You are here
The Week of January 21
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of January 21
Shutdown’s Impacts Threaten to Intensify as Funding Dries Up
With the partial government shutdown now in its fifth week, science-supporting agencies and their contractors have been taking extraordinary measures to stave off additional furloughs and keep major research facilities running. The contractor that administers a premier postdoctoral fellowship program for NASA opted to temporarily offer no-interest loans to fellows when the program ran out of funds last week. The National Center for Atmospheric Research was also set to begin furloughing employees when it received an influx of funds from the National Science Foundation, enabling it to operate through mid-February. NSF was able to offer other facilities a similar lifeline, though it has estimated that many will exhaust their remaining funds in February and have to go into “caretaker” status. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also expected to start furloughing employees if the shutdown extends into February. Meanwhile, President Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress still appear far from ending their impasse. Federal workers did however gain a measure of consolation last week when Trump signed legislation that will provide them back pay once the shutdown ends. Several Democratic senators have introduced legislation that would also provide back pay to low-wage contractors, but it is unclear if the proposal will gain traction.
New Spending Packages Reveal Science Funding Details
In its latest bid to reopen the government, the House plans to vote this Wednesday on a spending package that Democratic leaders say was the product of bipartisan bicameral negotiations last year before the shutdown began. The House Appropriations Committee has released explanatory statements to accompany the legislation, revealing details about proposed funding levels for science programs at several agencies. They show that appropriators are poised to provide a 11 percent budget increase for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, a 4 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, a marginal increase for the U.S. Geological Survey, and flat funding for research programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Senate also plans to vote this week on a spending package that would provide these same amounts. However, Democrats oppose the Senate bill because it contains the $5.7 billion Trump has requested for border wall funding and concessions on immigration they deem inadequate. Meanwhile, Republicans oppose the House bill because it does not contain provisions for border security that will gain the president’s approval.
(Image credit - DOD)
New Missile Defense Strategy Takes Aim at High-Tech Threats
The Missile Defense Review released last week outlines the Trump administration’s plans to expand existing interceptor systems and pursue new capabilities to counter increasingly sophisticated threats from adversarial nations. Driven by concerns about hypersonic missiles, the report endorses developing a constellation of space-based sensors that would provide “birth-to-death” tracking of launches around the globe. At the release event, President Trump said his next budget request will include funding to start work on the sensor layer. The report also notes the administration’s interest in space-based interceptors, but stops short of committing to pursue such a capability. More broadly, the report states the Department of Defense will carry out a “vigorous science and technology research program in addition to the exploration of innovative concepts and advanced technologies that have the potential to provide more cost-effective U.S. defenses against expanding missile threats.” At a press briefing, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin said the department is “confident that the technologies outlined in the report are technologies we want to investigate, with experiments and prototypes and tests — and I'll emphasize again, tests — to see how well they work.”
Committee Leadership Continues to Take Shape
Congressional committees continued to announce leadership assignments last week. The leadership for the Appropriations Committees in both chambers is now fully in place, following House Republicans’ announcement of their subcommittee assignments. On those committees, responsibility for science agency funding is spread across several subcommittees. The most notable development is that Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) will take the slot vacated by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), an influential advocate for scientific research and space exploration funding. Selected committee leadership assignments are detailed in the table below.
Both parties have now announced subcommittee leaders for the Senate Armed Services Committee. The most important subcommittee for science policy is the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, which handles most R&D-related matters. Notably, though, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a vocal advocate for the national security laboratories in his state, is the new ranking member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which handles nuclear weapons and the infrastructure that supports their production and maintenance.
Although Democrats have not formally announced subcommittee assignments for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, its reorganization is reportedly bringing new leadership to its main subcommittees for science policy. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) will now take over for Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on NASA-related issues. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) will be ranking member of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technology.
UPDATE: Contrary to initial media reports, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) will be ranking member of the Aviation and Space Subcommittee, not Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).
Finally, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee confirmed that Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) will become chair of the Energy Subcommittee, while Paul Tonko (D-NY) will take over as chair of the newly renamed Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee. Rush and Tonko were previously the ranking members on those committees. For other leadership assignments that have made to date and for updates, see FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker.
Science Agency Nominations Resubmitted to Senate
On Jan. 16, President Trump renominated a host of appointees that were not confirmed in the last Congress. Among them are his nominations of Chris Fall to be director of the Department of Energy Office of Science, Lane Genatowski to be director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, Rita Baranwal to lead the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, William Bookless to be deputy director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and William Bryan to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s R&D arm. Each of these nominees received little to no public pushback during the prior Congress. Trump also re-upped his controversial nomination of Barry Myers to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. To fufill a government ethics pledge, Myers stepped down as AccuWeather CEO on Jan. 1 and he and his wife divested from their interests in the company.
EPA Nominee Pressed on Climate Views
The reception to EPA Administrator Nominee Andrew Wheeler largely split along party lines at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 16. Republican senators pointed to his past experience as an EPA employee and longtime staffer for the Environment and Public Works Committee as exemplary qualifications for the post, while Democratic committee members criticized the regulatory rollbacks he has advanced as acting administrator and probed his views on climate change. Asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) if he agrees climate change is “one of the great crises facing our planet,” Wheeler replied, “I would not call it the greatest crisis … I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.” He later rated his level of concern about climate change as “about 8 or 9” out of 10 in response to a question by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Democratic senators also disputed Wheeler’s assertion that the administration’s replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan would lead to similar reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) praised Wheeler’s support for “innovation” as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Senators Look to Innovation to Reduce Nuclear Power Costs
At a Jan. 16 hearing, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for the Department of Energy examined how advanced reactors and other innovative technologies could revitalize the U.S. nuclear power industry. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said cost is the “single biggest obstacle” facing the industry, which he argued is essential to reducing carbon emissions from energy sources and combating climate change. As one way that technological innovation might help to reduce costs, he pointed to 3D printing, highlighting Congress’ appropriation of $30 million in fiscal year 2019 for Oak Ridge National Laboratory to explore the feasibility of 3D printing an entire microreactor. Oak Ridge Director Thomas Zacharia updated the committee on the program’s progress, saying the lab is pursuing the “audacious goal” of operating a printed microreactor in 60 months. He explained the program’s objective is to “change the manufacturing paradigm” in the nuclear industry rather than develop a new kind of commercial reactor. However, Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) expressed skepticism about the ability of such technologies to resolve her doubts about the safety of nuclear power, especially given the U.S. still has not approved a long-term repository for nuclear waste.
CERN Releases Concept for Next-Generation Collider
On Jan. 14, CERN released the concept design for a new particle accelerator referred to as the Future Circular Collider (FCC). Based in Switzerland, CERN currently hosts the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which can accelerate protons and antiprotons up to a maximum collision energy of 14 teraelectronvolts, well more than any other accelerator ever built. If designed to accelerate those particles, the FCC would eclipse that record, achieving collision energies of up to 100 teraelectronvolts. To attain such energies would require building new accelerator rings with a circumference of about 100 kilometers, nearly quadruple the LHC’s 27 kilometer circumference. If the FCC is built in two phases, first as an electron-positron collider that is then converted into a proton-antiproton collider, CERN estimates the total construction cost would be about $27 billion in current dollars. The facility would require 18 years of lead time before operations could begin, but, if both phases are built, science operations would not conclude until near the end of this century. The objective of the FCC would be to explore regimes of particle physics inaccessible to other facilities in the hope of revealing and exploring physical phenomena beyond the reach of the current Standard Model. CERN developed the FCC concept design for submission to the European Strategy for Particle Physics, a major planning process that is scheduled to conclude next year.