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The Week of February 12
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 February 12
FY19 Trump Budget Cuts Some Science Agencies, Spares Others Following Deal to Raise Spending
In the wake of last week’s agreement to effectively boost federal spending by $385 billion in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 (see In Case You Missed It below for the details of the deal), the Trump administration has released its budget request for fiscal year 2019, calling for cutbacks in nondefense programs, as it did last year. This year, however, the administration included a last-minute addendum, intended to guide Congress on administration priorities for the added spending authorized last week. The addendum turns back proposed cuts to a few science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institutes of Health, while leaving other cuts in place.
Below are the Trump administration’s funding proposals for several science agencies. Percentage changes are expressed relative to fiscal year 2017 enacted levels since final amounts for fiscal year 2018 are not yet set.
- DOE Office of Science: $4.2 billion, plus $1.2 billion in addendum (-22% without, 0% with)
- NASA Science Mission Directorate: $5.9 billion, plus $30 million in addendum (1.7% without, 2.3% with)
- NSF: $5.3 billion, plus $2.2 billion in addendum (-29% without, 0% with)
- Department of Defense: $2.3 billion for basic research (-0.3%), $5.1 billion for applied research (-3.7%)
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: $4.6 billion (-20%)
- National Institute of Standards and Technology: A budget summary for NIST is not yet available, but OMB estimates that R&D spending at the agency would decrease by 24 percent under the proposal. (Update: The NIST budget request document is now posted here.)
- NIH: ~$24 billion plus $9.2 billion in addendum (-28% without, 0% with)
- U.S. Geological Survey: $860 million (-21%)
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has also said that the administration will offer Congress “technical assistance” in deciding how to allocate fiscal year 2018 funding under the raised caps. Congress, however, writes the final budget and may opt to proceed without integrating White House input. Congressional appropriators largely rejected the administration's funding proposals in their spending bills for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
Trump Releases Long-Awaited Infrastructure Proposal
Alongside the fiscal year 2019 budget, the Trump administration has also released its long-anticipated infrastructure plan. It calls for $200 billion in new federal spending, offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, that it says would incentivize $1.5 trillion in spending by state and local governments and private enterprise. The plan does not include spending on scientific infrastructure, though it does propose a $20 billion Transformative Projects Program to provide competitive funding and technical assistance for “bold, innovative, and transformative infrastructure projects that could dramatically improve infrastructure.” The plan also includes measures designed to encourage apprenticeships and workforce training, including proposed reforms to the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education program. Congress will likely offer its own infrastructure proposals as part of new spending under the raised budget caps. Congressional Democrats have already released a plan calling for $1 trillion in new federal spending. And efforts are underway, among national scientific organizations and in Congress, to include scientific infrastructure in any final package.
House to Vote on DOE Infrastructure, Low Dose Radiation Bills
On Tuesday, the House is scheduled to vote on a package of three bills that would authorize almost $7 billion for construction and upgrades of user facilities managed by the Department of Energy. The funding called for in these bills could potentially be included in a future infrastructure spending package. The House is also set to vote on the “Low Dose Radiation Research Act,” which instructs DOE to reestablish its recently discontinued low dose research program, as well as on the “Building Blocks of STEM Act,” which directs the National Science Foundation to increase attention on improving STEM education for young children.
Science Committee Holding Hearing on STEM Training
The House Science Committee is convening a subcommittee hearing on Thursday to discuss how career development opportunities, such as mentoring, training, and apprenticeships, impact the growth of a diverse STEM workforce. National Science Board member Victor McCrary, who is currently leading up the board’s task force on the skilled technical workforce, will be testifying alongside John Sands, director of the National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance; Montez King, executive director of the National Institute of Metalworking Skills; and John Bardo, president of Wichita State University. NSB recently released a companion statement to its Science and Engineering Indicators 2018 report, calling for expansion of investment in formal and informal education and training programs.
Former Vice President Biden to Speak at AAAS Meeting
On Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden will be addressing the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. He will be speaking about how to push cancer research forward, a subject he championed through the Obama administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. That effort ultimately led to Congress providing $1.8 billion in new funds over seven years through the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law in December 2016. The AAAS meeting, which will run from Thursday through next Monday, will feature additional plenary lectures from AAAS President Susan Hockfield, Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, Chan Zuckerberg Science President Cori Bargmann, and prominent climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. The program will also include a track of sessions dedicated to policy matters.
Bipartisan Budget Deal Authorizes Huge Spending Increases
Congressional leaders reached agreement last week on a major, two-year deal to raise the budget caps that have constrained federal spending since 2011. The agreement effectively boosts discretionary spending by $385 billion above previously established caps over the next two years, through a combination of $165 billion in new defense spending, $131 billion in new nondefense spending, and another $89 billion in one-time spending on disaster relief. On Feb. 9, the Senate passed the final agreement on a vote of 71 to 28 and the House followed with a vote of 240 to 186. President Trump quickly signed the legislation into law, while the White House issued a statement objecting to the scale of the increase in nondefense spending.
The agreement also extends government spending through March 22, giving appropriators another six weeks to draft final legislation that will allocate funding within the new caps for fiscal year 2018 — amounting to a 14.2 percent spending increase for defense and 11.7 percent increase for nondefense over fiscal year 2017 levels. Increases of this scale will almost certainly translate into major boosts for federal science agencies and programs. National scientific and university organizations had advocated for such an outcome, including in a letter that a group of D.C.-based science advocacy coalitions sent to Congress last summer and another letter the Task Force on American Innovation (TFAI) sent to Congress last week. (Among the 95 signatories to the TFIA letter were the American Physical Society, The Optical Society, and the American Astronomical Society, all AIP Member Societies.)
