The Week of August 24, 2020

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FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.

The Week of August 24, 2020

The Week Ahead

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A study published last week found that melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet set a new record in 2019 following two years of reduced ice loss linked to anomalously cold summers.

A study published last week found that melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet set a new record in 2019 following two years of reduced ice loss linked to anomalously cold summers.

(Image credit – NASA)

New Federal Meteorological Services Council Convening

The newly established Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services is holding its inaugural meeting on Thursday, with the heads of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration serving as co-chairs. The council will assume responsibilities from the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology and work to identify relevant needs for research, observational infrastructure, and operational services across more than a dozen agencies. OSTP and NOAA created the council last month to fulfill a provision in the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. The council’s charter sets the “aspirational goal” of enabling the development of world-leading meteorological services through an “Earth systems approach” that spans from “local weather to global climate.”

Academies Assessing Pandemic Impacts on Women in STEM

A new fast-track National Academies study kicks off on Monday to examine potential impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the careers of women in STEM. The effort will build on a study released by the Academies in February on the underrepresentation of women in STEM and take into account how the pandemic is exacerbating existing barriers, such as disproportionate child and family caregiving responsibilities. At the kickoff meeting, study members will hear from members of the prior study as well as from representatives of the new study’s sponsors, which include the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Sloan Foundation, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The study committee is chaired by Eve Higginbotham, the inaugural vice dean for inclusion and diversity at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school.

Fusion Planning Continues, New Power Plant Study Kicks Off 

The Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee is meeting on Monday to continue deliberations on the long-range strategic plan it is preparing for the Department of Energy, including a recap of last week’s virtual workshop that explored ways to merge the research community’s separate visions for fusion energy research and fundamental plasma science. The committee will also hear a presentation on “power generation investment considerations” from an energy industry executive. Separately, a National Academies committee tasked by DOE with mapping out the path to building a fusion pilot plant in the U.S. is holding its first meeting on Wednesday. The study is a follow-on to the Academies’ 2019 strategic plan for burning plasma research and will focus on identifying technical and logistical advances needed to develop a pilot plant that are independent of the plasma confinement approach used. DOE has encouraged the committee to seek input from “potential ‘future owners’ of power plants,” such as utility companies.

Astronomers Issuing Satellite Interference Mitigation Plan

On Tuesday, the American Astronomical Society and the National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) are releasing a report recommending actions to protect telescopes from optical interference created by new large-scale constellations of commercial satellites. The report is based on a workshop held earlier this summer that convened more than 250 astronomers, satellite operators, dark-sky advocates, and other stakeholders to assess the impacts of systems comprising thousands of satellites that are planned by companies such as SpaceX and Amazon. The briefing will include representatives of NOIRLab, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, and Steward Observatory. (AAS is an AIP Member Society.)

Astro2020 Survey Checks In With Sponsors 

The steering committee of the 2020 decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics is meeting in open session on Tuesday with its sponsors from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy. The agency representatives will provide updates on their budget guidance to the committee, among other matters. At the kickoff meeting for the decadal survey last July, the sponsors urged the committee to present an "ambitious" vision and offered notional budget scenarios for it to consider, and this week’s meeting may shed light on whether the coronavirus pandemic or any other factors have altered their outlook. The committee is currently aiming to complete its report by spring 2021.

Flagship European X-Ray Source Reopens Following Upgrade

The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, is resuming user service on Aug. 25, following a €150 million upgrade project called the Extremely Brilliant Source. The upgrade increased the luminosity and coherence of the facility’s synchrotron light source by a factor of 100, allowing faster and higher-quality X-ray studies of matter down to the atomic scale. Work on the upgrade has been underway since 2015 and the synchrotron was shut down in December 2018 to accommodate construction. Associated upgrades to several of the facility’s beamlines will continue over the next two to three years. In the U.S., the Advanced Photon Source, a peer facility at Argonne National Lab, is currently in the middle of its own upgrade that will enable it to achieve similar beam characteristics. That project will involve a one year shutdown that is expected to begin in 2022.

