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The Week of January 7
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of January 7
No End in Sight to Shutdown as Impacts on Science Grow
With the partial shutdown of the federal government only a few days from becoming the longest in U.S. history, President Trump and Congress appear no closer to bringing it to an end. The Republican-controlled Senate has refused to take up legislation to reopen the government that the Democratically controlled House passed last week because it does not include the border wall funding Trump has insisted on. This week, House Democrats plan to take a more piecemeal approach by passing individual appropriations bills that would reopen portions of the government. However, these measures are also unlikely to clear the Senate absent a change in its leadership’s position that it will only vote on a deal Trump supports. The shutdown has already significantly affected science, furloughing most agency-based researchers, halting grant reviews, and preventing the distribution of grant or contract funds. While research projects and facilities managed by non-federal personnel are allowed to operate with funds they have already received, they will eventually be disrupted. For example, the directors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and the in-construction Large Synoptic Survey Telescope told the New York Times their operations could be impacted if the shutdown drags on long enough.
Shutdown Scrambles Scientific Society Meetings
The shutdown is also disrupting several major scientific society meetings taking place this week. The American Astronomical Society has estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the registrants for its winter meeting in Seattle may be prevented from attending because of the shutdown. Among the science policy events, a NASA town hall session focusing on the upcoming decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics has been replaced with a town hall by the Department of Energy Office of Science, which has a smaller astrophysical research portfolio but is unaffected by the shutdown. The speaker for the National Science Foundation town hall will participate remotely. (Update: DOE has cancelled the town hall.)
In addition, the American Meteorological Society has estimated that about 700 federal employees will be unable to attend its annual meeting in Phoenix. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has cancelled all of its participation in the meeting, and attendance from NASA is likely to be similarly diminished. Among the science policy-focused events, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was scheduled to deliver a keynote address but has withdrawn from the meeting. AMS’ governing board issued a statement on the negative effects of the shutdown saying, “Our nation cannot afford to undermine its scientific enterprise for the sake of policy disagreement.”
Other society events this week that are also likely to be impacted by the shutdown include the American Association of Physics Teachers’ winter meeting and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ SciTech Forum. AMS, AAS, and AAPT are AIP Member Societies, and AIAA is an AIP affiliate.
(Image credit – White House)
Trump Signs National Quantum Initiative into Law
President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act into law on Dec. 21 after the House voted 348 to 11 on Dec. 19 to approve the Senate’s amended version of the bill. Among its provisions, the act directs the Department of Energy to establish between two and five competitively awarded “National Quantum Information Science Research Centers,” each to be funded at up to $25 million annually through fiscal year 2023. In addition, the National Science Foundation is to establish between two and five “Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education,” each funded at up to $10 million annually over the same period. The third agency covered by the act, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, will continue with its plans to create a “quantum consortium” and will devote up to $80 million per year from its budget to the initiative. For further details on the act’s provisions, see FYI’s coverage here.
Senate Confirms OSTP Director, Several Other Science Nominations Expire
On Jan. 2, the Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier by voice vote as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. President Trump nominated Droegemeier, who was a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma, in August. However, following the nominee’s quick approval by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, the Senate did not bring it to a vote for months, stretching the total time the White House has been without an OSTP director to nearly two years. The confirmation was part of a large package of voice votes on nominees that the Senate held just before the conclusion of the 115th Congress. The Senate also confirmed Daniel Simmons to lead the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, but did not act on a number of other pending DOE nominations, including Chris Fall as director of the Office of Science, Lane Genatowski as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, Rita Baranwal as head of the Office of Nuclear Energy, and William Bookless as deputy director of the National Nuclear Security Administration. It also did not vote on the nomination of Barry Myers to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those nominations will now need to be resubmitted to the Senate to receive further consideration.