Under the terms of the deal, a portion of the increases will go toward certain priorities, including rebuilding infrastructure, addressing the opioid epidemic, and the National Institutes of Health, in addition to disaster relief. The agreement also raises the nation’s debt ceiling through March 2019, and includes multiple tax credits and “extenders,” including one incentivizing the commercialization of carbon capture and sequestration.
The budget deal also incorporates $89 billion to support hurricane and wildlife recovery efforts. The push to pass another disaster aid package had stalled after the House passed its $81 billion disaster aid relief bill in December, which was never taken up by the Senate. The deal doubles the amount requested by the Trump administration in November, which lawmakers from both parties criticized as inadequate.
The legislation includes funding for several federal science agencies, including:
- $200 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which $42 million is for repairing facilities, equipment, and observing assets; $40 million for collecting new geospatial data to update maps and charts due to the significant changes to bathymetry, topography, and shorelines caused by the hurricanes; $50 million to improve weather and flood forecasting capabilities; and $50 million for improvements to weather supercomputing infrastructure and satellite ground services used for hurricane prediction;
- $16 million for the National Science Foundation to repair “radio observatory facilities,” namely Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico;
- $81 million for NASA to repair facilities and equipment at Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida;
- $42 million for the U.S. Geological Survey;
- $50 million for the National Institutes of Health for “necessary expenses related to the consequences of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and in those areas impacted by a major disaster;” and
- $13 million for the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability for “technical assistance related to electric grids.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Feb. 8 at which it considered the nomination of Lisa Gordon-Hagerty to lead the National Nuclear Security Administration, alongside three other nominations. Gordon-Hagerty said her top priorities as NNSA administrator would be modernizing the agency’s aging facilities and “recruiting, retaining, and growing the highly skilled workforce needed to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” Replying to a question about specific infrastructure priorities, she said her “number one priority” would be to address NNSA’s capacity to produce war reserve plutonium pits. Gordon-Hagerty began her career as a health physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and has served in senior national security positions at the Department of Energy and National Security Council. Pending her confirmation, she will succeed Frank Klotz, who stepped down Jan. 19. Steve Erhart, director of NNSA’s policy office, is currently serving as acting administrator.
Trump Picks Oak Ridge Physicist for Nonproliferation Job
President Trump announced his intention on Feb. 8 to nominate Brent Park to be deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Since 2010, Park has been head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Global Security Directorate, where he has been responsible for applying the lab’s scientific and engineering capabilities to problems in nuclear nonproliferation and threat reduction, arms and export control, and homeland security. Park holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Ohio University and, prior to joining Oak Ridge, worked as a researcher and manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory and as director of the Remote Sensing Laboratory at NNSA’s Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada Nuclear Security Site.
Officials Fret About Future of US Nuclear Industry
On Feb. 6, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held the second of a planned series of hearings on the “modernization” of the Department of Energy, this time focusing on the state of the U.S. nuclear industry. Energy Subcommittee Chair Fred Upton (R-MI), who is spearheading the effort to develop potentially sweeping reauthorization legislation for DOE, lamented that the U.S. is “no longer the undisputed leader in civilian nuclear technology” and stressed that the “intellectual and technical capabilities provided by a robust nuclear infrastructure” have applications far beyond commercial energy generation, such as in the national security sector. Full Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said DOE's nuclear cleanup and nuclear weapons arms should be a focus of the committee’s attention, suggesting that establishing an external oversight mechanism for them may be warranted. Ed McGinnis, the top official in the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, testified that the U.S. nuclear energy sector is in the midst of an historic downturn and has trouble deploying new reactors, although the nation is still “unequivocally the leader in the design and development of advanced reactors.” Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters said that Russia and China are “aggressively expanding” their nuclear industries while the U.S.’ “languishes,” but also struck an optimistic tone about the opportunities for leveraging the domestic innovations occurring in the advanced reactors space.
NIST Tech Transfer Policy Review to Ramp Up This Spring
Last week, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan outlined the objectives and timeline of his “Return on Investment” initiative to review federal technology transfer policies. He said there is high-level and bipartisan support in the White House and Congress for the initiative, which will be a “whole-of-government” effort with NIST serving as a stakeholder convener. NIST expects to issue a request for input by early March and to hold three stakeholder forums in March and April. It will then publish a white paper that summarizes the input received and offers recommendations on ways to reduce barriers to tech transfer, among other subjects.
NSF Issues New Reporting Requirements on Sexual Harassment
The National Science Foundation announced on Feb. 8 new reporting requirements for its grantee organizations regarding sexual harassment. While NSF has previously established expectations for grantee compliance with Title IX provisions, the agency will now require all NSF-funded institutions “to report findings of sexual harassment, or any other kind of harassment regarding a PI [principal investigator] or co/PI or any other grant personnel.” Institutions will also have to report if individuals are placed on administrative leave due to allegations of harassment. The House Science Committee has recently requested a Government Accountability Office report on how science agencies, including NSF, handle claims of sexual harassment by researchers, and has scheduled a hearing on Feb. 27 to discuss sexual harassment and misconduct in science.
SpaceX Successfully Launches Falcon Heavy Rocket
Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX conducted its first full test of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle on Feb. 6, propelling a Tesla roadster into an elliptical solar orbit that will take it out beyond the orbit of Mars. In the future, in addition to delivering large payloads into Earth orbit, the Falcon Heavy could be used to send science missions into deep space at a fraction of the cost of alternative launch systems. Late next month, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its first NASA science mission payload, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), into high Earth orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, the company’s established workhorse.