In Case You Missed It

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Under Secretary of State Keith Krach

Under Secretary of State Keith Krach

(Image credit – Ronny Przysucha / State Department)

State Department Warns Universities About Links to China

Keith Krach, the under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, sent a letter to the governing boards of U.S. universities on Aug. 18 urging they drop investments in Chinese firms from their endowment portfolios. Citing financial risks, ethical considerations, and Chinese government efforts to exert “authoritarian influence” on U.S. educational institutions, he argued that divestment is a “moral obligation, and perhaps even a fiduciary duty.” Beyond endowments, he also characterized Chinese government-backed talent recruitment efforts as a threat to intellectual property, writing, “Just as our fine institutions vet employees for scientific rigor or allegations of plagiarism, we also must vet for financial conflicts of interest and foreign sources of funding.” In an interview posted to his personal website, Krach, who formerly chaired Purdue University’s board of trustees, said the response to the letter has been “really appreciative.” While the State Department letter is advisory in tone, the Department of Education and congressional Republicans have been undertaking a more aggressive probe of a number of universities, alleging they have not properly disclosed funding they are receiving from foreign countries, including China.

NIH Pressures Grantee to Investigate Blacklisted Chinese Lab

Last week, the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reported that the National Institutes of Health sent a letter to EcoHealth Alliance in early July stating the agency would restore a suspended grant if the organization helped investigate its collaborators at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. The grant, which funded research on bat-borne coronaviruses, was cut off this spring after it came under fire from the White House and a number of congressional Republicans, who alleged the Wuhan institute may have unleashed COVID-19 accidentally, despite thin evidence for that scenario. In its July letter, NIH stated it had “received reports” the institute was conducting research posing “serious bio-safety concerns” and that it is concerned EcoHealth Alliance had not satisfied its “obligations to monitor” activities there. Among its demands, NIH instructed EcoHealth Alliance to arrange a third-party investigation of the institute to determine whether it worked on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 prior to the outbreak and to provide a sample of the virus the institute sequenced during the pandemic’s early phases. In an interview with Nature, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak said the agency’s demands concern matters outside the scope of the grant and that he does not have access to the information and materials in question. Harold Varmus, who led NIH under President Clinton, told the Wall Street Journal the agency’s letter is “outrageous,” remarking, “This whole episode is just a woeful attack on the traditional way NIH has maintained its integrity.”

Lawyers Challenge Federal Crackdown on Funding Nondisclosure

On Aug. 14, lawyers for University of Kansas chemistry professor Feng Tao filed a motion to dismiss charges he failed to disclose his connection with a Chinese university, arguing the Justice Department is seeking to use the case as a “new model” for it to prosecute professors “without having to produce evidence of intellectual property theft or export control violations.” Tao was first indicted last August on federal charges of wire fraud and program fraud alleging he had signed a full-time employment contract with the Chinese university without notifying his U.S. employer or the federal agencies funding his work, and two superseding indictments were filed this year. Tao’s lawyers maintain the case could “open the floodgates to a vast range of federal prosecutions for garden-variety employment disputes that otherwise would have, at most, subjected the employee to administrative discipline at work.” They also assert the government misrepresented the disclosure requirements and “strongly and falsely implied to the grand jury that Dr. Tao was a spy for China.” Last week, two Asian American civil rights organizations filed an amicus brief in support of Tao. 

NSF Funding Center to Study HBCU STEM Education 

The National Science Foundation announced last week it will provide $9 million to establish a new Broadening Participation Research Center based at Morehouse College. With participation by researchers from Spelman College and Virginia State University, the center will study 50 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to identify successful practices for undergraduate STEM education and develop evidence-based interventions to inform broad education reforms. In announcing the center, NSF noted HBCUs have a strong track record in STEM education, awarding 18% of the STEM degrees earned by Black students while representing only 8% of the Black undergraduate population. In addition, one third of all Black PhD-holders obtained bachelor’s degrees from an HBCU. NSF funds Broadening Participation Research Centers through its HBCU Undergraduate Program, which works to build STEM education and research capacity.

