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The Week of December 11
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 December 11
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the National Academies is kicking off a major new study on “reproducibility and replicability in science,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Over the past decade, concerns have proliferated that a significant portion of the results reported in peer-reviewed research cannot stand up to scrutiny. This has led to repeated calls for greater transparency in research and the adoption of more rigorous research methods. Increasingly, members of Congress have cited these concerns in questioning the quality of research used to inform regulations and to suggest certain research fields lack credibility. The National Academies study responds specifically to a provision included in the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act enacted in January. The study will aim to define the reproducibility problem more clearly, evaluate how extensively it pervades the sciences, investigate its implications for the trustworthiness of research, and recommend reforms. The study committee is chaired by Harvey Fineberg, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and draws its membership from disciplines ranging from psychology to physics to philosophy. Remote access to the meeting is available.
Agency Leaders to Speak at National Competitiveness Forum
The U.S. Council on Competitiveness is holding its annual National Competitiveness Forum on Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C. Among the federal agency representatives speaking are National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan, Argonne National Laboratory Director Paul Kearns, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Director Steven Ashby. At the event, the council will launch an initiative titled the “National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness — Innovation at the Convergence of the Digital, Genomic, Atomic and Cognitive.” The forum agenda also includes discussion of a study on innovation models the council conducted in collaboration with NSF and the release of a report “assessing the health of the U.S. economy and updating policy recommendations for the Administration and Congress.”
Senate Panel to Vote on NOAA Nominee, Hazards Bills
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is meeting to vote on the nomination of AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At his confirmation hearing on Nov. 29, Myers pledged to respect and defend NOAA science as well as to “completely separate” himself from AccuWeather to avoid conflicts of interest, although a number of Democratic senators questioned whether his pledges would be sufficient. At the same meeting, the committee will also vote on bipartisan bills to reauthorize the interagency National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program and NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System.
DOE Solar Energy Research Set for Science Committee Scrutiny
The House Science Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday on the Department of Energy’s solar energy research programs. The event marks the committee’s return to its ongoing examination of the role of “early-stage” research in advancing energy technology. The witnesses are Daniel Simmons, currently the senior political appointee at the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; Martin Keller, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Steve Eglash, executive director for strategic research initiatives in computer science at Stanford University; and Kenny Stein, director of policy for the Institute for Energy Research, a think tank.
Hearings to Address Head Impact Trauma Research and Treatment
Two congressional committees are meeting Wednesday to discuss research, technology, and treatments for traumatic brain injuries. The House Science Committee will review the implementation of the Head Health Challenges initiative, a public–private partnership which supports advanced materials development to improve the performance of protective equipment. Among the witnesses are the heads of several companies that have participated in the initiative as well as Michael Fasolka, acting director of the Material Measurement Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Concurrently, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hear from two panels about research, diagnosis, and treatment of traumatic brain injuries in military service members.
Materials Research Decadal Survey Holding Virtual Town Hall
On Tuesday, the National Academies is holding a virtual town hall event on the in-progress decadal survey for materials research sponsored by the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation. The study committee’s three co-chairs will provide an overview of the survey process followed by invited talks from former Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Paul Alivisatos and DOE Critical Materials Institute Director Alexander King. The session will conclude with a question and answer session.
AGU Fall Meeting Convenes in New Orleans
Billed as the world’s largest gathering of Earth and space scientists, the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is convening in New Orleans from Dec. 11 to 15. The event features numerous policy-focused sessions, many of which are listed here. One such session on Monday about scientists’ role in upholding scientific integrity will feature National Academies President Marcia McNutt and U.S. Geological Survey Acting Director William Werkheiser, among other scientific community leaders. Werkheiser will also participate in a Thursday keynote panel on federal agency priorities with top officials from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Vaughan Turekian, the former science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State, will deliver a keynote lecture on Thursday on how geoscientists can play a central role in addressing international challenges that have science dimensions. The lineup of other keynote speakers is available here and a listing of public affairs-related sessions is posted here.
