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The Week of January 22
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 22
Government Shutdown Impacts Vary Across Science Agencies
A federal government shutdown began Jan. 19 at midnight, after the president and congressional leaders failed to reach an agreement to extend federal spending. Democratic congressional leaders criticized a four-week funding extension the House passed last week, and have insisted that any extension of spending be accompanied by a legislative resolution for young immigrants who had been protected under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program before it was upended by President Trump in 2017.
The shutdown applies across the federal government, with a number of exceptions and other rules detailed in agency contingency plans. Although federal employees who fulfill “essential” safety, security, and public health roles, such as weather, water, and climate prediction, will continue working, as many as 800,000 workers are furloughed starting today, with research activities at NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and other science agencies grinding to a halt.
At agencies like NSF, which has nearly completely shut down and no longer has an operating website, the shutdown threatens to delay meetings, grant making, peer review, hiring, and other projects, although current grantees may continue work using funds that have already been awarded. Communication between and with government officials will also be significantly hampered during the shutdown.
However, not all agencies are shutting down. The Department of Energy, which operates with “multi-year” and “no-year” appropriations, will continue with fully staffed operations until the department’s operating funds are depleted, and federal research centers including national laboratories that are operated by third-party contractors will stay open.
The duration of the shutdown will depend on national politics that are playing out on a broader stage than science. A bipartisan group of senators met over the weekend to hammer out a solution to the impasse, and some senators are expressing optimism that a solution is near, but it is unclear as of Monday morning how close leaders actually are to resolving outstanding differences.
NASA Earth Science Panel Scheduled to Discuss Decadal Report
Pending a resolution of the federal government shutdown by mid-week, the NASA Earth Science Advisory Committee will meet Wednesday and Thursday. Among the items on the agenda is the National Academies’ Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space report, released on Jan. 5. The report prioritizes 22 sets of “targeted observables” and recommends that NASA implement missions to address eight of them over the next 10 years. Ultimately, NASA will have to decide how its mission portfolio will incorporate the scientific goals identified by the survey. The advisory committee will also discuss how the division approaches international collaboration, the evolution of the its airborne science program, and how to foster high-impact research.
Astronomy and Astrophysics Committee Scheduled to Meet
Pending a resolution of the government shutdown, the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee will meet on Thursday and Friday. No agenda had been posted prior to the shutdown.
National Science Board Releases 2018 S&E Indicators
On Jan. 18, the National Science Board released the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, a compilation of statistics and analyses on the global R&D landscape. The report finds that while the U.S. continues to be the global leader in many S&T measures including total R&D spending, other nations are rapidly closing the gap. It notes in particular that China’s R&D spending has grown at an average annual rate of 18 percent, comprising almost one-third of the global increase in R&D expenditures from 2000 to 2015. At the release briefing, Geraldine Richmond, an NSB member who chaired the report committee, observed that eroding U.S. leadership is a concern but also that new opportunities are arising for international collaboration. She said, “The big question is: Where do we want to lead in S&T and where are we content to participate?”
The Defense Department released an unclassified summary of its new National Defense Strategy on Jan. 19. The strategy says that “Inter-state competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” identifying Russia and China as long-term strategic competitors with rapidly increasing capabilities. It warns, “The drive to develop new technologies is relentless, expanding to more actors with lower barriers of entry, and moving at accelerating speed.” It lists advanced computing, “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology as critical areas for technological development. The strategy notes the growing importance of commercial technology and the need to cultivate the skills of DOD’s civilian workforce and uniformed personnel. The new strategy follows the December release of the Trump administration’s broader National Security Strategy, which also stressed technological innovation.
DOD Nominees Stress Technology Transfer at Confirmation Hearing
On Jan. 18, the Senate Armed Services Committee held its confirmation hearing for Mike Griffin, the nominee for under secretary of defense for research and engineering, and Will Roper, the nominee for assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. Both stressed the need to increase the speed with which the military fields new capabilities, particularly by using prototyping to better understand new technologies and reduce risks before initiating acquisition programs. Griffin reflected, “We don’t suffer from lack of innovation. We suffer from the inability to get [innovative technologies] into operational systems.” Griffin also detailed at length his view of his likely new role in written replies to 162 questions the committee posed to him before the hearing.
