The National Science Foundation is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a two day symposium this week. On Thursday, NSF Director France Córdova will moderate a panel discussion with six former directors of the agency, and the biographer of eminent electrical engineer Vannevar Bush will reflect on the legacy of “Science, the Endless Frontier,” Bush’s landmark 1945 report that led to the creation of NSF in 1950. Leaders of several federal science agencies will also discuss the “importance of forming partnerships to address national priorities,” with a focus on quantum science, artificial intelligence, and the future of work. The first day will conclude with remarks from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. The second day will feature panel discussions on NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, the agency’s role in supporting “Industries of the Future,” and the National Science Board’s forthcoming Vision 2030 report.
On Thursday, top federal law enforcement officials are speaking at a conference on the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which is focused on curbing misappropriation of U.S. research and technology by the Chinese government. The event comes on the heels of last week’s high-profile arrest of Harvard University Chemistry Department Chair Charles Lieber, who is accused of lying to federal investigators about receiving large sums of money from a Chinese talent recruitment program and failing to disclose the funding to federal science agencies. Failures to disclose such information are apparently widespread and more than a dozen scientists are known to have resigned or been fired from their jobs as a result of recent investigations by the National Institutes of Health. Among the speakers at the conference are Attorney General William Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Mike Lauer, and Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman.
The Solar Orbiter, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency, is set to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida as soon as Sunday. NASA is providing $386 million for the mission, about half its total cost, covering its launch as well as two of the spacecraft’s instruments. After a series of orbital maneuvers, Solar Orbiter will begin making passes over the Sun’s polar regions in 2025. Its unprecedented observations will complement those made by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018 and just completed its fourth flyby of the Sun, breaking its own record for solar proximity. Meanwhile, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii has just released the sharpest-ever images of the Sun’s surface, made after the telescope achieved first light in December. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the facility cost $344 million to build and is scheduled to begin full scientific operations this summer.
On Wednesday, the House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee is holding a hearing on the Department of Energy’s role in advancing the biomedical sciences. Subcommittee Chair Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has made the topic a priority, and through spending legislation for fiscal year 2020, the subcommittee directed the DOE Office of Science to expand collaborations with the National Institutes of Health and to address recommendations from a 2016 task force report on the subject. Former NIH Director Harold Varmus, who co-chaired the task force, will testify at the hearing along with Mark Chance, director of Case Western University’s Center for Proteomics and Bioinformatics, and Narayanan Kasthuri, a neuroscientist at Argonne National Lab.
The House Science Committee is holding a hearing on Wednesday to discuss “management and spending challenges” in the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Lawmakers have raised concerns that staffing levels at the office have declined since the beginning of the Trump administration even as Congress has increased its budget substantially. The office has also come under scrutiny for delaying grant awards and failing to spend appropriated funds. The committee will hear from Daniel Simmons, the head of EERE; Charles Gay, a former director of EERE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office; Anthony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union; and Arjun Krishnaswami, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has documented anomalies in EERE’s spending.
The House Science Committee is holding a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the cross-agency Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which aim to spur commercialization of innovations arising from research. All federal agencies are required to allocate a percentage of their budgets to SBIR if they have extramural R&D budgets that are more than $100 million, and for STTR more than $1 billion. The director of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate and a co-chair of a National Academies study on the Department of Energy’s SBIR and STTR programs are among the witnesses who will testify at the hearing.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the National Academies is holding the kickoff meeting for a new study titled, “Biological Physics/Physics of Living Systems: A Decadal Survey.” The survey will highlight recent developments in biophysical sciences and identify gaps in current knowledge and emerging research opportunities. It will also outline workforce needs and recommend ways to “realize the full potential” of the field, including how science agencies can better bridge disciplinary boundaries. The study committee is chaired by Princeton University physics professor William Bialek.
On Tuesday, the National Science Foundation will announce the top seven entries from its “Idea Machine” competition, which solicited broad public input on potential future research directions for the agency. The teams that proposed the top four entries will each receive a $26,000 prize and the next three will each receive a $10,000 prize. All seven will also be recognized at this week’s meeting of the National Science Board. The Idea Machine was one of the “10 Big Ideas” advanced under the directorship of France Córdova, who is delivering a “farewell retrospective” at the board meeting as her six-year term approaches its conclusion in March.
Republican members of the House Science Committee introduced a major policy bill last week that they are framing as a response to “Chinese threats to American science and technology leadership and a changing climate.” The legislation is endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and, among many other provisions, it recommends roughly doubling the budgets of select science agencies by fiscal year 2029, including:
At a hearing on U.S. competitiveness in critical technology areas, Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) said he hopes the bill will “start a bipartisan conversation about what we need to do to ensure America's lead in the technological revolution of the 21st century.” Last year, committee Republicans resisted proposals by their Democratic colleagues to increase funding for applied energy R&D, voicing a preference for supporting “basic” research. However, until now the Republicans had not signaled interest in funding increases of this breadth or magnitude.
