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The Week of August 6
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 6
(Image credit – NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman)
Flagship NASA Mission Ready for Journey into Sun’s Corona
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch on Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission, which is to last almost seven years, will study the Sun’s atmosphere by flying directly through it, operating far closer to the solar surface than any previous mission. It is among the most expensive science missions in NASA’s current portfolio, with an estimated lifecycle cost of $1.5 billion. Developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), it has so far proceeded on time and budget. Because the probe requires a precise, high-speed trajectory to bring it so close to the Sun, launch opportunities are fleeting. Should it miss its current launch window, which lasts until Aug. 23, the next opportunity will not open until May 2019. Following the launch, project scientist Nicky Fox will leave APL to take over as director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division.
National Academies to Release Planetary Science Priorities Update
On Tuesday, the National Academies will release its midterm assessment of its most recent planetary science decadal survey, which covers the period from 2013 to 2022. Decadal surveys are a mechanism that NASA and other federal science agencies use to gauge the research priorities of the scientific community and aid in the selection and design of science projects. Midterm assessments take stock of progress made since the survey’s release and make recommendations about how its priorities should be implemented moving forward. In 2011, the planetary science decadal survey recommended three large-scale missions for NASA to pursue: the first phase of a Mars sample return program, an orbiter to study Jupiter’s moon Europa, and an orbiter and probe to study Uranus. At present, NASA is developing its Mars 2020 mission and preparing for two missions to Europa. A Uranus mission is not currently in formulation.
AMS Meeting Focusing on Future of the Weather Enterprise
Weather community leaders from academia, industry, and government are convening this Tuesday and Wednesday for the American Meteorological Society’s 2018 Summer Community Meeting in Boulder, Colorado. The theme this year is “Expanding the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise’s Global Impact Through Enhanced Collaboration.” On Tuesday, the National Academies Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate is hosting a special workshop to discuss a study it is developing that aims to “create a shared vision for the next generation U.S. weather enterprise.” Among the workshop panelists will be National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean; Global Weather Corporation Chief Technology Officer Bill Gail; and AMS President Roger Wakimoto. Neil Jacobs, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, will be giving a keynote address. The meeting will be webcast.
(Image credit – NSF / Sandy Schaeffer)
Meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier Picked to Direct White House Science Office
On Aug. 1, President Trump announced his intention to nominate University of Oklahoma meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. An expert in the modeling and prediction of severe storms, Droegemeier also has an extensive background in science policy. He served from 2004 to 2016 as a member of the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, including four years as its vice chair. Last year, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R) appointed him to her cabinet as the state’s secretary of science and technology. He has also served as vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma since 2009. Leaders across the scientific community have welcomed his selection. It is not yet clear to what extent he will serve as science and technology advisor to the president, a role the OSTP director has traditionally performed.
White House Releases Annual R&D Priorities Memo
On July 31, the White House issued a memorandum to federal agencies that identifies R&D areas they should prioritize in formulating the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2020. Jointly produced by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget, the memo elaborates on priorities identified in last year’s version and includes new sections dedicated to advanced computing, space exploration, manufacturing, agriculture, and technology transfer. It also reiterates the administration’s view that agencies should focus on “basic and early-stage applied research.”
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee advanced legislation to establish a 10-year National Quantum Initiative (NQI) by a voice vote on Aug. 1 after making several significant changes to the House’s version of the bill through an amendment by Committee Chair John Thune (R-SD). Whereas the House bill provides a fixed total of $50 million per year to support up to five National Science Foundation quantum research centers, the Senate bill sets the annual authorized funding equal to the number of centers created multiplied by $10 million. The amendment also reduces the NQI funding authorization for the National Institute of Standards and Technology from $80 million per year to $60 million per year. Most significantly, the modified bill states the funding is “authorized to be appropriated,” whereas the House version specifies that the funding “shall” be allocated as directed. Prior to the bill markup, the American Physical Society, an AIP Member Society, expressed “strong concerns” to the committee about the NQI funding mechanism used in the House bill, arguing it would divert funding from other research areas if the agencies do not receive increases to their base budgets. The bills now await floor consideration in both chambers.
Senate Committee Looks to Future of NASA's Science Portfolio
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a subcommittee hearing on Aug. 1 dedicated to NASA’s efforts to search for signs of life on other planets in the solar system and beyond. It was also the second in a planned series of hearings leading up to the introduction of a comprehensive NASA policy bill. A subject that arose repeatedly was the implications of the James Webb Space Telescope’s history of cost and schedule overruns. Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel urged that the cost of the latest delays not fall solely on NASA’s Astrophysics Division because it would have a “devastating effect on its future missions and its scientific program.” Looking further into the future, the hearing also considered possible improvements to the decadal survey process that aids NASA in setting priorities. MIT astrophysicist and planetary scientist Sara Seager suggested the process currently favors overly complex missions as a way to satisfy as many needs of the scientific community as possible. Spergel recommended that mission concepts be studied more thoroughly before decadal surveys begin, as NASA is currently doing in preparation for the upcoming astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey.
Congress Sends Annual Defense Policy Bill to Trump
The Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act on Aug. 1 on a vote of 87 to 10, sending it to President Trump for his signature. This year, the annual defense policy bill is named after Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee but has been absent from Congress since last year as he undergoes cancer treatment in his home state. In a statement, McCain praised House and Senate leaders’ speed in moving the bill, observing it is the earliest Congress has passed it in more than 40 years. As always, the bill contains numerous provisions relating to R&D and defense technologies, which FYI will summarize in a forthcoming bulletin.
NSTC Physical Sciences Subcommittee Holds Kickoff Meeting
The National Science and Technology Council’s Physical Sciences Subcommittee held its first meeting during the Trump administration last week with a focus on discussing federal agency efforts in high energy physics, fusion energy, and low-dose radiation research. Although the subcommittee existed during the Obama administration, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act enacted in early 2017 tasked the panel with specific responsibilities in those three research areas. The subcommittee is co-chaired by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation.
Some Spending ‘Minibuses’ Move Forward, Others Still Stalled
On a vote of 92 to 6 last week, the Senate sent a four-bill “minibus” appropriations package that includes funding for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency to the House. The House has already passed a separate bill that also includes funding for those agencies. The Senate now plans to take up a two-bill minibus that includes funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department. Meanwhile, negotiations between the House and Senate on a separate three-bill minibus that includes funding for the Department of Energy have stalled. Among the issues presenting difficulties are House proposals to reopen the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and continue construction of a plutonium reprocessing facility in South Carolina.