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The Week of December 3
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of December 3
(Image credit – White House)
Funding for Many Science Agencies Set to Expire Friday
The stopgap spending measure currently funding many federal agencies expires on Friday. To avoid a partial government shutdown, Congress must agree either to extend the measure or, less likely, finalize appropriations for agencies that were not yet funded at the beginning of fiscal year 2019 on Oct. 1. These agencies include NASA, the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Geological Survey. An extension of stopgap funding could be short-term, buying time for a final agreement, or it could leave the matter to the new Congress, which begins Jan. 3. Trump has repeated earlier threats to demand funding for a border wall as a precondition for signing spending legislation. However, he has since said he is open to a short stopgap in light of the death of former President George H. W. Bush. A shutdown will ensue if a spending agreement is not reached or if Congress cannot muster support to override any presidential veto. If a shutdown does occur, the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and National Institutes of Health would not be directly affected because their funding for the fiscal year has already been enacted.
UPDATE: Congress has reached a deal to extend stopgap funding until Dec. 21.
White House to Release STEM Education Strategic Plan
On Tuesday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is releasing a congressionally mandated five-year interagency strategic plan for federal STEM education programs. The report will update the first five-year strategic plan, which was released in 2013. Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said last week that, whereas the previous plan focused on increasing the number of students pursuing traditional post-secondary STEM degrees, the new report will emphasize “the need to ensure that all Americans have a strong STEM foundation, even those who are not pursuing a STEM degree as we know it now.” Agency officials scheduled to attend a White House release event include the National Science Foundation director, NASA administrator, acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture, and the director of defense research and engineering for research and technology.
Senate Panel to Examine ‘Non-Traditional’ Espionage by China
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a full committee hearing on Wednesday titled “China’s Non-Traditional Espionage Against the United States: The Threat and Potential Policy Responses.” It comes in the wake of a report by Reuters last week that the Trump administration may implement new visa screening measures for Chinese students due to espionage concerns. The administration has asserted the Chinese government uses Chinese nationals in the U.S. as “non-traditional information collectors” as part of its efforts to acquire technology and technical knowledge through both legal and illegal means. China’s ambassador to the U.S. told Reuters that accusations about Chinese students being spies are groundless, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chair Judy Chu (D-CA) said she is “extremely concerned about the stereotyping and scapegoating of Chinese students and professors.”
UPDATE: This event has been postponed.
DOE Fusion Program Starting New Strategic Planning Effort
The Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) Advisory Committee is dedicating much of its meeting this Thursday and Friday to discussing a new long-range strategic planning activity. DOE will charge the committee with developing a strategic plan for the entire FES portfolio under multiple budget scenarios. In announcing the effort last month, FES acknowledged that two recent similar planning exercises failed to garner broad research community support. The new effort will be modeled on the high energy physics community’s “P5” process and the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee’s 2015 long-range plan. FES believes now is an opportune time to develop a comprehensive long-range plan in part because significant funding increases appropriated by Congress over the past two years have bolstered the program. Other items on this week’s meeting agenda include discussion of the plasma science decadal survey launched by the National Academies in October and a roundtable on quantum information science held by FES in May.
Quantum Computing Feasibility Report Set for Release
The National Academies is issuing a report this week on the technical feasibility of creating a “practical” quantum computer and the security implications of such a device. Study committee chair Mark Horowitz, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University, and committee members John Martinis and Bob Blakely will answer questions about the report during a public webinar on Tuesday. According to the statement of task, the report estimates development timescales for quantum computing and quantum-resistant encryption and assesses the associated “costs and benefits from a national security perspective.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence sponsored the study.
Senate Spending Panel to Spotlight Advanced Reactors
On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing that will examine the Department of Energy’s role in supporting the development of advanced nuclear reactors. Senators will hear from Edward McGinnis, the top official in the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy; Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Christina Back, vice president for nuclear technologies and materials at General Atomics. The hearing continues a series the subcommittee has held to discuss the future of the U.S. nuclear energy industry, which has struggled in recent decades.
