the 2016 Academy Award nominated film by the same name.
House Dives into Annual Defense Policy Bill
This Thursday, the six subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee are meeting to consider their respective sections of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Most of the science-related provisions are handled by the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, which oversees DOD’s research and engineering enterprise, and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which oversees the National Nuclear Security Administration. Concerned about the agility of the DOD R&D enterprise, Congress has used recent NDAAs to implement major reforms. The 2016 NDAA cleaved the Office of Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics in two to elevate the status of research and engineering within the department. FYI’s reporting on last year’s NDAA is available here.
DOD Innovation Board Meeting in Massachusetts
The Defense Innovation Board is meeting on Thursday at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An agenda for the event has not been posted, but they will likely discuss a report they published on April 20 that identifies “Ten Commandments” for software development and urges the Department of Defense to establish a dedicated career track for computer scientists. The board’s chair, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, described the board’s overall findings to date at a hearing held last week by the House Armed Services Committee, saying “my summary conclusion is that we have fantastic people who are trapped in a very bad system.” DOD announced last week that it is renewing the charter of the board, which was created in 2016 to advise the department on how to promote innovation by changing its procedures, culture, and technologies.
AAS Brings Hunt for Exoplanets to the Hill
As part of its “Space on the Hill” series, the American Astronomical Society is holding a congressional briefing on Wednesday about four tools for hunting exoplanets: the Giant Magellan, Keck, and Kepler Telescopes, as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a NASA telescope that successfully launched last week. Speakers include astronomers from NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and George Mason University.
New ITIF Report Backs Doubling Budget for Energy R&D
A new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation praises Congress for rejecting the administration’s proposed cuts to energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 appropriations. It urges Congress to support a doubling of energy RD&D funding by 2020, a pledge made by the Obama administration in conjunction with 19 other countries in 2016. The report also recommends Congress grow the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) budget to $1 billion, sustain and expand the Department of Energy’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, and double the budget of DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs. Separately, ITIF is holding a release event on Thursday for another report focused on spurring development of grid-scale energy storage technologies.
Senate Confirms Bridenstine as NASA Head on Party-Line Vote
By the narrowest margin in the history of the space agency, the Senate confirmed Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) as NASA administrator last week on a party-line vote of 50 to 49. Bridenstine’s nomination had been stalled for months as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was opposed to it and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been absent for cancer treatment. Rubio ultimately changed his mind, saying that despite his reservations about having a politician lead the agency, NASA’s leadership limbo should not continue given the acting administrator planned to soon step down and that shepherding a different nominee through the process would take too long. During the confirmation process, Bridenstine tried to allay Democratic concerns that he would impose a political agenda at NASA, pledging to follow relevant congressional directives and the National Academies’ decadal surveys as well as embrace the agency’s Earth science mission. Vice President Mike Pence will swear in Bridenstine at a ceremony this afternoon, during which they will speak with astronauts on the International Space Station.
Science Committee Approves NASA Policy & STEM Workforce Training Bills
Last week, the House Science Committee approved the “NASA Authorization Act of 2018” and the “Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act.” After a contentious debate about funding levels for NASA’s Earth Science Division, the House Science Committee advanced the NASA bill, which would comprehensively update guidance for the agency, on a vote of 26 to 7. The initial version of the bill advocated cutting the division’s budget by a quarter to $1.5 billion, but after last minute negotiations, committee Democrats garnered support for an amendment to cancel the cut. FYI’s reporting on the debate and other provisions in the bill are available here. By a voice vote, the committee approved the training and mentorship bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), which would direct the National Science Foundation to issue grants focused on supporting the “skilled technical workforce,” defined as “workers with high school diplomas and two-year technical training or certifications who employ significant levels of STEM knowledge in their jobs.”
Trump Appointees Stress Technology Transfer as Top Priority
At a symposium last week on “Unleashing American Innovation” organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Trump administration officials made clear that increasing the rate at which technologies produced in federal labs are translated to the market is among their top priorities. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross cited studies indicating that universities are far better at technology transfer than federal labs and said that federal focus on the subject has waned over time. He called on federal lab directors to make it clear to their staff that “technology transfer must move as rapidly as industry does.” Michael Kratsios, the top appointee in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the administration will pursue five main approaches to meet its formal cross-agency goal of improving technology transfer: reduce regulatory and administrative burden, increase engagement with the private sector, develop a more entrepreneurial R&D workforce, support tools for tech transfer, and better understand global S&T trends. NIST Director Walter Copan outlined the timeline for his “Return on Investment” initiative, noting that in the coming days the agency will post a call for input in the Federal Register.
Defense R&D Chief Griffin Outlines R&D Priorities
In his first appearances before Congress since becoming under secretary of defense for research and engineering, Mike Griffin stressed his view that DOD must conduct more extensive prototyping before defining weapons system requirements in order to increase the agility of the defense R&D enterprise. Griffin said that such agility is imperative given that the relevant technology and scientific talent are no longer predominantly concentrated in the U.S. In written testimony, Griffin said his “technology-focused modernization efforts” will focus on hypersonics, directed energy, artificial intelligence, quantum science, and microelectronics. Asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to elaborate on his enthusiasm about directed energy, Griffin said he believes the technology is at the point where with enough persistence it will be possible over the coming decade to develop 100-kilowatt lasers for Army theater vehicles, 300-kilowatt lasers for Air Force tankers, and megawatt lasers for space systems.
Export Control Reform Bill Advances in House
On April 17, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved by voice vote the bipartisan “Export Control Reform Act,” which would comprehensively update the framework governing what products can be transferred to other nations. During the markup, Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) stressed he believes that emerging technologies and sensitive “know-how” should be subject to more rigorous export controls. Underscoring this point at a hearing on a separate bill to strengthen foreign investment review mechanisms, Royce said, “Export controls not only restrict the transfer of products, but also of know-how. We should all think long and hard on this … Greater scrutiny is required with respect to the transfer of know-how, legally or otherwise, to strategic economic competitors, such as Beijing.”
Rep. Foster Calls on State Department to Elevate Science Diplomacy
On April 13, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced a resolution in the House that aims to further U.S. engagement in science diplomacy by elevating its role at the State Department. The resolution would call on the department to develop S&T-oriented “foresight assessments,” establish a S&T Advisory Board comprised of independent experts, raise the organizational status of its S&T adviser to that of an assistant secretary, and assess the feasibility of recruiting foreign service officers with special technical skills in S&T fields. Upon introducing the resolution, Foster, a former Fermilab physicist, stated that “Science provides a common language through which scientists from different countries and backgrounds can come together and work toward a common goal,” and that the resolution “recognizes the importance of collaboration among scientists that transcends national boundaries ...”
2017 Nobel Prize Winners Honored in Capitol Hill Ceremony
On April 18, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Chris Coons (D-DE) co-hosted a ceremony on Capitol Hill to honor U.S. recipients of the Nobel Prizes for 2017. Among them were Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, earned for their “decisive contributions” to the detection of gravitational waves. During the ceremony, Coons credited U.S. leadership in science to years of federal investments in laboratories and other institutions that created a collaborative “ecosystem.” He said,
The discoveries we are recognizing have truly changed our world, and they remind us of two fundamental things: the power of science and of research to propel our nation and our world forward, and that scientific breakthroughs come through incredibly hard work, dedication, perseverance, and a lot of patience.
In addition to the presidents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, also attending were Under Secretary of Energy for Science Paul Dabbar, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acting head Timothy Gallaudet.