The Week of August 3, 2020

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

The Week of August 3, 2020

The Week Ahead

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View of the U.S. Capitol building through trees.

Image credit – Senate Democrats

Talks Continue on Next Coronavirus Bill

As Congress and the White House negotiate the contents of the fourth major COVID-19 response bill, a number of research-focused measures are on the table. Senate Republicans introduced legislation last week that proposes $10 billion to address disruptions to research funded by the National Institutes of Health and $1.5 billion for NASA to cover pandemic-related expenses incurred by contractors. It also includes an additional $5 billion for NIH and $307 million for the Department of Energy to support R&D related to COVID-19. In the House, Democrats passed legislation in May that proposes $4.7 billion for NIH of which $4 billion is for research recovery, and $125 million for the National Science Foundation to support COVID-19 R&D. Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers from both parties are proposing that the legislation include $25 billion for research recovery distributed across a broader set of agencies. Some also wish to use the bill as a vehicle to advance significant R&D policy initiatives. One piece of the Senate Republican’s draft package includes the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, the American Mineral Security Act, and a modified version of the CHIPS for America Act. For details on supplemental funding proposals, consult FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Nuclear Regulatory Reform Push Continues in Senate

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a hearing on Wednesday to discuss a draft version of the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act, which was introduced last week by Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-WY). Building on Barasso’s Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, which was enacted in 2019, the bill aims to smooth the licensing process for advanced nuclear technologies and associated fuels. The bill would also establish a Department of Energy prize competition for the first operating permit for an advanced reactor, support the production of high-assay low-enriched uranium, and authorize creation of a strategic uranium reserve. To support existing power plants, the bill would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a “carbon emissions avoidance program” that would provide financial support to facilities that are “at risk of premature shutdown due to economic factors.” 

NSF Physical Sciences Advisory Committee Convening

The advisory committee for the National Science Foundation’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate is meeting virtually on Wednesday and Friday, culminating in a discussion with new NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. Sessions will focus on the directorate’s role in promoting “Industries of the Future” such as artificial intelligence and quantum information sciences as well as the impacts of COVID-19 on the research enterprise. The panel will also vote to approve a forthcoming committee of visitors review of the directorate’s chemistry division, following up on its last assessment in 2016.

In Case You Missed It

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The High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Lab during one of its frequent refueling operations.

The High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Lab during one of its frequent refueling operations.

(Image credit – Genevieve Martin / ORNL)

Panel Urges Refit of Oak Ridge Reactor, Planning for New Facility

The Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee approved a subcommittee report last week recommending that preparations begin immediately to replace the pressure vessel of the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Lab. Berkeley physicist Bob Birgeneau, who led the subcommittee, said that while the theoretical lifespan of the current vessel stretches to 2060, its integrity has degraded significantly over time and should be replaced much sooner to guard against any potential failure. He said the subcommittee also recommends converting the reactor from using highly enriched uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium during the renovation in order to satisfy U.S. commitments to reducing nuclear proliferation risks. HFIR is the larger of two reactor-based neutron scattering facilities currently operating at U.S. government labs and is also the sole production center for a number of important radioactive isotopes. Birgeneau said the subcommittee further recommends that studies begin soon for a new reactor that is specifically designed to use low-enriched uranium, observing it would likely be “several decades” before such a facility could begin operating. He suggested that starting the planning process now would help hedge against the possibility of HFIR closing prematurely, which he said would be “devastating” for U.S. researchers.

DOE Announces New Solar Fuels Research Hubs

The Department of Energy announced last week that it will provide $100 million over five years for two multi-institution research partnerships through its Fuels From Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub program, which awarded its first hub in 2010 to a group led by Caltech. While that award is now expiring, Caltech will retain a major stake in the program, leading the $60 million Liquid Sunlight Alliance, a partnership with three national labs that will use computational modeling and advanced imaging techniques such as ultrafast x-rays to identify more efficient ways to convert sunlight into fuel. The remaining $40 million will go to a new Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will focus on developing hybrid photoelectrodes that combine semiconductors with molecular catalysts to absorb light and convert it to fuel.