UPDATE: This event has been postponed.
(Image credit – NASA / Bill Ingalls)
NASA Reveals Commercial Lunar Lander Partners
At a media event on Nov. 29, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen announced nine U.S.-based companies eligible for contracts to convey scientific instrumentation and technology demonstration payloads to the surface of the Moon. They range from established space players such as Lockheed Martin and Draper to new entrepreneurial ventures. NASA has said it will issue contracts totaling a maximum of $2.6 billion over 10 years for the program and could launch the program’s first mission as early as next year. Not all the companies will necessarily receive contracts. Bridenstine said he hopes competition among them will spur innovation in finding economical ways to deliver payloads and that NASA will be only one of their customers. He also emphasized the missions are intended to reestablish the Moon as a place for research, but that, consistent with the program’s entrepreneurial aims, he does not expect every mission to succeed.
Astro2020 Decadal Survey Leadership Announced
The National Academies announced on Nov. 28 that astronomers Fiona Harrison and Robert Kennicutt will co-chair the next decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics. The survey, due for release in late 2020, will convey the research priorities of the astrophysical sciences community to NASA, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy to guide their planning. Harrison is a professor of physics and astronomy at Caltech and chair of its Division of Physics and Mathematics. She also chairs the National Academies Space Studies Board and is principal investigator of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission. Kennicutt currently holds appointments at the University of Arizona Steward Observatory and Texas A&M University. Until his retirement last year, he had been Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University, where he also directed its Institute of Astronomy. Harrison and Kennicutt will assume responsibility over ongoing preparations for the survey, which include recruiting survey committee members, deciding on the survey’s panel structure, and gathering an initial round of community input via white papers.
Administration Claims Climate Report Relied on ‘Worst-Case Scenario’
Various Trump administration officials have adopted similar talking points on the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), claiming the report based its conclusions on a “worst-case scenario” for future greenhouse gas levels. Extending previous White House statements, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested in a Nov. 28 interview with the Washington Post that the Obama administration may have interfered with the report’s production by directing the study’s authors to use such a scenario. The EPA quickly issued a “fact check” reinforcing Wheeler’s statement, citing a 2015 memo stipulating the use of “a low-end and a high-end scenario.” The Obama White House official tasked with overseeing the initiation of NCA4, John Holdren, has denied political interference, calling Wheeler’s insinuation “absolutely false.”
Lucas Picked to Lead Science Committee Republicans
House Republicans have selected Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) to be ranking member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee in the upcoming Congress, replacing retiring Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) as the committee’s top Republican. In a statement, Lucas said he looks forward to “holding the new majority accountable and promoting a conservative agenda.” Last month, Lucas called the Science Committee a “fun committee with so much potential in a body that’s become more difficult to work in.” He also said weather observation and forecasting would be an ongoing priority for him. Lucas sponsored the bipartisan Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. This past May, he sponsored a bipartisan bill supporting the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, defying the Trump administration’s proposal to shut it down. However, he has also backed divisive efforts, including taking a leading role in advancing legislation to change how the EPA integrates science into its rulemaking and selects members of its Science Advisory Board.
National Quantum Initiative Bill Gaining Steam in Senate
Prospects for passage of legislation this year to create a National Quantum Initiative increased with the introduction of a Senate bill last week covering the Department of Energy component of the initiative. The bill would direct the DOE Office of Science to create between two and five quantum information science research centers and recommends a budget of up to $25 million annually for each over five years. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee also posted a report last week to accompany the National Quantum Initiative bill it approved this summer. That bill contains provisions specific to the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology. It is anticipated the Senate will fuse the two committees’ bills and attempt to reconcile them with the House version.
