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The Week of February 5
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 5
FY18 Spending Deadline Arrives Once Again
A stopgap measure that is funding the federal government at fiscal year 2017 levels is set to expire on Thursday at midnight. House Republican leaders plan to advance a six-week funding extension through March 22, and could vote on it as soon as Tuesday, although it is unclear if the Senate will support that approach. An extension is necessary to keep the government’s lights on, and will buy leaders more time to resolve outstanding differences on immigration policy and discretionary spending levels, two issues impeding a final fiscal year 2018 spending agreement. The Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight is holding a hearing this week to examine the negative effects of such extensions and government shutdowns. At a Senate hearing last week, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova described the detrimental effects of government shutdowns on the agency.
FY19 Budget, Workforce Reduction Plans Set for Feb. 12 Release
Meanwhile, absent further delays, the Trump administration is set to release its budget request for fiscal year 2019 next Monday, Feb. 12. Details of the proposal have begun to leak. The Washington Post reports that it will call for steeper increases in defense spending and sharper cuts to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy than those sought in the administration’s previous budget request. Representing the final product of a year of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the White House and agency leadership, the document includes each agency’s detailed funding requests to Congress. Last summer, the White House issued its annual R&D budget priorities memo, which agencies were instructed to follow when crafting their submissions. The request will also detail how the administration intends to restructure agencies and downsize the federal workforce, incorporating proposals that agencies submitted to the White House last September.
House Committee to Discuss Nuclear Infrastructure
On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing dedicated to the “economic and national security benefits of America’s nuclear infrastructure.” This will be the second hearing in the committee’s ongoing series on the “modernization” of the Department of Energy, and it will consider both DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission policies. The first hearing in the series, held on Jan. 9, covered the full scope of DOE’s missions with a focus on R&D. Committee leaders have indicated the hearings will inform future legislation to reorient DOE’s missions, activities, and management to reflect a new era of “energy abundance” and to cope with rising challenges such as cybersecurity.
NIST Director to Outline Tech Transfer Initiative
On Wednesday, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan will present a “vision for NIST efforts in federal technology transfer policy” at a meeting of the agency’s Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology. Late last year, Copan announced that he intends for NIST to lead a review of the Bayh-Dole Act and the Stevenson-Wydler Act, saying the time is ripe for a “fresh look” at how the federal government approaches technology transfer. Prior to Copan’s remarks at this week’s event, the director of NIST’s Technology Transfer Partnerships Office will provide an overview of relevant policies and agency authorities and the agency’s chief counsel will moderate a panel discussion on the “benefits and limitations” of the current framework. The deputy director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions is among the panelists.
Trump Administration Releases Nuclear Posture Review
On Feb. 2, the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which updates U.S. policy on nuclear weapons and strategy for the first time since 2010. The review emphasizes the need to complete the modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad and to renew the nation’s nuclear infrastructure. It also calls for the development of two new nuclear weapons systems: a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile and a sea-launched cruise missile. The administration argues that the current era of international relations is more dangerous and complex than a decade ago, requiring more “tailored” and “flexible” deterrent capabilities. As DefenseNews points out, compared to the 2010 review, the new policy places less emphasis on efforts to reduce global nuclear weapons stockpiles. Critics of a thoroughgoing nuclear modernization have said it is unnecessary and increases the potential for nuclear conflict, and that the price tag — projected to total well over $1 trillion — is too burdensome.
The Department of Energy, through the National Nuclear Security Administration, has significant equities in the NPR, as it maintains and develops the nation’s nuclear warhead stockpile through three nuclear weapons laboratories and associated production facilities. The NPR identifies an urgent need to recapitalize this infrastructure and maintain the necessary workforce. Among the proposed actions, NNSA intends to “rapidly pursue the Stockpile Responsiveness Program established by Congress to expand opportunities for young scientists and engineers to advance warhead design, development, and production skills.” NNSA also used the NPR release to push back on reporting that the Trump administration may reconsider the long-standing moratorium on explosive nuclear testing. Acting NNSA Administrator Steve Erhart said at the Feb. 2 rollout briefing that “given recent reporting on nuclear testing, I want to make it clear to all of you that our testing posture has not changed with this NPR.”
On Feb. 1, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a meeting on the future of the interagency National Science and Technology Council. NSTC Executive Director Chloe Kontos said during the gathering that the goal was to begin the process of restructuring and streamlining the council “to make better use of the participating agencies’ talent and better serve the American public.” The meeting was attended by senior federal agency officials, including Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deputy Administrator Timothy Gallaudet. OSTP is accepting feedback from 20 agencies for one week before beginning the process.
