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The Week of August 21
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 August 21
Washington is expected to remain relatively quiet this week as Congress continues its traditional summer recess. However, both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue are gearing up for a flurry of activity after Congress returns on Sept. 5.
If officials cannot negotiate a final or stopgap spending agreement for fiscal year 2018, large portions of the federal government will shut down when the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. In recent history, Congress has almost always resorted to passing one or more “continuing resolutions” that temporarily extend funding at current levels, buying time to reach a final agreement. Although many members are loath to permit funding to run out following the politically damaging 16-day shutdown that occurred in 2013, a number of contentious issues, such as whether the final package should include funding for President Trump’s U.S.–Mexico border wall, raise the chance for a deadlock this year.
In addition, toward the end of September the government is expected to reach the statutory limit on the amount it can borrow to finance the national debt. Although many in the administration and Congress advocate a “clean” raise of the limit, others in the Republican caucus may try to use it as leverage to obtain concessions on spending cuts. A previous impasse over lifting the debt limit led to the Budget Control Act of 2011, which set ten years of hard caps on discretionary spending — the portion of the budget from which the vast majority of R&D programs are funded. Although they have been modified in past years, the caps remain in effect.
The House has indicated that it will vote the week of Labor Day on a combined version of eight of the 12 annual appropriations bills it has not yet considered. The House approved the other four bills in a security-focused spending package in July, including those that fund the Departments of Energy and Defense. Amendments to the bills are being accepted from members until Friday, Aug. 25 and will be posted here. Passage of the remaining bills would convey the House’s spending priorities as it continues negotiations with the Senate on a final agreement. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House’s appropriations bills would exceed the current cap on defense spending by about $72 billion, and thus would trigger across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration if Congress and the president do not reach a deal to raise the cap. The Senate’s appropriations bills are estimated to exceed the defense cap by $2 billion and the non-defense cap by $3.8 billion.
NASA Administrator Nominations Expected in September
Several media outlets reported last week that President Trump is expected to nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be NASA administrator and Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President John Schumacher to be deputy administrator as soon as September, although no official confirmation has been provided. A former Navy pilot elected to the House in 2012, Bridenstine has been one of the most outspoken members on space policy issues during his tenure. Last Congress, he sponsored the sweeping “American Space Renaissance Act,” which proposed a number of military and civilian space policy reforms. While chair of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, he also played a lead role in drafting the Weather Research and Forecasting and Innovation Act and championed its commercial weather data provisions. As for Schumacher, prior to joining Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2006, he served as NASA’s associate administrator for external relations from 1994 to 2003 and its chief of staff from 2003 to 2005.
DOD Basic Research Office Holding Inaugural S&T Showcase
On Thursday and Friday, the Defense Department’s Basic Research Office will be holding its first Science, Technology, and Innovation Exchange (STIx) in Arlington, Virginia. Researchers from universities and the defense R&D enterprise will be presenting on their work in a wide range of scientific fields and in STEM education. Billed as a showcase of “the extensive S&T investments, outcomes, and innovations from across the Defense enterprise,” Thursday’s sessions will be livestreamed here, and Friday’s sessions will be livestreamed here.
Chemists Converging on DC for ACS Annual Meeting
The American Chemical Society (ACS) is hosting its 254th National Meeting and Exposition in Washington this week, and a number of policy events are on the calendar. The society will host Monday sessions about how scientists can run for public office or pursue other career pathways in public policy. On Tuesday morning, ACS is hosting a roundtable discussion on the recent launch of a preprint server dedicated to the chemical sciences – called ChemRxiv – and the accompanying shift in culture it will entail. Later Tuesday, the National Academies will host a town hall event on its ongoing Frontiers of Materials Research Decadal Survey, and several federal agencies are teaming up for a federal funders town hall meeting to discuss agency research priorities, programs, and initiatives.
