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The Week of January 30
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 30
Scientists Rallying Against Trump Immigration Order
The scientific community will continue to assess the impacts of and respond to President Trump’s executive order that bars entry to the U.S. of citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for the next 90 days, among other restrictions. Numerous scientists have been affected, including multiple students stranded abroad, as reported by Nature, Science, and The Atlantic.
Some scientific and academic organizations have already responded, urging Trump to reconsider the order. AAAS CEO Rush Holt stressed the importance of open doors and the free flow of ideas to scientific progress, calling the order “contrary to the spirit of science.” Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement the order “should end as quickly as possible,” adding that allowing countries to replace the U.S. as “the prime destination for the most talented students and researchers” would cause “irreparable damage.” In addition, over 12,000 academics, including many Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences, have signed a petition denouncing the ban and warning it “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research.”
‘March for Science’ to Announce Date
Momentum is quickly gathering behind a science-focused March on Washington. The organizers of the march, now named the March for Science and to also include multiple marches in sister cities, have promised to announce a date and other details this week. So far, the movement has amassed close to 300,000 followers on Facebook.
Senate Committees to Vote on Nominations
On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will vote on approving the nominations of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for secretary of energy (see FYI #10) and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) for secretary of the interior. Zinke and Perry are both likely to win confirmation by the full Senate. Also on Jan. 31, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education and the Senate Finance Committee will vote on the nomination of Tom Price to be secretary of health and human services. On Wednesday, the Senate Budget Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will vote on the nomination of Mick Mulvaney to be director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. See “Events This Week” for details.
House to Consider Nuclear Detection Bill
On Tuesday, the House is scheduled to vote on a bill, introduced by Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), which directs the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to develop a research strategy and set of priorities to enhance its ability to detect nuclear explosive devices or fissile radiological material within the U.S. The bill aims to address concerns raised in a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office. The House passed the legislation on a voice vote in the previous Congress, but it was not taken up by the Senate.
Trump Implements Federal Hiring Freeze
On Jan. 23, President Trump issued a memorandum ordering a 90-day freeze on new federal hiring, effective immediately, with exceptions for “military personnel” and positions that department and agency heads deem “necessary to meet national security of public safety responsibilities.” The freeze explicitly forbids the use of contracts to circumvent the hiring restrictions. The memo also orders the White House Office of Management and Budget to develop a plan within 90 days to reduce the federal workforce through attrition. OMB issued additional guidance on Jan. 25. To date, there is no indication that federally funded research and development centers, such as national labs, which are managed by non-government entities, will be affected, but additional guidance from OMB or other departments may clarify or extend the scope of the order.
Agency Communication Clampdown Stirs Fear and Confusion
A furor erupted last week as reports emerged that a number of departments and agencies had implemented restrictions on external communications. Some restrictions were reported as applying to social media, some to communications with Congress, and one at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service applied to all “outward facing” communication, though agency officials later declared it a misunderstanding. Restrictions on the Department of the Interior’s external communications were quickly reversed. Some agencies, such as NASA, reported that their communication policies were unchanged. It is not clear which changes or orders originated from the Trump administration, or whether any orders are similar to those used during previous presidential transitions.
The clampdown on at least some federal agency communications, reports that the Trump administration could scrub the EPA’s climate change website, and an NPR report that EPA scientific studies and data will face an “internal vetting process,” have prompted fears over whether the Trump administration will respect existing agency scientific integrity policies and principles.
Trump Commerce Secretary Pick Vows to Protect Scientific Integrity
Responding to an inquiry from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Wilbur Ross, President Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary, promised to engage National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists’ expertise on climate and to protect and make publicly available the science under his jurisdiction. He wrote,
I believe science should be left to scientists. If confirmed, I intend to see that the Department provides the public with as much factual and accurate data as we have available. It is public tax dollars that support the Department’s scientific work, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public. To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved Ross’ nomination on Jan. 24. If confirmed as commerce secretary, he will have authority over both NOAA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Hearing for OMB Nominee Mulvaney Touches on R&D Funding
At his confirmation hearing to be director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) was asked by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) about remarks he had made about government funded research not being necessary, in the context of the debate over funding for research on the Zika virus. Mulvaney replied that he believes there is a government role in funding research, particularly where the private sector would not support it. Asked if research would be a priority in the Trump administration, Mulvaney said,
When we look at grant programs … the key is not the amount of the grant to begin with, but what are we getting for the taxpayer dollars.
NSF Calls for Proposals to Operate Arecibo
NSF issued a request for proposals to manage and operate the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The request specifies that proposals should include a five-year plan for research and/or education that will accommodate NSF’s contribution decreasing to $2 million per year by the end of the program. The RFP is part of NSF’s ongoing process of ramping down its financial commitment to the half-century-old facility (see FYI 2016 #139).
House Passes Comprehensive Bill to Guide Energy Department Science & Nuclear Reactor Licensing Bill
On Jan. 24, the House passed the “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act” that would provide the first-ever comprehensive policy guidance to DOE’s Office of Science, enhance lab-to-market technology transfer, and boost advanced nuclear R&D (see FYI #11). The day before, the House also passed the bipartisan “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act” by a voice vote. The bill, which is a reintroduction of a bill the House passed last year, would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to work with DOE and develop a licensing plan for advanced nuclear reactors (see FYI 2016 #103).
Senate Committee Advances Space Weather and Women in STEM Bills
On Jan. 24, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved two bills that the House passed earlier this month, the “INSPIRE Women Act” (see FYI 2016 #38) and the “Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act,” which directs the National Science Foundation to leverage its entrepreneurship programs to further support women’s careers. On the same day, the committee also approved the “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act,” which Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced last year (see FYI 2016 #64).
Trump Infrastructure Project List Includes Research Lab
President Trump campaigned on the promise of delivering up to $1 trillion in spending on the nation’s infrastructure, including on roads, bridges, and railways. A list of proposed projects reportedly prepared by the Trump transition team and circulated in the National Governor’s Association includes the construction of a National Research Lab for Infrastructure. “Conceived along the lines of the old Bell Labs, this R&D center would develop and commercialize infrastructure technology of the future,” the project description states. According to a presentation that summarizes the proposals, the lab would be based in Columbus, cost $2 billion, and work closely with Ohio State University and Battelle.