Questions Remain Over NSF Graduate Fellowship Priorities

The National Science Foundation is facing continued pushback over its inclusion of discipline-specific priorities in its recent solicitation of applications for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Responding to a wave of criticism over the solicitation, NSF issued a statement on July 28 emphasizing that it continues to encourage applications across all fields of science, while explaining that the priorities reflect a “move to align with a coordinated federal strategy to secure America’s position as a global leader in research and innovation in artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and other emergent areas.” It argued that such prioritization is not unusual, noting it has previously “underscored agency-wide areas of emphasis while continuing to support a broad range of research.” However, the statement sparked another round of questions on social media, such as how the prioritization would bear on the application review process. Responding to a query from FYI, NSF would not directly state whether it is merely encouraging applications that incorporate the priority areas or if such applications would have a higher chance of being funded. A petition calling on NSF to rescind the priorities has garnered over 3,000 signatures, arguing that the program has historically supported outstanding emerging scientists regardless of what discipline they are interested in.

House Intelligence Panel Proposes to Expand S&T Analysis

The House Intelligence Committee approved broad policy legislation last week that contains a number of provisions focused on expanding analysis of global trends in science and technology. The bill would require the director of national intelligence to report to Congress annually on R&D activities by “adversaries” of the U.S. and to provide recommendations for increasing federal efforts to analyze open-source S&T information. The assessment would comment on the feasibility of establishing a program dedicated to open-source S&T intelligence collection, co-locating technical intelligence officers with staff from outside of the intelligence community, and “training a dedicated open-source intelligence officer cadre composed of language experts and science and technology experts.” The bill would also mandate a National Intelligence Estimate on the “threat of global pandemic disease” and a plan for permanently establishing a Climate Security Intelligence Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, building on the recently established Climate Security Advisory Council. The Senate has included a separate set of intelligence policy updates in its version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense policy bill that last year also served as a vehicle for a parallel intelligence policy update. 

IP Protection Bill Looks to Expand Visa Denial Tools

Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced legislation on July 30 that would expand the government’s ability to deport or bar entry to foreign nationals who are connected to the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property. Specifically, the bill would enable the deportation of any individual who has “engaged in, is engaged, or at any time after admission engages in any activity that violates or evades any law prohibiting the export from the U.S. of goods, technology, or sensitive information; or violates any law of the U.S. relating to the theft or misappropriation of trade secrets or economic espionage.” It would also enable agencies to deny visas to individuals whom they have “reasonable grounds to believe” have or will engage in such activity. A press release accompanying the bill cites Grassley’s ongoing probe of foreign government exploitation of federally funded research as part of the motivation for the measure. It also states the senators are “examining ways to screen federal grant applicants to better identify researchers seeking to misappropriate intellectual property.” 

Think Tank Flags ‘Problematic’ US–China Research Collaborations

A report released last week by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University, offers a framework for U.S. research institutions to more carefully vet potential collaborators in light of the risk that ostensibly civilian institutions abroad may also support rival military organizations. The report also identifies 254 recent research papers that were produced through collaborations between U.S. institutions and China’s “Seven Sons of National Defense,” a set of universities that have a history of extensive ties with the Chinese military. The report asserts that some of the Chinese authors obfuscated their ties to defense programs, raising concerns that the research in question may have ultimately benefited the Chinese military. Given the current state of strategic competition between the U.S. and China, the report suggests that collaborations with the seven universities are “presumptively problematic, irrespective of whether the research is intended for beneficial civilian use.” Accordingly, it  proposes the U.S. build on a recent presidential proclamation restricting the issuance of visas to Chinese graduate students and researchers who have ever been associated with an institution that supports China’s “military-civil fusion” strategy. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered opening remarks at a launch event for the report.