While Republicans are focusing on innovation as the linchpin of their response to climate change, Democrats are taking a broader approach. Democratic leaders on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released draft legislation last week that seeks to decarbonize the U.S. economy with the goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Much of the 622 page bill concerns energy generation requirements and efficiency incentives and also includes some R&D-focused provisions. The bill would direct the National Academies to develop metrics for tracking progress toward the decarbonization goal across industry, power generation, transportation, buildings and land use sectors. It would also create a new position at the Department of Energy to oversee industrial decarbonization efforts and direct DOE to support carbon capture and utilization technology demonstrations, including at least one direct air capture project. It further directs DOE to establish a pilot program that would initiate at least one long-term power purchase agreement for “first-of-a-kind or early deployment nuclear technologies.” House Democrats also unveiled a separate infrastructure plan last week that includes climate change mitigation in the transportation sector as a major goal.
The House Science Committee’s new bipartisan NASA policy bill was amended by its Space Subcommittee last week and sent on to the full panel by voice vote. Among its numerous provisions, the legislation sets out a “Moon-to-Mars” agenda for NASA that pushes back on key tenets of the agency’s Artemis lunar program, including by deprioritizing exploitation of lunar resources and requiring NASA to own its crewed lunar lander. Explaining her goals for the bill, Subcommittee Chair Kendra Horn (D-OK) said that NASA has not adequately articulated its plans for the Moon and how they relate to the crewed exploration of Mars. At the same time, she insisted the bill is not a rejection of Artemis. Though it directs NASA to undertake a crewed lunar landing by 2028, she said the agency is free to continue pursuing an earlier target. Subcommittee Ranking Member Brian Babin (R-TX) said that, although he disagrees with aspects of the bill, committee Republicans have signed on to ensure they are in a position to help shape it moving forward. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who attended the meeting as an audience member, has expressed concern about the “significant constraints” the bill would place on the agency and indicated he would like to work with the committee as they continue to develop it.
The National Academies has released the midterm assessment of the 2013 heliophysics decadal survey, which conveyed the research community’s priorities to NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The assessment concludes a majority of actions the survey called for have been implemented or are in progress, but notes that progress has been hindered by slower-than-expected budget growth, leadership turnover at federal agencies, and launch delays. For instance, the report observes the budget for NASA’s Heliophysics Division has declined over the past five years after accounting for inflation, pushing back some projects, and that the National Science Foundation has not yet provided funding to establish the Heliophysics Science Centers recommended by the survey. The co-chairs of the assessment panel are presenting their findings and recommendations at a webinar on Monday afternoon. Moving forward, the assessment calls for NASA and NSF to develop an implementation roadmap that responds to the new National Space Weather Action Plan, create funding opportunities that “bridge established divisional boundaries,” and support collection of demographic data to inform a panel dedicated to the state of the profession in the next decadal survey.
On Jan. 28, the White House announced President Trump intends to appoint Theresa Mayer and Hussein Tawbi to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, bringing its current number of members to 11 out of an expected total of 16. Mayer, an electrical engineer, is the executive vice president for research at Purdue University and previously served as vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech. Tawbi, who is originally from Lebanon, is an oncologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and an expert in the translation of biomedical research into clinical applications.
A study released last week titled “STEM and the American Workforce” estimates that 69% of U.S. gross domestic product is connected to STEM fields. The study was conducted by FTI Consulting and supported by 10 scientific organizations including the American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, and American Physical Society (an AIP Member Society). Taking a broad view of STEM occupations, the study notes it considered the impact of “all jobs that rely heavily on science, technology, engineering, and math, regardless of the level of educational attainment required of the employee.” Pointing to the study’s finding that 6 out of 10 U.S. STEM professionals do not have a bachelor’s degree, AGU Executive Director Chris McEntee wrote in the magazine Eos that the figure illuminates “how attainable it can be to pursue a career in the STEM workforce and to promote a more diverse and inclusive STEM pipeline.”
Frank Press, a White House science advisor and longtime president of the National Academy of Sciences, died on Jan. 29 at the age of 95. Press earned a doctorate in geophysics from Columbia University in 1949 and subsequently held faculty positions at Columbia, MIT, and Caltech. An expert in seismology, Press advised the U.S. government on the detection of underground nuclear tests and served on delegations that negotiated the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He was a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1961 to 1964 and the governing board of the National Science Foundation from 1970 to 1976. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter picked Press as his science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, less than a year after its establishment. Among Press’ initiatives in the role was initiating the exchange of students with China, shortly after it opened diplomatic relations with the U.S. Press became president of the National Academy of Sciences in 1981, and held the job until 1993. An advocate for more thoughtful policymaking, in 1988 he criticized “sniping and carping” among scientists vying for funding and he led a 1995 National Academies study that urged the government to prioritize research spending across agencies. President Bill Clinton awarded Press the National Medal of Science in 1994.
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The Science and Technology Policy Institute is seeking applicants for a research analyst position. The institute works with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and federal science agencies to develop and evaluate national policies and initiatives. Applicants must have a doctorate in a science or engineering field and at least five years of subsequent research or policy experience. Submissions are due Feb. 22.
The National Academies is seeking a director for its Board on Army Research and Development as well as a senior program officer for its Naval Studies Board. Applicants for the director position must have a doctoral degree and at least ten years of experience in a relevant field. A master’s degree and six years of relevant experience are required for the program officer position.
The Washington Post is hiring a science reporter to cover space and physical sciences, primarily in the areas of astronomy and planetary science. Also part of the reporter’s beat are “physics at the largest and smallest dimensions” as well as “the role of research at NASA and other science-related agencies.” Applications are due Feb. 14.