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The Week of January 14
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of January 14
(Image credit – Dennis Schroeder / NREL)
Congressional Committee Leadership Falling into Place
Leaders in both parties have begun to announce committee assignments for the 116th Congress, and the process will continue this week. Many subcommittee leaders with science policy portfolios have not yet been officially named, including for the House Appropriations Committee and Science Committee. In many cases, leaders from the last Congress will be continuing in their party’s top slot. Last week, though, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee revealed it has reworked its subcommittee structure. Among the changes, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) will now chair a Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather, taking over some responsibilities for science policy from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who previously chaired the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness and will now chair a Subcommittee on Aviation and Space. The full committee will vote to approve the change at a business meeting on Wednesday. If Gardner also continues to chair the Energy Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he will have jurisdiction over a considerable swath of the federal research enterprise. Democrats have not yet announced assignments for either committee. Check the FYI Federal Science Leadership Tracker for updates.
In Its Fourth Week, Shutdown Enters Uncharted Territory
The partial federal government shutdown is now the longest in U.S. history and there is still no end in sight. As the shutdown has dragged on, stories have proliferated in mainstream media outlets about its negative impacts on science. There has also been some confusion about which activities have been disrupted. For instance, Nature initially reported the shutdown would impede NASA’s ability to repair the Hubble Space Telescope and operate the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It later updated the stories to reflect statements from NASA that it does not expect the shutdown to impact the Hubble repair and is seeking approval for Chandra to continue operations with emergency funds. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also disputed reporting that the accuracy of its weather forecasts has diminished. Nevertheless, the shutdown’s impacts are expected to compound as federal scientists and contractors continue to go without pay. Congress has passed legislation that will provide retroactive compensation to all affected federal employees, but they will not be paid until the shutdown ends.
EPA Administrator Nominee to Face Senate Committee
Andrew Wheeler, the nominee to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday. Wheeler, previously EPA deputy administrator, has been serving as acting administrator since July. All but three Democrats voted against his nomination for the deputy post, citing his past work as a lobbyist for coal and mining companies. The hearing will likely focus on high-profile regulatory rollbacks Wheeler has set in motion since taking the helm of the agency. Senators may also probe controversial developments in how EPA incorporates science into its decision-making process.
Senate Panel Resumes Nuclear Power Review
On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee is holding a hearing on the Department of Energy’s role in supporting the development of advanced nuclear reactors. The hearing continues a series the subcommittee has held to discuss the future of the U.S. nuclear energy industry. Committee members will hear from Edward McGinnis, currently the top official in the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy; Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Christina Back, vice president for nuclear technologies and materials at General Atomics. Last year, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act directed DOE to take a variety of steps to support the development of advanced reactors. As part of its efforts to jumpstart the industry, DOE announced last week it intends to award a centrifuge company $115 million to demonstrate commercial-scale production of high assay low enriched uranium for use in advanced reactors.
National Academies Kicks Off Study on Prize Competitions
On Tuesday, the National Academies will hold the first meeting of a new study on the role of federal government prize competitions in spurring innovation. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 granted agencies broad authority to conduct such competitions, and the Obama administration made it a priority to expand their use across government. The study committee will assess the effectiveness of prizes relative to other forms of federal support such as grants, the spillover benefits of prize competitions, and the conditions under which prizes are most effective, among other matters. The committee is chaired by Karim Lakhani, founder of the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard University, and is sponsored by six federal agencies.
Business Leaders to Tout Federal Energy R&D
The Bipartisan Policy Center is hosting an event on Thursday at which federal and corporate leaders will discuss the government’s role in energy innovation. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), the new chair of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, will deliver remarks. A panel discussion will follow featuring several members of the American Energy Innovation Council, a research and advocacy group organized by prominent figures within the U.S. business community. The council released a report late last year calling for increased federal investment in energy R&D, including a near tripling of funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy to $1 billion per year.