DOD Establishes Research and Engineering Under Secretary
On Feb. 1, the Department of Defense officially divided the position of under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics (USD(AT&L)) into an under secretary for research and engineering (USD(R&E)) and an under secretary for acquisition and sustainment (USD(A&S)). The move fulfills requirements set out in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. Additional changes associated with the split will be phased in over the coming months, as detailed in a Jan. 31 implementation guidance memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Ellen Lord, formerly USD(AT&L), will hold both the new under secretary positions until the Senate confirms former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin as USD(R&E). This is the first time that DOD’s research and engineering enterprise has been administered at the under secretary level since 1986.
DOE Under Secretaries Grilled on Departmental R&D
Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar and Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes appeared before the House Science Committee on Jan. 30. The two faced probing questions from committee members about DOE’s recent reorganization of their respective responsibilities as well as about the Trump administration’s policy of favoring “early stage” research. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) also asked why the administration has proposed cutting back DOE’s budget for Fusion Energy Sciences, a program that Smith said he feels can be “justified.” Dabbar said the administration is including fusion energy research in an ongoing review of nuclear power policy, which, when complete, will also stake out the administration’s position on U.S. support for the France-based ITER project.
Competitiveness Concerns Aired at Research Law Checkup
A little more than one year after the enactment of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on Jan. 30 to review implementation progress. No senators expressed reservations with how the National Science Foundation or the National Institute of Standards and Technology have responded to the act, but several did use the occasion to raise red flags about rising R&D investments by other nations, particularly China. NSF Director France Córdova and NIST Director Walter Copan expressed similar sentiments.
EPA Climate Science Review Still ‘Under Consideration’
At a Jan. 30 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee oversight hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt confirmed that a “red team/blue team” exercise to scrutinize climate science is still “under consideration.” Pruitt said last December that he hoped to commence the effort as soon as the beginning of this year. When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked about whether the White House had pushed back against the idea, Pruitt said news reports suggesting so were “incorrect.” Asked by Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) if EPA is planning to reconsider the agency’s formal stance that carbon dioxide emissions pose a threat to human health, known as the “endangerment finding,” Pruitt responded “there’s no decision or determination on that.”
NSB Statement Spotlights Skilled Technical Workforce
On Feb. 1, the National Science Board released a companion statement to the "Science and Engineering Indicators 2018” report, calling for greater federal and business investment in building a “STEM-capable workforce.” The statement focuses on enhancing the skilled technical workforce — individuals who are part of the STEM workforce but do not have four-year degrees. Among its recommendations, NSB encourages businesses to invest in workplace learning programs that recruit local students and it advocates for the expansion of business and government investments in community and technical colleges. The statement also says government should invest in formal and informal education and training programs at all career levels, which includes “sustained and predictable Federal investments in graduate education and basic research.”
Key Senator Supports Stronger Natural Hazards Monitoring
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee convened a hearing on Jan. 30 spotlighting the role of the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service in monitoring and response efforts for natural hazards such as earthquakes, avalanches, and tsunamis. Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she was “deeply troubled” over reports that the National Science Foundation is considering removing some of its seismic monitoring stations in Alaska. David Applegate, associate director for natural hazards at USGS, said his agency is “making a good-faith effort” to acquire as many of the monitors as possible but that availability of funding is a major factor. Other witnesses stressed the importance of passing several bills related to natural hazards pending in Congress.
Input Sought on Higher Education Act Reauthorization
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the committee with jurisdiction over education policy, has asked for input from the higher education community to inform the committee’s ongoing process of updating the Higher Education Act (HEA). The committee also released a staff white paper that reviews current accountability measures for Title IV student financial aid programs. The Senate Democratic Caucus has also issued a set of reauthorization principles, which include “affordability, accountability, access, and protecting the rights and safety of all students.” Comments will be accepted until Feb. 15.
AIP Selects Michael Moloney as CEO
The American Institute of Physics, which publishes FYI, announced on Jan. 31 that it has named physicist Michael Moloney as its new CEO, effective March 5. Moloney joins AIP from the National Academies, where he directed the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board for eight years. During his career as a senior National Academies staff member, he has worked on about 100 reports, including as study director for the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, “New Worlds, New Horizons.” Previously, he worked as a foreign service officer at the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C., and at the Irish Mission to the United Nations