House Passes Spending Package Over White House Objections 

On a vote of 217 to 197 last week, the House passed a bundle of six bills that would provide fiscal year 2021 appropriations for a majority of federal science agencies. Among the hundreds of floor amendments offered, the House included a provision sponsored by House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) that would provide funding for the National Academies to assess the “influence of systemic racism in academia.” Representatives did not include a bipartisan amendment offered by Science Committee members that would have provided NASA an additional $2.6 billion, matching the agency’s topline budget request. The White House cited this funding gap in a July 30 memo explaining the administration’s objections to the bill, stating it provides “insufficient” funding for NASA’s human exploration programs. Conversely, the administration indicates it “strongly opposes” the $23.5 billion in emergency spending included for the Department of Energy and expresses concerns about the funding increase proposed for the National Science Foundation. It also objects to prohibitions on modifying indirect cost policies and preparing for a nuclear test that produces explosive yield.

Senate Passes Space Weather Bill

The Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act by unanimous consent last week, sending it to the House, where a separate version of the legislation has been under consideration. A similar bill made it most of the way through the legislative process in 2018 and there appears to be little opposition to the current effort to finish work on it. The legislation codifies existing multi-agency activities under the National Space Weather Program and would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor coronal mass ejections, which it plans to do with two spacecraft targeted for launch in 2024 through its Space Weather Follow On program.

Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Coordinate Carbon Removal R&D

At a hearing last week, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) announced her introduction of the Carbon Removal, Efficient Agencies, Technology Expertise (CREATE) Act with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). The legislation would establish a new interagency committee to develop a research strategy encompassing both natural and technological approaches to large-scale carbon capture and storage, including direct air capture, direct ocean capture, afforestation, soil carbon management, enhanced carbon mineralization, and bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration. At the hearing, Murkowski and Committee Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) also highlighted legislation they advanced last year that would substantially reform the Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy’s R&D portfolio, including by creating a dedicated carbon removal program. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz lauded both efforts in testimony he delivered at the hearing, urging a rapid scale-up in carbon removal efforts across federal agencies.

Events this week

Tuesday, August 4

 
 
Aspen Strategy Group: Aspen Security Forum (continues through Thursday)
 
10:00 - 11:15 am
 
11:00 am
 
11:00 am - 12:00 pm

Wednesday, August 5

 
8:30 - 10:00 am 
 
10:00 am, Environment and Public Works Committee (106 Dirksen Office Building)
 
11:00 am, Oversight and Reform Committee
 
12:15 - 4:30 pm
 
1:00 - 4:00 pm

Thursday, August 6

 
9:00 am, Armed Services Committee (G50 Dirksen Office Building)
 
10:00 am - 12:00 pm
 
1:00 - 2:00 pm

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

Opportunities

Science Debate Developing State-Level S&T Questionnaires 

Science Debate and the National Science Policy Network are collaborating with state-based groups across the U.S. to develop and distribute “regionally tailored, nonpartisan questions” on science, technology, and health policy priorities to political candidates running in the upcoming November elections. Candidate responses will be posted online to inform voter choices. To contribute to this initiative, email contact [at] scipolnetwork.org.

Earth and Life Sciences Division Seeking Associate Director

The National Academies is hiring an associate director for its Division on Earth and Life Studies, which conducts policy research on topics such as atmospheric sciences and climate, chemical sciences and technology, and nuclear materials. The incumbent will support the division’s executive director in overseeing a range of projects. Applicants must have a doctoral degree in a related field and 10 years of related experience. 

AIP Accepting Nominations for International Leadership Medal

The American Institute of Physics is accepting nominations for the 2020 John Torrence Tate Medal for International Leadership in Physics. Established in 1959, the medal is awarded every two years to non-U.S. citizens for their leadership, research contributions, and service to the international physics community. The award also includes a $10,000 prize. Nominations are due Oct. 1.

 

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.

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