FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
Copies of the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2021.
(Image credit – Government Publishing Office)
President Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request is set for release Monday afternoon and agencies will post more detailed documentation over the following hours and days. Administration sources have already previewed some research-related proposals to reporters. According to Reuters, the budget will propose to ramp up non-defense spending on artificial intelligence programs across agencies from a current level of $973 million to nearly $2 billion by 2022 and to double quantum information science funding to $860 million over the same period. This plan accords with proposals in the Senate’s pending Industries of the Future Act. According to Axios, the request is expected to propose a 19% increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which will include investments in “new scientific tools” related to the modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile as well as maintenance and upgrades to the agency’s infrastructure. However, Politico reports the budget will propose an 8% cut to the Department of Energy topline and around a 5% cut to overall non-defense spending across the government. NASA is expected to be one of the few non-defense agencies favored in the budget. The Wall Street Journal reports the agency plans to request a 12% increase, with most of the funds going to development of crewed lunar landing systems. Detailed figures for science agencies will be aggregated in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker as they become available.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is holding its annual meeting Thursday through Sunday in Seattle, Washington. Microsoft founder Bill Gates will deliver a plenary lecture as will the company’s general manager of quantum systems Krysta Svore. In addition, Wired journalist Maryn McKenna will speak on challenges in the use of antibiotics and Social Sciences Research Council President Alondra Nelson will discuss the need for a “new bioethics.” Among the town hall sessions is a panel on the tensions between national security and open scientific research that will feature White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. The Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy Coalition has assembled a schedule of other science policy events taking place at the meeting, which include an evening networking mixer and “shindig.” AIP has also organized a session to discuss the final report of its National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Physics in Astronomy.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday focused on the dangers posed by near-Earth objects, space weather, spacecraft collisions, and orbital debris. The panel will hear testimony from Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; William Murtagh, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, who testified to Congress on the topic late last year; Kevin O’Connell, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce; and Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Texas who has spoken about crowdsourcing space traffic monitoring. Also this week, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing specifically on “space situational awareness.” Both committees have advanced NASA policy bills this Congress that contain provisions focused on such hazards. For instance, the Senate bill would direct the White House to assess ways NASA and other agencies could better support “missions of national need.” It explains, “while certain space missions, such as asteroid detection or space debris mitigation missions, may not provide the highest-value science, as determined by the National Academies decadal surveys, such missions provide tremendous value to the United States and the world.”
On Wednesday, the House Science Committee is holding a full committee meeting to consider amendments to five bipartisan energy R&D bills: the Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act, the Clean Industrial Technology Act, the Advanced Geothermal R&D Act, the Grid Modernization R&D Act, and the Grid Security R&D Act. Also on Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is hearing testimony on six bills that aim to improve energy storage and efficiency programs, including the Promoting Grid Storage Act.
A National Academies committee charged with examining challenges to U.S. global leadership in science and innovation will hold its third meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. The meeting will feature expert panels on the U.S. manufacturing and industrial base as well as the nation’s standing in four “key S&T fields”: artificial intelligence and machine learning, computing devices, clean energy, and synthetic and engineering biology. In addition, President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren will present on international science and technology agreements, while weapons of mass destruction expert Gerald Epstein will discuss export, investment, and classification controls for technologies. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has become a frequent adviser to the U.S. government on innovation issues, will also address the committee.
On Wednesday, the primary advisory committee for the National Institute of Standards and Technology will hear a series of presentations on current priorities of the agency’s laboratory and manufacturing programs. James Kushmerick, who recently became director of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory, will update the committee on the nascent Quantum Economic Development Consortium and the agency’s quantum standards work. Other presentations will cover programs in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, the "bioeconomy," and advanced manufacturing.
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FBI Director Christopher Wray.
(Image credit – FBI)
At a conference last week, top Justice Department officials discussed the increasing pace of prosecutions under the department’s “China Initiative,” which aims to blunt efforts by the Chinese government to influence and exploit the U.S. research system. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who indicted Harvard University Chemistry Department Chair Charles Lieber last month, predicted there would be a “spike” in cases this year as the department seeks to “sensitize” researchers in academia and industry to the problem. Lelling acknowledged the prosecutions would likely have a “chilling effect” on scientific collaborations, but he argued the approach is warranted given that the Chinese government has “launched a massive nationwide effort to pilfer U.S. technology and know-how.” Speaking about the government’s broader approach, FBI Director Christopher Wray outlined efforts to raise awareness about risks posed by the Chinese government, such as a summit the FBI held with university leaders last fall. Meanwhile, critics of the department’s initiative have said the prosecutions are heavy-handed. Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer representing more than a dozen scientists under investigation, told the New York Times that few cases have alleged inappropriate technology transfers and are focused instead on nondisclosure of foreign research support. “Until very recently, nobody paid any attention [to the disclosure forms]. Now they’re cracking the whip and they’re treating these people like felons,” he said.