NSF Previews Potential Physics Infrastructure Priorities
Anne Kinney, the head of the National Science Foundation’s Math and Physical Sciences Directorate, briefly previewed the directorate’s potential priorities for new major research infrastructure at a meeting of the National Science Board last week. In an overview presentation on the directorate’s portfolio, Kinney identified six projects that are “pending community prioritization”: the U.S. Extremely Large Telescope Program, Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 experiment, Next Generation Very Large Array, a 60 Tesla superconducting magnet, an upgrade to the IceCube neutrino observatory, and a further upgrade to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory called SuperLIGO. For the nearer term, she noted the high luminosity upgrades for detectors at the Large Hadron Collider have almost completed their design review. This summer, the board authorized NSF to request funding for the LHC upgrades in a future budget request.
Review Recommends NIST Consider New Research Reactor
The National Academies released an assessment last week of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research (NCNR). The review committee notes NIST’s current research reactor is a half-century old and that “as a matter of simple prudence, a plan needs to be developed that will ensure that NCNR users have the neutrons they need into the indefinite future.” Between continuing to operate the existing reactor, upgrading it, and replacing it, the committee deems the first two options as “inferior” to the third. Accordingly, it recommends NCNR commission a “detailed assessment” of the current facility and begin designing a new one. The assessment states that last year an internal NCNR study estimated such a facility would cost about $1 billion and take 15 years to complete. In October, NIST Director Walter Copan told the agency’s principal advisory committee that the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Academies are interested in working with NIST to conduct a “national study” of a potential new federally supported reactor-based neutron scattering facility.
Earthquake Hazards Bill Moves to President's Desk
The House passed the “National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Reauthorization Act” by voice vote on Nov. 27, sending the bipartisan bill to the president’s desk the same week a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Alaska. The Senate passed the bill in September by unanimous consent after adopting the text of a companion bill sponsored by outgoing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) recommending $25 million more in funding over five years than the original Senate version. Sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the bill provides the first reauthorization for NEHRP in 15 years and prescribes improvements in earthquake preparedness and the development of a five-year management plan for the Advanced National Seismic System.
Air Force Advisory Board Completes S&T Strategy Review
The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board has completed a classified study that identifies key technologies for investment to “provide technologically superior warfighting capabilities.” A publicly available abstract of the report, titled “Maintaining Technology Superiority for the U.S. Air Force,” has been released. To advance these technologies, which are not publicly identified, the board calls on the Air Force to “substantially refocus” its science and technology budget. Meanwhile, the Air Force has been developing a separate long-term S&T strategy, which has been delayed.
Energy Innovation CEO Group Advocates for ARPA–E Model
The American Energy Innovation Council, an advocacy group led by 11 prominent U.S. business leaders, released a report on Nov. 28 offering a new “roadmap” for federal funding for clean energy R&D. The report analyzes U.S. and worldwide energy R&D trends and recommends the federal government invest $16 billion per year in “advanced energy innovation.” It also recommends the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy receive a minimum budget of $400 million in fiscal year 2020, and that in general it should be funded at $1 billion per year. The agency’s current budget is $366 million. The report also recommends DOE “work smarter — along the ARPA–E model where appropriate,” and establish regionally centered innovation programs and a program for “high-impact pilot projects.”
George H. W. Bush Administration Saw Major Turns in Science Policy
(Image credit - courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Bromley collection)
Former President George H. W. Bush died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94. Under his presidency, U.S. science policy shifted in new directions, in many cases with lasting influence. Directed by science advisor Allan Bromley, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy reversed a decline in staffing and resources. The White House Science Council, which reported to the OSTP director, was transformed into the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, reporting directly to the president. At the Cold War’s conclusion, the Bush administration funded military R&D at record-high levels, though it scaled back and reconfigured the Strategic Defense Initiative, President Reagan’s controversial ballistic missile defense program. Bush also oversaw significant investment in Earth science, signing legislation that established the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and initiating NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth program. Bush also appointed NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who profoundly shaped the agency’s science mission planning through his “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy. Bush supported the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider and he signed the High Performance Computing Act, establishing a national computing initiative that became a model for similar interagency R&D efforts to follow.