New Law Updates Drought Information and Weather Research Programs
President Trump signed the National Integrated Drought Information System Act into law on Jan. 7. The bipartisan legislation provides new statutory backing to the system, which is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and recommends a small increase in its funding level. The final version of the bill, which was rushed through floor votes in late December, also incorporated amendments to the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. These include provisions authorizing NOAA to create an Earth Prediction Innovation Center and extending the agency’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot program through fiscal year 2023. The bill was also the vehicle for amendments to the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998.
Bipartisan Sexual Harassment, Energy-Water Nexus Bills Introduced
Starting the new Congress on a bipartisan note, House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced two bills on Jan. 3 with Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK). The “Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act” would require the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to create uniform guidelines for agencies as they develop policies for preventing harassment. It would also direct the National Science Foundation to fund research on the impacts of harassment in the STEM workforce. The bill is similar to one Democratic committee members introduced near the end of the last Congress, and the new Republican co-sponsorship reflects the growing interest in tackling the subject. The second bill, the “Energy and Water Research Integration Act,” would direct the Department of Energy to develop a strategic plan and support R&D and demonstration projects relating to the intersection of water use and energy generation.
Natural Hazards Bills Included in New Lands Package
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) reintroduced the “National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act” last Wednesday as part of a broader “Lands Package.” The legislation was among a number of natural hazards bills advanced during the last Congress. It directs the U.S. Geological Survey to unify existing volcano observatories into a single interoperable system. To achieve this objective, the bill recommends the system be funded at $55 million and calls for existing monitoring networks to be technologically upgraded. The package also includes the “National Geologic Mapping Act Reauthorization Act,” which would renew congressional backing for a USGS program that undertakes systematic geologic mapping to inform natural hazard mitigation, among other applications.
Two recently introduced bills reflect enduring concern in Congress about the U.S.’ ability to maintain technological leadership in the face of competition from China. On Jan. 4, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced a bill to create an Office of Critical Technologies and Security in the White House that would coordinate a whole-of-government effort to protect “critical emerging, foundational, and dual-use technologies” in partnership with the private sector and “other scientific and technical hubs.” As part of its duties, the office would develop a long-term strategy to protect such technologies from improper transfers and “reestablish the U.S. as the world leader in research and development.” The office would also lead the interagency process that is currently working to establish export controls on certain emerging and foundational technologies. The bill does not reference particular countries, but the sponsors have said concerns about China are the primary impetus for the legislation. Rubio has also introduced a bill with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) that would prohibit the export of “national security sensitive technology or intellectual property” to China. Among the technologies listed in this category are quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology.
APS Task Force Releases International Engagement Strategy
As part of a broader strategic planning process, the American Physical Society (an AIP Member Society) formed a task force in 2017 to assess ways the society could expand its international footprint. In its final report, made public last week, the task force notes that while APS “does not aim to be the world’s physics society,” it should seek to become a “global hub” for the world’s physics community. The report outlines recommended actions to achieve four main goals: offer new and expanded ways for international members to participate in the society; integrate international affairs across all society activities; expand international opportunities and career preparation for young physicists; and advance government policies that promote international scientific collaboration. The task force stresses that physics is increasingly a global enterprise, noting that a quarter of the society’s members are already located outside of the U.S. The APS Council has “strongly endorsed” the report’s findings.
New Management Turmoil at NSF Ecological Observatory
ScienceInsider reported last week that National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) Chief Scientist Sharon Collinge resigned after the contractor responsible for building and operating the 81-site facility, the Battelle Memorial Institute, dismissed two senior managers without her knowledge. Collinge had been in the position for about a year. Shortly after she stepped down, Battelle also dissolved NEON’s 20-member Science, Technology, and Education Advisory Committee. In a statement to the Boulder Daily Camera, Battelle asserted its actions reflect an effort to “streamline” NEON’s management as it transitions from construction into operations. NEON, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, experienced significant cost overruns earlier this decade, leading the agency to reexamine its approach to managing large projects.