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The Week of February 18
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of February 18
Clouds Lift for Science Agencies as Budget Impasse Ends
President Trump signed legislation last week that provides funding through Sept. 30 to all federal agencies that had been operating on stopgap appropriations since last October. Science agencies that were swept up in the government shutdown last month will receive steady or increased funding for their major research accounts under the agreement. For details, consult FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker. Now that agencies finally know their total appropriation for the year, they will be freer to distribute funds and reschedule activities cancelled due to the shutdown. Nevertheless, the shutdown’s impacts are expected to continue reverberating across the U.S. research enterprise for months as agencies work to make up for lost time.
Droegemeier Outlines ‘Three Pillars’ for Policy in First Speech
Kelvin Droegemeier delivered his first public remarks as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Feb. 15 at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. In his address, he identified three “pillars” on which a new “bold era” in science and technology would rest. The first pillar is to conceive of the U.S. “research enterprise” in a holistic way and think in terms of “thematic portfolios” rather than discrete scientific fields and research programs. Droegemeier said such an approach would make R&D more potent and multidisciplinary, maximizing the “use of available dollars.” The second pillar involves developing more effective partnerships between the government, industry, and academia, reforming intellectual property policies, and relieving administrative burdens on research. The third pillar entails tackling the lack of diversity within the sciences and combating harassment to ensure that research environments are “safe, welcoming, and accommodating.” He said it also includes ensuring that “resources do not fall into the hands of those attempting to do us harm or those who would seek to reap the benefits of our hard work without doing hard work themselves.”
Trump Administration Launches Artificial Intelligence Initiative
President Trump signed an executive order on Feb. 11 that establishes high-level principles and objectives for the federal government’s investments in artificial intelligence (AI). Building on a previously issued budget priorities memorandum, the order directs agencies to prioritize AI R&D efforts in their budget submissions to the White House. It also instructs agencies to take specific actions to promote AI research and workforce development, such as inventorying data and models to increase their usability for AI researchers. Trump also signed a non-public memorandum entitled “Protecting the United States Advantage in Artificial Intelligence and Related Critical Technologies,” which aims to safeguard “economic and national security interests against strategic competitors and foreign adversaries.” In concert with these actions, the Department of Defense released a summary of its AI strategy.
Science Committee Climate Hearing Sets New Tone
The House Science Committee’s hearing on climate change last week marked a shift from the contentiousness that has characterized its hearings on the subject in recent years. Although a few Republican committee members continued to challenge the scientific consensus, Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) did not, saying in his opening statement that climate change has “intensified” droughts and heat waves and that “global industrial activity has played a role.” Citing the relevance of these impacts to farmers, Lucas said the government should “prioritize” research on how climate change affects short and long-term weather patterns. Democratic members generally urged a stronger policy response, with Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) citing the recent National Climate Assessment as evidence that humans are warming the planet at an “alarming” rate. However, members from both parties called for technological innovation in carbon capture, advanced nuclear reactors, renewable energy sources, and battery storage, among other energy technologies. Panel participants also called for further research to improve understanding in climate sensitivity, ice sheet physics, connections between climate and weather, and between health and climate.
Senate Passes USGS Bills as Part of Lands Package
On Feb. 12, the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act by a vote of 92 to 8, sending the legislation to the House. Also referred to as a “lands package,” the bill incorporates more than 100 bills related to public lands and natural resources, including ones that direct the U.S. Geological Survey to establish a national volcano early warning system and reauthorize the agency’s national cooperative geologic mapping program. In a statement, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) noted the bills in the package were crafted in consultation with the House Natural Resources Committee. Bills from the previous Congress promoting earthquake and landslide preparedness have been reintroduced but are not included in the package.
NSF Board Mulls Future of US Science Enterprise
To inform its work on a new strategic vision document, the National Science Board invited two former board members, Barry Barish and Anita Jones, to its meeting last week to comment on challenges and opportunities facing the U.S. research enterprise. They stressed that the National Science Foundation will have to navigate an increasingly global R&D enterprise characterized by both heightened cooperation and competition. Jones, who formerly oversaw research programs at the Defense Department, expressed interest in NSF articulating what it means to productively collaborate with scientists from countries that are considered to be national competitors. Barish argued cooperation will increasingly be required in science given that the U.S. will no longer dominate the world in terms of its total R&D investments, saying the U.S. should instead focus on remaining the “place of choice” to do science. Both also recommended that NSF change its grantmaking policies to enable greater risk-taking, with Jones citing the flexibility granted to program managers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a model to consider. They also encouraged NSF to consider new ways of supporting the availability of research data.
