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The Week of January 15
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 January 15
(Image credit – Joyce N. Boghosian / The White House)
Congress Must Again Extend Government Spending
With federal government spending expiring Friday, Congress’ main task this week is to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government up and running. A final deal to close out fiscal year 2018 will not be ready by the end of the week because congressional leaders have neither agreed to the contours of a budget deal nor resolved disagreements on other outstanding political matters such as disaster aid funding and the status of young immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Instead, congressional leaders are expected to seek yet another spending extension, probably through mid-February, to buy more time for negotiations. CQ reports that both parties in Congress are floating proposals to lift caps on discretionary spending by levels of 10 percent or greater, but leaders have been unable to resolve how to balance defense with nondefense spending within any increase, with Republicans preferring a larger boost for defense spending and Democrats insisting on dollar-for-dollar parity for nondefense spending. Should congressional leaders agree to a boost in discretionary spending, science agencies would benefit.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s confirmation hearing for Mike Griffin, President Trump’s nominee for under secretary of defense for research and engineering, is scheduled for Thursday. A former NASA administrator, Griffin has extensive experience as an engineer and administrator in the space and defense sectors, and his nomination is not expected to meet with serious obstacles. The under secretary position is a new addition to the Defense Department organization and is due to be implemented by Feb. 1. DOD Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper will also appear at the hearing for his nomination to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, a position that also entails responsibility over Air Force science, technology, and engineering activities. In addition, the committee will hear from Phyllis Bayer, the nominee for assistant secretary of the Navy for installations, energy, and the environment; and John Henderson, the nominee for assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment, and energy.
The National Science Board will release its biennial tome of statistics and analyses on the global R&D landscape, titled “Science and Engineering Indicators 2018,” on Thursday. The report analyzes how the U.S. scientific and engineering enterprise compares to other nations, and will include information on R&D investment levels, STEM education, workforce trends, and public understanding of science. National Science Foundation Director France Córdova and Geraldine Richmond, an NSB member who chaired the report committee, will participate in a release briefing also taking place Thursday. The event will be webcast.
National Academies to Begin Astrobiology Strategy Update
A National Academies committee charged with developing a new astrobiology strategy for NASA will be holding its kickoff meeting in Irvine, California, this Tuesday through Thursday. The effort responds to a provision in the NASA Transition Authorization Act, enacted in March 2017, and will update NASA’s 2015 astrobiology strategy. The committee’s final report, scheduled to appear in August, will also inform the next National Academies astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, set to begin late this year. Invited speakers to this week’s meeting will address a range of topics, including possible locations of extraterrestrial life in the solar system, how habitable exoplanets might be identified, how the concept of habitability is defined, and strategies for detecting signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The chair of the committee is Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a professor in the Department of Geology at the University of Toronto.
Air Force Secretary Wilson to Address S&T Summit
On Thursday, the National Academies Air Force Studies Board is holding a two-hour “Air Force Science and Technology Engagement Summit.” The event will provide an overview of the Department of the Air Force’s yearlong review of its S&T enterprise. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will offer remarks on her vision for how the Air Force should manage its research, including ideas for partnerships with states, universities, consortia, and other non-federal research entities. The event will be webcast.
NNSA Administrator Klotz Stepping Down
Frank Klotz, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, will step down from his role on Friday. Appointed in 2014, Klotz was one of the few Senate-confirmed officials from the Obama administration who President Trump retained. Last month, Trump nominated Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who has served in the White House National Security Council and the Department of Energy Office of Emergency Response, to succeed Klotz. The Senate Armed Services Committee, which will review the nomination, has not yet scheduled her confirmation hearing.