Acoustical Society Calls for Moratorium on Sonic Crowd Control

The Acoustical Society of America has adopted a policy statement recommending that law enforcement agencies suspend the use of acoustic hailing devices (AHDs) in crowd control applications until safeguards are put in place. ASA notes that AHDs such as Long Range Acoustic Devices, sometimes referred to as “sound cannons,” were originally developed for the military as a tool for communicating over long distances. ASA warns that at shorter distances AHDs pose potential risks to human health, including permanent hearing loss. The society urges law enforcement agencies to adopt “strict safety guidelines” prior to using AHDs that include limits on the level and duration of exposure and to put in place training procedures for device operators. The society also calls for more research on the risks of AHD use, including in “potentially untested settings such as highly reverberant urban environments.” (ASA is an AIP Member Society.)

American Academy Looks to Shore Up Science Communication

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences released the third and final report from its Public Face of Science initiative last week, recommending actions to build capacity for science communication efforts and better shape narratives about science. Among its suggestions, the report calls for higher education institutions to incorporate science communication competencies into student curricula and faculty promotion decisions and for scientific societies to build on efforts such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media fellowship program and the American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science community-building initiative. The report also recommends that societies develop action plans for how to rapidly respond to misinformation in the media and for funding institutions to support professional organizations in developing databases and networking opportunities that connect researchers with science communication practitioners.

Idaho National Lab Director Moving to Battelle

Idaho National Lab Director Mark Peters announced last week that he will be leaving his position to become executive vice president for lab operations at Battelle Memorial Institute. Battelle manages INL and six other national labs for the Department of Energy as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Peters will succeed Ron Townsend, who has served in the role since 2009 and plans to retire in January 2021. Since becoming INL director in 2015, Peters has overseen a host of activities aiming to facilitate the development of new nuclear technologies, including paving the way for projects to install a small modular reactor power plant and a demonstration microreactor on lab grounds. He also has broad experience in the DOE lab system through his current role as chair of the National Laboratory Directors’ Council and past roles at Argonne and Los Alamos National Labs.

Events this week

All times are Eastern Daylight Time and all events are virtual, unless otherwise noted. Listings do not imply endorsement.

Thursday, August 27

 
White House: Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services kickoff meeting
 
10:00 am - 2:00 pm
 
1:00 - 4:30 pm
 
2:00 - 3:00 pm
 
3:00 - 3:45 pm

Saturday, August 29

 
7:00 - 8:30 pm

Monday, August 31

 
FLC: Federal Laboratory Consortium National Meeting (continues through Thursday)
 
Explore Mars: Humans to Mars Summit (continues through Thursday)
 
11:00 am - 12:30 pm
 

Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.

Opportunities

DOD Seeking Input on STEM Education 

The Department of Defense is seeking input from businesses, universities, and non-profits on effective approaches in STEM education, outreach, and workforce development. DOD is specifically interested in programs connected to its priority science and technology areas, ways to transition postsecondary STEM students into the defense industrial base, and metrics for assessing program impacts, among other matters. Submissions are due Aug. 28. 

OSTP Accepting Comments on PNT Resilience

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is seeking comments to inform a national R&D plan for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) resilience. The plan will focus on developing PNT systems that are “resilient to interference and manipulation and that are not dependent upon global navigation satellite systems.” Comments are due Sept. 9. 

DOD Commissioning Assessment of Dual-use Technology Transfer

The Department of Defense is seeking recommendations on institutes of higher education with expertise in economics and intellectual property law who are interested in assessing the department’s “contracting and intellectual property management policies and their effects on the commercialization of and innovation in dual-use technology.” The assessment was called for in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Submissions are due Sept. 18.

 

For additional opportunities, please visit www.aip.org/fyi/opportunities. Know of an opportunity for scientists to engage in science policy? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.

Around the web

News and views currently in circulation. Links do not imply endorsement.

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