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The Week of February 19
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 19
Nuclear Security Experts Convening for Deterrence Summit
Top officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Defense Department, and the nuclear weapons laboratories are convening in Arlington, Virginia, this week for the tenth annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. They will have much to discuss, as the Trump administration recently released its Nuclear Posture Review and has requested a $2.2 billion increase in the NNSA’s budget for fiscal year 2019, a 17 percent increase over the fiscal year 2017 enacted level. Among the speakers is Terry Wallace, the recently appointed director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who will reflect on how the nuclear weapons labs are addressing challenges such as aging infrastructure, governance transitions, and complex construction projects.
National Science Board Holding First Meeting of the Year
On Wednesday and Thursday, the governing board of the National Science Foundation is holding its first meeting of the year. Several of the open session agenda items are education focused, including discussion of a recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences report on the “Future of Undergraduate Education”, a presentation on the “Grow with Google” workforce training program, and reflection on the board’s recent policy statement on building a STEM-capable workforce. Other agenda items include a status update on the fiscal year 2018 and 2019 budgets, implementation of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, efforts to expand engagement with the private sector and state policymakers. In closed session, the board will hear updates on the status of various facilities and take a vote related to the proposed creation of a National Center for Optical-Infrared Astronomy.
National Academies Committee to Chart Future of Separations Science
A new National Academies study committee will hold its kickoff meeting on Tuesday for a project to develop an agenda for fundamental research in the science of chemical separations. The committee will examine “the intersections between chemistry, biochemistry, materials, physics, engineering, and information science that will be essential for scientific practice.” It will also address future educational and workforce requirements, needs and opportunities for instrumentation, tools, and user facilities. In addition, it will assess potential applications in technology and industrial practice. The committee is chaired by Joan Brennecke, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
NASA Planetary Science Advisory Committee Convening
NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee is meeting Wednesday through Friday. It will be the panel’s first meeting since the release of NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, which proposes to increase the agency’s Planetary Science Division budget by about $400 million and outlines plans for new lunar research and asteroid defense programs. On Wednesday, Division Director Jim Green will provide an overarching update and planetary geologist Sarah Noble will speak for one hour on the lunar program. The committee will also discuss the division’s recent restructuring of its research and analysis program as well as the National Academies review of that effort.
Army Research Lab Review Kicking Off
A National Academies committee charged with completing a biennial assessment of the quality of the R&D and analysis programs at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) will be holding its kickoff meeting on Friday. ARL Director Philip Perconti, who was appointed to the position last April, and ARL Deputy Chief Scientist Mary Harper will provide the committee with an overview of the previous assessment and offer guidance for this year’s report. The chair of the committee is Jennie Hwang, CEO of H-Technologies Group, a global advisory firm focused on business strategy and technology assessment.
Research Reproducibility Study Committee Holding Second Meeting
On Thursday and Friday, the National Academies committee studying reproducibility and replicability issues in science will be holding its second meeting, at which it will hear further perspectives on its charge. Speakers will address questions such as the prevalence of reproducibility and replicability difficulties across the sciences and engineering disciplines and how they bear on the well-being and public perception of different fields. Among the speakers will be Stanford University medical professor John Ioannidis, who played an early role in focusing attention on research replicability as a systematic problem. Brian Nosek, director of the Center for Open Science, will also be speaking, as will Dan Sarewitz, a science policy scholar and co-director of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. Christie Aschwanden of FiveThirtyEight and Laura Helmuth of the Washington Post will discuss how journalists are reporting on the subject.
National Space Council to Discuss Regulatory Reform
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence will convene the second meeting of the National Space Council at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Titled “Moon, Mars, and Worlds Beyond: Winning the Next Frontier,” according to NASA the meeting will include “testimonials from leaders in the civil, commercial, and national security sectors about the importance of the United States’ space enterprise.” SpaceNews reports that regulatory reform is expected to be central to the discussion.
CCST Hosting S&T Week at California Capitol
The California Council for Science and Technology will be hosting an S&T Week starting Tuesday at the California State Legislature in Sacramento to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the council’s founding. Events include a showcase of policy-relevant science being conducted at California universities, an expert briefing on “makerspaces” in STEM classrooms, and an awards ceremony recognizing state legislators who have incorporated S&T advice into impactful policymaking. CCST will also be promoting a new report on resources and expertise offered by federal labs and research centers in California.
Scientific Organizations Raise Concerns About FY19 Budget
Following a budget deal that all but guarantees huge government spending increases over the next two years, the Trump administration made a last-minute addendum to its budget request for fiscal year 2019 that spares the Department of Energy Office of Science, National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health from deep cuts. However, other science agencies and programs, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, would still see double-digit decreases under the proposal.