The White House released its annual memorandum to federal agencies last week, outlining the administration’s R&D priorities for the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request. It follows in the footsteps of similar memos released by previous administrations, guiding agency officials as they develop their submissions for the president’s next budget request, which is typically released the following February. This year’s memo reinforces the Trump administration’s commitments to budgetary restraint and to rolling back investment in later-stage R&D and technology commercialization. It also lists a number of specific directions for R&D that the administration believes will serve its priorities in national defense, homeland security, the economy, domestic energy production, and health.
At last week’s National Science Board meeting, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova and board members discussed the ongoing activities and priorities of the agency and board. In Córdova’s opening remarks, she highlighted NSF’s current “big three activities” this year: 1) relocating the agency to a newly built headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, to conclude Oct. 1; 2) engaging with the administration and Congress on the agency’s fiscal year 2018 and 2019 budgets, including preparation of a draft 2019 budget due to the White House in September; and 3) developing an agency reform plan in compliance with an April 12 White House Office of Management and Budget directive that requires all federal agencies to plan for workforce reductions. The board heard a number of additional presentations, the slides for which are available here, including those on NSF’s reception of findings and recommendations from three recent National Academies studies, recent trends in merit review, the agency’s “no cost overrun” policy, and a recent NSF inspector general report that examined institutions’ compliance with research misconduct training requirements compelled by the America COMPETES Act of 2007.
Reports emerged on Sunday that the Trump administration has decided not to renew the charter of the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment (NCA). The Obama administration launched the committee two years ago to guide the implementation of mechanisms to provide more continuous engagement with climate change stakeholders as a supplement to the periodic assessments the U.S. Global Change Research Program conducts. The sustained assessment is still in its nascent phases and had been expected to be fully in place in time for the Fifth NCA in 2022. The committee planned to issue its recommendations for the sustained assessment by spring 2018. It is not yet certain whether the administration will direct agencies to proceed with their current efforts anticipating the sustained assessment.
Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s new think tank, the Energy Futures Initiative, released its first major report on Aug. 15, drawing attention to the national security benefits of a strong domestic nuclear industry. The study notes that the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry is underpinned by a set of specialized workforces, technologies, and companies that are also critical to executing certain national security functions. These include, but are not limited to, supporting a domestic supply chain for uranium enrichment technology needed to produce naval reactor fuel as well as a domestic talent base for nuclear engineering positions that require security clearances. It warns that current challenges facing the U.S. nuclear power sector, such as the recent halting of construction of two nuclear plants in South Carolina, may lead to a loss of the nation’s nuclear expertise base at a time when many workers in the sector are retiring. The report offers a set of policy recommendations on ways to bolster the industry, such as extending the current nuclear power production tax credit, increasing support for R&D of next generation advanced reactor technologies, and expanding programs that support nuclear engineering education. The House recently passed a bill to extend the production tax credit, but the Senate has not acted on it. The operators of the two South Carolina plants are currently seeking federal aid to revive the project.
Vern Ehlers, Science Policy Champion and First Physicist Congressman, Passes at 83
Former Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), the first physicist to be elected to Congress, passed away on Aug. 15 at the age of 83. During his 17-year tenure in the House of Representatives, Ehlers was a member of the House Science Committee and ranking member of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee. He oversaw the writing of the 1998 report “Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy,” which articulated a long-term S&T policy strategy that accounted for changes since Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier. Ehlers led legislative efforts to improve U.S. competitiveness in science and technology, culminating in the passage of the America COMPETES Act of 2007. An advocate for science education, Ehlers founded and co-chaired the STEM Education Caucus and helped to establish the Department of Education’s Mathematics and Science Partnerships program, which sunsetted this year with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Before entering politics, he taught physics for 16 years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and served informally as a science advisor to his local congressman, Gerald Ford, who was at that time House minority leader.
NASA recently announced that three missions have been selected as finalists in its $250 million Medium-Class Explorer astrophysics mission competition. The missions, led by investigators at the California Institute of Technology, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will each receive $2 million to develop a more detailed concept. NASA will select the winning Explorer mission in 2019, with a launch date after 2022. ScienceInsider has more information about each of the finalists here.