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The Week of August 7
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 7
Congress in Recess Until September, President Leaves Town
Washington will slow down starting this week as Congress takes its standard month-long August recess and President Trump begins a two-week period away from the White House. When Congress comes back into session on Sept. 5, the focus will be on budget and appropriations, which are progressing far behind schedule. Before leaving town, the House passed a four-bill appropriations “minibus” package that included funding for the Department of Energy and Department of Defense, but that measure advanced without the bipartisan support that will be necessary to win passage in the Senate. Leaders will have less than a month to reach agreement on a plan to extend government funding in order to avoid a shutdown of the federal agencies at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
DOD Outlines Research & Engineering Reorganization Plans
The Department of Defense released its plans last week for placing the department’s S&T activities under a new position of under secretary for research and engineering (USD(R&E)). DOD expects to implement the reorganization by Feb. 1, 2018, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. Last year, the department resisted the change on the grounds that technology development and acquisition are closely interlinked functions. Now, it is looking to use the reorganization to foster a stronger culture of innovation. Accordingly, it is placing many of its Third Offset initiatives and priorities under a new assistant secretary for advanced capabilities reporting to the USD(R&E). Most research functions, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will be placed under a separate assistant secretary for research and technology.
Currently, there is a single assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering (ASD(R&E)) position, which reports to the under secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics (USD(AT&L)). On Aug. 1, the Senate confirmed Ellen Lord to be the new USD(AT&L) on a voice vote. Following the reorganization, she will transition to a second new position, under secretary for acquisition and sustainment. DefenseNews reports that DOD is closing in on a nominee who would move into the USD(R&E) role.
Trump Backs Immigration Bill Favoring STEM Workers
At an Aug. 2 press conference, President Trump endorsed a bill sponsored by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-OK) and David Perdue (R-GA) that would significantly scale back the number of legal immigrants granted green cards each year and implement a points-based system for employmen-based immigration that favors highly skilled workers who demonstrate English proficiency. Applicants with master’s, professional, or doctorate degrees in STEM subjects would score higher, with further bonuses awarded if the degrees were granted by U.S. institutions. The system would also provide a large point bonus to applicants who are Nobel laureates or who have “received comparable recognition in a field of scientific or social scientific study.” House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) endorsed the bill, saying it would ensure the U.S. “admits those with the highest training and abilities to spur economic growth and innovation.” However, it is unlikely that the bill could garner enough votes to pass in its present form as it has already drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) has cast doubt on the wisdom of the overall proposal, although he also indicated he would support an immigration system overhaul that focuses on workforce needs in research and engineering fields, among other areas.
DOE Deputy Secretary Confirmed, Under Secretary Nominees Advance
On Aug. 3, shortly before adjourning for August recess, the Senate confirmed Dan Brouillette as deputy secretary of energy on a vote of 79 to 17. Brouillette was nominated on April 3, and he is only the second Trump administration Senate-confirmed appointee to join the Department of Energy. The same day, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to advance the nominations of Paul Dabbar and Mark Menezes to be DOE’s under secretary for science and under secretary, respectively. Since a 2013 reorganization, the under secretary for science has had jurisdiction over both the DOE Office of Science and the applied energy offices, and the position is generally referred to as the “under secretary for science and energy.” If enacted, the Senate’s recently revived “Energy and Natural Resources Act” would cement that label into law, but, for its part, DOE has signaled it wants to return to an earlier organizational structure.
Scientific Societies Question Red Team/Blue Team Climate Debate
Late last month, leaders from 16 scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt requesting a meeting to discuss his interest in holding a “red team/blue team” exercise to interrogate the state of climate science. The societies argue the peer review process already ensures conclusions are supported by sound data, and warn against the politicization of science, writing,
...the integrity of the scientific process cannot thrive when policymakers — regardless of party affiliation — use policy disagreements as a pretext to challenge scientific conclusions.
National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and AGU President Eric Davidson published an article in Eos on Aug. 2 on how the field of climate science has evolved from skepticism to consensus. They question whether anything new would be gleaned from the red team/blue team approach and list a series of “procedural questions” bearing on the efficacy of such an exercise.