McNutt Pushes For Research Integrity Board
In an article published in Nature on Feb. 11, National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and several research integrity experts call for the creation of a standing integrity advisory board to address significant shortcomings of the existing research integrity system in the U.S. They argue the board should not be a government entity and that it should develop and promote best practices for maintaining and enforcing integrity rather than investigating instances of misconduct. They note that several National Academies studies have proposed creating such a body, most recently in the 2017 report, “Fostering Integrity in Research.” To further promote the idea, the National Academies will hold a plenary session on the trustworthiness of science at its annual meeting in April and is proposing to hold a follow-on stakeholder meeting in late 2019 to better define what such an effort would entail.
Scientific Societies Form Consortium on Sexual Harassment
A group of 53 professional societies announced last week that they have formally established a consortium to further their efforts to address sexual harassment in STEM fields and medicine. Through the new body, the societies will seek to create “impactful resources and guidance to address sexual harassment in the member societies' own operations and more broadly within the fields they represent.” Their initial efforts will focus on developing “model policies and procedures for society honors and awards.” AIP and several of its Member Societies are participating in the initiative.
NOAA Nominee’s Company Settled Harassment Accusations
A Pennsylvania newspaper reported last week that in June 2018 the weather forecasting company AccuWeather settled a Labor Department complaint alleging it “discriminated against female employees by subjecting them to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.” The company’s CEO at the time of the settlement and up until this year was Barry Myers, President Trump’s nominee to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Under the settlement, signed by AccuWeather President Joel Myers, Barry Myers’ brother, the company agrees to distribute $290,000 among 39 individuals it had already agreed to compensate, although the company continues to deny the allegations. There are no signs as yet the complaint will further hinder Myers’ nomination, which has been stalled in the Senate since fall 2017. However, combating sexual harassment in science has recently emerged as a bipartisan priority. In light of the news, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) called on Trump to withdraw the nomination. Senate Democrats have opposed the nomination on the grounds that Myers cannot completely disentangle himself from potential conflicts between his family’s interests in AccuWeather and NOAA’s public mission.
New NOAA Weather Satellite Now Operational
(Image credit – NOAA)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that its state-of-the-art weather satellite, GOES-17, completed its post-launch testing and is now operational as GOES West, providing advanced geostationary coverage over the western part of the U.S. Working in tandem with GOES East, the satellite will offer weather forecasters improved observations over the Pacific Ocean, including high-resolution imaging of hurricanes, wildfires, volcano ash, and other hazards. Launched in March 2018, the satellite began transmitting data in November but technical problems with its main instrument delayed its entry into operation. NOAA now estimates the instrument will be able to provide 97 percent of the data it was designed to collect.
NASA Concludes Mars Opportunity Mission
Following a half-year of unsuccessful attempts to contact the Opportunity rover on Mars, NASA officially ended the mission on Feb. 13. Opportunity ceased sending signals to Earth last June during a planet-wide dust storm that prevented the rover from using its solar panels to recharge its power supply. Although Opportunity and a twin rover called Spirit were originally scheduled to operate for 90 days following their landing on Mars in 2004, both endured far longer. Spirit finally ceased functioning in 2010, while Opportunity continued on for another eight years, collecting a trove of geological data across a variety of terrains. The final combined lifecycle cost of both rovers ultimately amounted to about $1.1 billion. NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012, continues to explore the Martian surface. Next year, NASA plans to launch its Mars 2020 rover, and the European Space Agency is expected to launch its newly named Rosalind Franklin rover at about the same time.
NASA Selects New Small-Scale Astrophysics Mission
On Feb. 13, NASA announced its selection for the next mission in its Astrophysics Division’s Explorers program: the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx). A collaboration between Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SPHEREx will map the sky with unprecedented spectral resolution, yielding insights into the early development of the universe and the Milky Way galaxy. The two-year mission is targeted to launch in 2023 and cost $242 million, excluding launch costs. The Explorers program supports the division’s smaller-scale missions, which are designed and managed by external teams and subjected to a strict cost cap.