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The Week of December 4
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 4
The House Science Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), and a fourth space telescope mission NASA would select sometime after 2020. The witness lineup will be Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; Cristina Chaplain, director for acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office; Thomas Young, former director of the Goddard Space Flight Center and former president of Martin Marietta; Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which will operate JWST; and Chris McKee, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who will testify on behalf of the National Academies. The discussion is apt to range from the potential capabilities of next-generation telescope concepts to how NASA will descope WFIRST to rein in rising cost estimates.
Also on Wednesday, the House Science Committee is holding a separate hearing to review the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. The purpose of the hearing is to discuss I-Corps’“goal of preparing scientists and engineers to extend their research from lab to market, to examine the successes and challenges of the program, and to discuss recommendations for the future of I-Corps and its role in the innovation ecosystem.” Congress recently directed NSF to expand the program. The hearing witnesses are Dawn Tilbury, the new head of NSF’s Engineering Directorate; Steve Blank, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University; Dean Chang, the principal investigator for the D.C. I-Corps Regional Node; and Sue Carter, a physics professor and director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The Senate authorization committee with jurisdiction over the National Institutes of Health is meeting on Thursday to review progress in implementing the 21st Century Cures Act. The witnesses are NIH Director Francis Collins and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Collins and Gottlieb reflected on the act’s one-year anniversary last Thursday at a similar hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. During that hearing, Collins expressed his gratitude to Congress for establishing the NIH Innovation Fund, which he said provides 10 years of “consistent support” for projects such as the BRAIN and Cancer Moonshot Initiatives. He emphasized the importance of the stable funding for these projects, remarking that “it is often difficult to see a path for sustained funding in year-to-year appropriations.”
Pruitt to Discuss EPA’s Mission with House Committee
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will meet on Thursday with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to discuss the agency’s mission. Committee members are likely to raise the role and use of science at the agency. As Pruitt works to roll back tens of major federal environmental regulations, he is making significant changes to how EPA presents and uses science, including by overhauling its scientific advisory board system and removing agency websites devoted to climate change. In addition, Pruitt is planning a “red team/blue team” exercise, in which the merits of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change would be debated by dueling experts before the public.
USGCRP Advisory Committee Meeting at National Academies
On Monday and Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate will host an advisory committee meeting for the U.S. Global Change Research Program that includes a lineup of industry, academic, and government leaders in climate change research and policy. Topics include the effort to launch a sustained National Climate Assessment, national security needs for sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasting, and the recently enacted Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, among others.
With federal spending set to expire on Dec. 9, Congress will have to act by the end of this week to prevent a shutdown of the federal government. House leaders introduced legislation over the weekend that would extend the current continuing resolution funding the government through Dec. 22 to buy extra time for negotiations on a final deal covering federal budget caps and fiscal year 2018 appropriations. Leading lawmakers and President Trump are currently struggling to reconcile significant outstanding differences on a slew of policy and budget issues including the appropriate balance of defense and nondefense discretionary spending levels for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
The Senate passed its version of a tax overhaul bill by a vote of 51 to 49 in the early morning hours of Dec. 2. The legislation now heads to a conference committee where appointed members of the House and Senate will seek to reconcile the many differences between their respective bills. The House is expected to vote on a slate of conferees today, and the Senate to follow suit shortly afterward. Prior to final passage of the Senate bill, over 50 scientific and engineering societies urged the Senate to preserve a set of education incentives that the House bill would eliminate, including the tax-exempt treatment of graduate student tuition waivers. The final Senate bill did retain these incentives.
Politico reports that Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), chair of the committee that has jurisdiction over tax policy, said he will work to craft a “positive solution on tuition assistance in conference,” and that Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have said they are confident the House provision will not make it into the final bill. Among the other research-related provisions to reconcile, business groups have raised concerns that last minute changes made to the Senate bill may have unintentionally undercut companies’ ability to leverage the R&D tax credit.