Last week, the White House National Quantum Coordination Office published a “strategic vision” for U.S. R&D efforts in quantum networking, which entails methods for transporting quantum information through optical communication infrastructure. The document outlines two overarching goals and six priority R&D areas, anticipating that the U.S. will ultimately construct a “quantum internet.” The first goal, to be pursued over five years, is to “demonstrate the foundational science and key technologies to enable quantum networks, from quantum interconnects, quantum repeaters, and quantum memories to high-throughput quantum channels and exploration of space-based entanglement distribution across intercontinental distances.” The second, which has a 20 year horizon, is to “leverage networked quantum devices to enable new capabilities not possible with classical technology, while advancing our understanding of the role entanglement plays.”
Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Director Daniel Simmons appeared at a House Science Committee hearing on Feb. 5 to explain the office’s understaffing and carryover of $820 million in unspent fiscal year 2019 funds. Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chair Bill Foster (D-IL) also specifically suggested political officials had circumvented career staff by cancelling, rewriting, and reissuing a solar energy research grant, as described in a committee staff report. Republican committee members disagreed that there is evidence of political interference, with Subcommittee Ranking Member Ralph Norman (R-SC) saying the carryover of funds is common and that political appointees are entitled to review grants. Simmons attributed the spending delays to the length of the grantmaking process. He also expressed frustration with federal hiring processes and testified that his staff size has remained at 550 full time equivalents despite recruitment efforts over the past year. In its fiscal year 2020 appropriation, Congress has directed EERE to increase its staff size to 675 to 700 full time equivalents by the end of September.
The House Science Committee held a hearing last week to discuss potential modifications to the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. In her opening statement, Research and Technology Subcommittee Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) discussed pending legislation she is sponsoring that would direct the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and NASA to adopt a “phase zero” pilot program currently in place at the National Institutes of Health that funds entrepreneurial training and the identification of research concepts with commercial potential. The bill would also direct agencies to prioritize projects related to manufacturing and cybersecurity. Separately, the House Small Business Committee has shown interest in updating the programs in recent years and is holding a hearing Tuesday on the “innovation pipeline from universities to small businesses.”
President Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4 briefly touched on issues in education, medical research, and space exploration. He mentioned a plan to offer vocational and technical education in “every single high school in America” and alluded to recently enacted legislation that made permanent a $255 million funding stream for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He praised funding for “new cures for childhood cancer” and efforts to eradicate AIDS in America. Trump also asked Congress to fully fund NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, which will require escalated funding in the coming budget cycle. He cast Artemis and follow-on Mars exploration as part of what he called America’s “manifest destiny in the stars,” invoking a term that was historically used to justify the violence of frontier settlement. Trump did not mention his administration’s focus on the “industries of the future,” a subject he briefly mentioned in last year’s State of the Union that later became a central plank of the administration’s science and technology policy.
Last week, the National Science Foundation announced seven winners of its 2026 Idea Machine prize competition, which “encouraged individuals from all walks of life, age 14 or older, to submit pressing ‘grand challenges’ requiring fundamental research in science, engineering, or STEM education in order to inform NSF’s long-term planning.” Four of the entries won grand prizes, each worth $26,000:
Three other entries received prizes of $10,000 each:
NSF also announced that it will accept proposal submissions for conferences and exploratory research grants on the themes that emerged in the top group of Idea Machine entries.
Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
The American Geophysical Union is accepting recommendations for candidates to serve as its next Chief Executive Officer. The search committee aims to begin interviewing candidates in the spring and make its selection by summer.
The National Science Policy Network and the Journal of Science Policy and Governance have launched their second annual policy memo writing competition for teams of early career scientists. The top three teams will receive monetary awards to support science policy activities. Submissions are due April 1.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is accepting applications for a part-time associate for its Innovation and Economic Prosperity Program. Preference will be given to individuals with an interest in university-based economic development who submit applications before Feb. 14.
For additional opportunities, please visit www.aip.org/fyi/opportunities. Know of an opportunity for scientists to engage in science policy? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
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