Air Force Announces 14 Innovation Workshops
At the U.S. Air Force Science and Technology Engagement Summit on Jan. 18, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reiterated her belief in the importance of research while acknowledging it is not one of the military’s main focal points. Therefore, she urged that, as the Air Force conducts a yearlong review of its S&T activities, it should also look to others for new ideas. To that end, the Air Force announced that between March and July it will hold 14 workshops across the country to gather input. One of the workshops, convening on March 29 and 30 in Washington, D.C., will focus on best practices from state and federal organizations. The Air Force will also be accepting input via the web.
Defense Innovation Board Calls for STEM Career Track
The Defense Innovation Board voted on Jan. 17 to recommend that the Department of Defense create a new “Innovation plus STEM” (I-STEM) career field for military personnel, which would protect their professional development from being hampered by other military career obligations. The board also voted to recommend that DOD create a program through which senior department leaders can participate in technology and innovation training programs. The board chose not to vote on two other recommendations under consideration to create incubator and accelerator programs for innovative ideas and technology. The board’s previous recommendations are posted here.
NASA and NOAA Nominees Again Advance on Party Line Votes
On Jan. 18, the nominees to lead NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers, respectively — again cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on party line votes. Although the committee cleared the nominations last year, President Trump resubmitted them after they were returned per Senate rules at the beginning of this year. Before the second vote, Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) reiterated his opposition to Bridenstine, saying he “has no experience managing a large organization or program, no background in science or engineering, and a history of political divisiveness.” Nelson also explained his opposition to Myers, saying he declined to sign a supplemental ethics agreement to “recuse himself from all NOAA matters that he knows will directly impact the fortunes of AccuWeather.” Committee Chair John Thune (R-SD) argued that the nominees are well qualified. With Republicans’ majority down to one seat following the election of Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), both nominees have only a single-vote margin for confirmation if Democrats are united in opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bridenstine’s nomination is in jeopardy because Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and John McCain (R-AZ) are “widely seen as firmly opposed for policy and personal reasons.”
House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) sent a letter on Jan. 18 to the Government Accountability Office requesting a report on how several science agencies handle claims of sexual harassment by researchers. Citing concerns over findings from a 2015 GAO report that highlighted deficiencies in federal agency Title IX compliance programs, the letter asks GAO to provide more information on these programs, with a particular focus on policies and processes related to sexual harassment that may fall outside of Title IX requirements. The letter notes the “disturbing” rise in reports of sexual harassment of women in academia, and states, “Equitable access to education and research experiences cannot be ensured for women in the sciences until gender discrimination, implicit bias, and sexual harassment are no longer potential barriers to their success.”
National Academies Presidents Criticize Political Review of Grants
The presidents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a joint statement on Jan. 16, denouncing the practice of political review of scientific proposals as “inappropriate” and saying it gives “the appearance of political interference in science.” The statement comes after news broke that the Department of Interior will require many of its grants to undergo political review. It emphasizes that “The public expects policymakers and agencies to base those [research] investments on independent advice and assessment from unbiased experts without political interference.” The National Academies presidents also issued a joint statement in December after reports surfaced that Centers for Disease Control officials are being prohibited from using certain words, such as “evidence-based” and “science-based,” in budget documents.
Impacts of Proposed Environmental R&D Cuts Assessed by Former Top Agency Officials
Under the banner of the non-profit organization Novim, a group of former federal science officials has produced an extensive agency-by-agency analysis of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to climate and environmental R&D programs for fiscal year 2018. Jack Fellows, co-founder of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and a former Office of Management and Budget official, chaired the study committee. The report states that the budget proposes $7.86 billion for these programs, a reduction of about $2 billion or 21 percent from the previous year. The analysis asserts that the cuts would have a “particularly devastating and long-lasting impact” on USGCRP programs because agencies have already worked to eliminate redundancies. Although Congress has advanced spending legislation largely rejecting these cuts, the authors note the administration has indicated it will propose similarly deep cuts for fiscal year 2019.
Report Calls for New Research Agency Focused on Water Infrastructure
The Infrastructure Working Group of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus recently released a report on “Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure,” which outlines solutions to modernize the nation’s infrastructure system. Among the report’s recommendations is the establishment of Advanced Research Projects Agency–Water, an agency that would support development of technologies such as innovative materials and remote sensors to improve water-related infrastructure. The government has established other topically focused ARPA agencies — Homeland Security ARPA in 2002, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity in 2006, and ARPA–Energy in 2009 — all modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, established in 1958.