NOAA Nominee Myers Embraces Climate Science, Addresses Conflicts of Interest
At his Nov. 29 confirmation hearing, NOAA administrator nominee Barry Myers testified to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that two of his top priorities as head of NOAA will be regaining American weather model superiority and implementing the recently enacted Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act. Saying scientific integrity would be a “core value” of his leadership, Myers touted his longtime membership of the American Meteorological Society (an AIP Member Society) as evidence of his engagement with the scientific community. When asked by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) about his views on the recently released Climate Change Special Report. Myers concurred that humans are the primary driver of global climate change and pointed to AMS’ consensus statement on climate change. Facing a number of questions about his potential conflicts of interest, Myers promised to “completely separate” himself from AccuWeather, the private weather company he leads, and attested his “interests will be solely those of the American people.”
At last week’s meeting of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), Department of Energy official Glen Crawford discussed a new review of the department’s current portfolio of high energy physics (HEP) experiments that will evaluate their “scientific impact and productivity.” As it strategizes for fiscal year 2019 and beyond, DOE intends to use the review to inform its prioritization of its HEP experiments, including its contributions to experiments outside the U.S. Crawford explained the review was partially motivated by the prospective decisions the office confronted after President Trump proposed to cut its budget by 18 percent. Additional information can be found at the HEPAP website.
Also at the HEPAP meeting, Eric Colby, another DOE official, provided an update on the “laboratory optimization process” that the department initiated last year. That process has now completed its analysis phase and is turning toward implementation, which will entail realigning resources at national labs with anticipated needs to bolster the long-term financial sustainability of DOE’s HEP program. Slide decks from all the presentations at the meeting can be found here.
Citing Chinese advances in quantum technology and advanced computing, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) wrote in a Nov. 30 op-ed that U.S. progress is, by comparison, “slowing down.” Arguing that public funds need to be invested more “sensibly,” he complained that too much of the funding granted by the National Science Foundation is “wasted on low priority, even frivolous activities.” He singled out a number of studies in the social sciences, echoing criticisms he has previously made in hearings, while offering new proposals for NSF’s management of its portfolio in social and behavioral research. Smith calls on Congress to reduce funding for these fields by 10 to 20 percent for fiscal 2018 and shift the funds to other research areas. He also proposes that NSF set aside 10 percent of the funds it does allocate to them for validating research results and that it focus the rest on “crucial national problems,” such as multi-generational poverty, overcoming learning disabilities, and natural disaster preparedness. Democratic members of the committee have criticized Smith’s past efforts to influence how NSF apportions money between its six research directorates and have defended the agency’s work in the social sciences
On Dec. 1, House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) introduced a bill to overhaul the Higher Education Act, a law that authorizes a number of federal aid programs that support postsecondary students and academic institutions. Of note, the bill would eliminate the current law’s Title II, Part A, which authorizes the $41 million Teacher Quality Partnership Grants program supporting teacher preparation and professional development in STEM subjects. The House is expected to consider the bill early next year.
Terry Wallace To Be Next Los Alamos National Lab Director
Los Alamos National Laboratory announced on Nov. 28 that Terry Wallace will be the lab’s new director as of Jan. 1, succeeding Charlie McMillan. Wallace, who is currently the lab’s principal associate director for global security, received his PhD in geophysics from Caltech and is an expert in forensic seismology. He has previously served as the lab’s principal associate director for science, technology, and engineering, and as its associate director of strategic research. He will assume his new role at a time of transition for the laboratory, as the National Nuclear Security Administration is currently bidding out the lab’s management contract. The laboratory has also recently come under scrutiny for a series of accidents and breaches of safety protocols. In a statement, NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz said, “We look forward to working with Dr. Wallace over the next year as Los Alamos continues to deliver the leading-edge science and technology needed to support NNSA’s vital national security missions.”
New UK Industrial Strategy Focuses on R&D investment
Last month, the UK government launched a new flagship Industrial Strategy, which has as one of its aims making the UK the world’s foremost innovative nation by 2030. As part of this strategy, the government aims to increase the rate of GDP investment in R&D from 1.7 to 2.4 percent by 2027, with aspirations to eventually reach 3 percent. The government also plans to invest an additional £7 billion in R&D over the next five years, strongly focused on four “grand challenges”: (1) leading in artificial intelligence, (2) capitalizing on the global shift to clean growth, (3) shaping the future of mobility, and (4) meeting the needs of an aging society. The strategy also emphasizes that the UK “has signalled its desire to seek a far-reaching science and innovation agreement with the EU that establishes a framework for future cooperation.”