The American Physical Society stated that the final proposal “fails to recognize the importance of NIST to America’s research ecosystem.” The Optical Society has also expressed concerns about the cuts to NIST as well as the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The American Astronomical Society voiced alarm over the proposed cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the highest priority space-based mission identified by the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, vowing to “defend the important role of the decadal surveys in helping set federal spending priorities.” (APS, OSA, and AAS are AIP Member Societies.)
Full details of the budget request for a handful of agencies, including DOE, are not yet available. DOE, however, has issued a “Budget in Brief” that provides additional details.
Senate Confirms Top-Level Defense R&D Officials
Before departing for a week-long recess on Feb. 15, the Senate confirmed by voice vote a large slate of presidential nominations. Among them were Lisa Gordon-Hagerty to be head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Mike Griffin to be under secretary of defense for research and engineering, and Will Roper to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. In her new position, Gordon-Hagerty will lead the stewardship of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads, which includes overseeing the national security laboratories responsible for verifying those weapons’ safety and reliability. Griffin will be in charge of the Defense Department’s research, development, test, and evaluation activities, and will look in particular to improve the translation of technology development projects into successful acquisition programs. Roper will aim to advance a similar agenda within the Air Force. His new position gives him responsibility over the service branch’s research and engineering activities as well as its acquisition programs.
NOAA Nominee Also Approved, No Vote on Myers
Within the same package of nominees, the Senate also confirmed Panasonic Avionics Chief Atmospheric Scientist Neil Jacobs to be assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the role, Jacobs will serve as NOAA chief forecaster and oversee the agency’s multi-billion dollar weather prediction and observations apparatus. Absent from the package was Barry Myers, President Trump’s pick for the top post at NOAA. As voice votes cannot be used for controversial nominees, there was no chance that Myers’ nomination or that of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be NASA administrator would have been included. While Bridenstine reportedly lacks the votes for confirmation at present, it remains unclear whether Myers has sufficient support.
R&D Counterintelligence and Competitiveness Concerns Aired at Threats Hearing
The Senate Intelligence Committee held its annual hearing on worldwide threats last week. While much of the discussion revolved around Russian interference in the 2016 election, senators also drew attention to other matters, including U.S. competitiveness in R&D. Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) mentioned the “counterintelligence threat to our national academic research and laboratory construct” in his opening statement and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about counterintelligence risks posed by Chinese nationals studying STEM subjects. Wray replied that “nontraditional collectors” such as students and professors are “exploiting the very open research and development environment we have,” and said the bureau is working to raise awareness within academia and the private sector about the issue. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, “Where is our national Manhattan program for A.I. and quantum computing that will match the Chinese?” Coates replied that the subject is better suited for a classified session.
DOE Infrastructure and Low Dose Radiation Bills Head to Senate
On Feb. 13, the House approved by voice vote a set of bills authorizing funding for several Department of Energy user facility upgrades and construction projects. The report accompanying the legislation summarizes the House Science Committee’s rationale for strongly supporting the projects. The House also passed by voice vote a bill directing DOE to reestablish a research program on the effects of low dose radiation.
The Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee held a hearing on Feb. 15 to discuss workforce development opportunities such as mentoring, training, and apprenticeships. Witnesses testified about how these programs can help address the skill gaps and shortages in the skilled technical workforce — STEM jobs that do not require a four-year degree — and enhance student engagement with STEM subjects at all levels. Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-VA) expressed strong support for such programs and hinted at possible legislation focused on the skilled technical workforce. Comstock also highlighted how workforce development programs are important for generating interest in STEM fields at an early age and praised the passage of the “Building Blocks of STEM Act” on Feb. 14, which would direct the National Science Foundation to increase focus on STEM research related to young children.
Critical Minerals Supply Efforts Ramping Up
On Feb. 16, the U.S. Geological Survey released a list of 35 minerals and mineral material groups that are critical to the U.S. economy and national security. The list was published in accordance to an executive order issued last December by President Trump to reduce U.S. “vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals” that are imported for use. Specific minerals included in the list, such as helium and uranium, were identified using an early warning screening tool developed by the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains. The draft list is available for public comment through March 18. Meanwhile, Congress is moving to encourage private sector exploration, production, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals. On Feb. 15, the House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee considered a bill that would expedite the permitting process for critical minerals. The House already passed the “Helium Extraction Act,” which would facilitate additional helium production on federal lands, in November. Provisions in the Senate’s “Energy and Natural Resources Act” would also address critical mineral policy.