Trump Signs Spending Extension, Setting Up Dec. 22 Showdown
On Dec. 8, President Trump signed a continuing resolution extending federal government spending through Dec. 22. The move buys some extra time for the White House and congressional leaders to reach an agreement on fiscal year 2018 spending and other pending year-end matters. Both Republicans and Democratic leaders support lifting current spending caps to allow for additional discretionary spending, but they have not yet agreed on how to divide any increases between defense and nondefense accounts.
Societies Make Final Push to Preserve Graduate Student Tax Benefits
As Republicans work in conference committee to finalize legislation to overhaul the tax code, over 60 scientific and engineering societies sent a letter to Congress on Dec. 7. In it, they reiterate their stance that the House-passed bill’s elimination of certain higher education tax incentives would increase the financial burden on graduate students and discourage students from pursuing STEM degrees. The Senate-passed bill, on the other hand, preserves these incentives. Several of the societies, including the American Physical Society and the American Astronomical Society (both AIP Member Societies), have also issued action alerts calling on their members to urge their representatives to preserve the tax exempt treatment of graduate tuition waivers. Some House members are organizing in opposition to the provision. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) led a letter against repealing the tax benefit that garnered 30 signatures, including those of Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Committee Chair John Culberson (R-TX).
Academies Report Spotlights US Decline in High-Intensity Lasers
The National Academies released a study last week criticizing the declining U.S. position in the field of ultrafast high-intensity lasers. The study committee noted that European efforts have gained significant momentum over the last several years, stemming from a coordinated multinational investment in new facilities. The committee recommends the Department of Energy take the lead in better integrating the U.S.-based community and developing a national research strategy, and that it invest in “at least one” large-scale facility. On Dec. 12, the Optical Society (an AIP Member Society) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers are hosting a briefing on the study on Capitol Hill. On Dec. 14, the National Academies and the National Photonics Initiative are hosting a separate briefing at the Keck Center in Washington, D.C.
NASA to Order Review of Webb Telescope Launch Prep
At a Dec. 6 House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s future space telescopes, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, revealed he is ordering an independent review of pre-launch preparations for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The decision follows the announcement in September of a launch delay — the first disruption to the $8.8 billion mission’s launch date since it was re-baselined in 2011. Cristina Chaplain, a Government Accountability Office official, reported at the hearing that mission components will nearly exhaust their schedule reserves to meet a June 2019 launch date. She said that, given remaining risks, further launch delays are “likely” and that, if there is further delay, retaining the necessary workforce would cause the mission to exceed its congressionally imposed cost cap. Zurbuchen said the review will likely begin in January and that at present he still expects the mission to remain within the cap. For further details, see SpacePolicyOnline.
Pruitt Questions Science Behind Clean Power Plan
On Dec. 7, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt made his first appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Pruitt confirmed that the EPA plans to introduce a replacement rule for the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt did not say if the new plan would revisit EPA’s previous determination that carbon dioxide emissions pose a threat to human health, known as the “endangerment finding.” However, he did criticize the Obama administration’s process of arriving at the scientific finding, saying that EPA committed a “breach of process” when it “took work from the UN IPCC and transported it to the agency and adopted that as the core of the finding.” When Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) inquired if Pruitt would be using a red team/blue team approach to “get a balanced scientific understanding of the pending regulation,” he responded that it was still subject to ongoing internal review and that he hopes to announce it at the beginning of next year.
Senators Probe DOD Strategy for Linking R&D and Acquisitions
On Dec. 7, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard about ongoing acquisitions reform from top Defense Department officials, including Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics (AT&L). Early next year, she will take up a new position focused on acquisition and logistics, leaving research and engineering (R&E) to a separate under secretary. Congress and DOD are looking to maintain strong links between the two spheres. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the committee chair, said at the hearing that acquisition officials need to benefit from the same spirit of innovation that the AT&L split is intended to instill in DOD’s R&E activities. Asked by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) how DOD would overcome the “valley of death” hindering the implementation of new technologies, Lord said the objective is to “push the risk” to the R&E side. She also said that experimenting with technologies under development would improve the acquisition process and that DOD is using rapid hiring authorities to bring on thousands of scientists and engineers in both DOD labs and acquisitions. She also reiterated a point she made at the Reagan National Defense Forum a week ago that the department is looking to better focus its technical efforts on critical areas, such as hardened microelectronics, hypersonics, and cyber capabilities.