Few Clues Offered on House DOE Overhaul Effort at Hearing
On Jan. 9, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held the first in a series of hearings that could lead to ambitious reauthorization legislation aimed at “modernizing” the Department of Energy. Although the effort has been underway since at least last summer, committee members offered only a little indication of what reforms they have in mind. Some of the discussion focused on the suitability of DOE’s contracting policies, the place of the National Nuclear Security Administration within DOE, and the department’s cybersecurity efforts. Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) expressed dismay that Democrats had not yet been included in what Republicans have been calling a bipartisan project. He said he would be open to “targeted” reforms. However, he rejected out of hand any potential proposals to “eliminate scores of successful programs” in line with President Trump’s budget request, or to combine the functions of DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hearings Spotlight Competition Posed by Chinese R&D
The Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Jan. 9 on the national security implications of Chinese advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and space technology. Noting that China’s technology innovation plans reflect “a top-down, government-driven agenda that provides a roadmap for strategic collaboration between industry, academia, and civil society,” Subcommittee Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) called for “a national-level dialogue for science and technology policy” in the U.S. that will encompass both defense and the broader economy. On the same day, witnesses at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the Department of Energy (see previous item) also highlighted the challenges that Chinese R&D strategy presents. Rich Powell, an advocate of “conservative,” innovation-centered energy policies, observed that China has “no philosophical objection to funding applied research and are happy to take the fruits of American basic research and add applied dollars to demonstrate and commercialize them, thus reaping the benefits.” He said that DOE should take a similar “soup-to-nuts” approach to keep U.S. technology competitive.
Senate Passes Ocean Observation Bill
The Senate passed the bipartisan “Coordinated Ocean Monitoring and Research Act” by unanimous consent on Jan. 9. Among its provisions, the bill reauthorizes through fiscal year 2021 the Integrated Ocean Observation System, which advances R&D, deployment, and coordination of coastal and ocean observation data collection, technologies, and modeling systems. The program, which is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was first authorized in 2009. The bill now heads to the House. Details on other provisions included in the bill can be found in FYI’s Federal Science Bill Tracker.
Perry Visits Fermilab and Argonne National Lab
(Image credit – Reidar Hahn / Fermilab)
Last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry toured Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, two facilities in Illinois supported by the Department of Energy Office of Science. In his addresses to lab employees, Perry said he considers himself an “advocate” for their work, and that he views international engagement as a top priority. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), who was a physicist at Fermilab before entering Congress, accompanied Perry on both visits. Foster remarked that he was “impressed with how [Perry] sees his mission as an advocate." Videos of Perry’s town hall sessions at the labs are available here and here.
New Climate Science Initiatives Emerging Outside Government
As the Trump administration downplays the relevance of climate science to national policy, states and groups connected to the scientific community have launched new efforts to sustain momentum and awareness around climate research. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that the U.S. Climate Alliance will reconvene the Sustained National Climate Assessment federal advisory committee, which the Trump administration disbanded in August 2017, to continue work “to navigate the challenges of climate change.” The National Academies announced on Jan. 9 that it is launching a new Climate Communications Initiative to raise awareness of its climate science work with the public and decision makers. The initiative will be guided by a new committee chaired by retired Rear Adm. David Titley, former chief oceanographer of the Navy and the current director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University. Meanwhile, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative has released a report identifying the removal of climate change information and other changes made to federal agency websites related to the environment, climate, and energy during the Trump administration.
Many Department of the Interior grants and cooperative agreements will now be subject to additional review to ensure that they “promote the priorities” of the Trump administration. According to a memo acquired by the Washington Post, grants to nonprofits “that can legally engage in advocacy” and institutions of higher education, as well as those for land acquisition must be reviewed by an appointed senior adviser if the individual or aggregate award is at least $50,000. The reviews are intended to determine whether they align with the administration’s priorities for the department, including “creating a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt,” “utilizing our natural resources,” and “striving for a regulatory balance.” The memo warns that attempts to bypass the new guidelines “will cause greater scrutiny and will result slowing down the approval process for all awards.” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, has voiced skepticism over the new process, claiming it “looks like a backdoor way to stop funds going to legitimate scientific and environmental projects.”
Committee Approves Low Dose Radiation Research Act
On Jan. 10, the House Science Committee voted unanimously to approve the “Low Dose Radiation Research Act.” If enacted, the legislation would compel the Department of Energy to restart its recently discontinued research program on the biological effects of low doses of ionizing radiation. The bill received letters of support from the presidents of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (an AIP Member Society), the Health Physics Society, and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measures. The bill includes an amendment introduced by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) directing DOE to “identify and, to the extent possible, quantify” both monetary and health benefits deriving from the low dose program.