House Creates Climate Committee
The new Democratic leadership of the House approved a rules package on Jan. 3 that includes a provision formally establishing a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) will chair the committee, which will have eight other Democratic members and six Republicans. The committee will have a purely investigative function, with the power to call hearings and issue reports. It is not authorized to develop or review legislation, and it does not have the power to subpoena witnesses or documents, though it may recommend that other committees do so. The select committee has been a subject of some debate within the Democratic caucus as members such as Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) have wondered how its role will relate to theirs, while advocates of forceful climate action such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) want it to be an incubator for a “Green New Deal.” A similar committee existed from 2007 to 2010, when the Democrats last controlled the chamber.
STEM Apprenticeship Bill Signed into Law
After the Senate passed the Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act by voice vote on Dec. 20 and the House passed it by a vote of 378 to 13 later that day, President Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 31. The new law requires the National Science Foundation to award grants in support of associate degree programs in STEM fields and STEM training opportunities such as internships and apprenticeships, in line with the agency’s existing Advanced Technological Education program. It also directs NSF to explore the feasibility of expanding its surveys to collect data on the skilled technical workforce, which is defined as “workers with high school diplomas and two-year technical training or certifications who employ significant levels of STEM knowledge in their jobs.”
Update to Weather Law Awaits Presidential Approval
On Dec. 20, Congress passed significant updates to a 2017 weather research law through the “National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Reauthorization Act of 2018.” Originally focused on setting policy direction and target funding levels for the NIDIS program through fiscal year 2023, the Senate added several provisions related to weather research and forecasting before approving the bill by unanimous consent on Dec. 18. Among them, the legislation now recommends increasing funding for implementing the weather law, authorizes an “Earth Prediction Innovation Center,” provides new requirements for high performance computing utilization and satellite architecture planning, and extends the authorization of the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program. The House passed the amended bill on Dec. 20 by a vote of 379 to 9, and it was presented to President Trump on Dec. 27.
Congress Passes Advanced Reactor Licensing Bill
On Dec. 20, the Senate passed the bipartisan "Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act" by voice vote and the House approved it the next day on a vote of 361 to 10. It now awaits President Trump’s signature. The bill directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete the development a “technology-inclusive” framework for licensing advanced reactor designs by 2028, and, in the nearer term, to develop a "staged" and “risk-informed” licensing processes. The legislation follows the enactment in September of the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which directs the Department of Energy to implement actions to encourage the development of advanced reactors, including by creating a licensing cost-sharing program.
Bipartisan NASA Authorization Bill Unveiled in Senate
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and outgoing Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) unveiled a broad NASA policy bill on Dec. 19. The legislation largely endorses current agency activities and plans. Some notable provisions include direction that NASA shall continue to operate the International Space Station through 2030, which would derail plans to privatize its operations by the mid-2020s. It also provides legislative backing to NASA’s newly established lunar exploration campaign, raises the development cost cap on the James Webb Space Telescope from $8 billion to $9 billion, and directs NASA to continue development of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which the administration has proposed cancelling. Another provision would perpetuate current restrictions on cooperation with China. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held several hearings to inform the legislation last year, and it will likely introduce a similar bill in the current Congress.
Patrick Shanahan Named Acting Defense Secretary
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has stepped into the role of acting defense secretary, following the departure of Jim Mattis on Jan. 1. Mattis originally tendered his resignation on Dec. 20 with the aim of leaving at the end of February, but President Trump dismissed Mattis early due to their public disagreement over defense policies. Shanahan has master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration from MIT and spent much of his career as an executive at Boeing before joining the Department of Defense in 2017. As deputy secretary, Shanahan was actively engaged with the department’s ongoing efforts to increase the speed at which it develops new technologies and transitions them into acquisition programs.
Japan Science Council Throws Cold Water on International Linear Collider
In a report it prepared for the Japanese Science Ministry in December, the Science Council of Japan declared it could not reach a consensus to support construction of the International Linear Collider (ILC). The ILC is a proposed high-energy electron-positron collider that would complement the capabilities of Europe’s Large Hadron Collider in investigating the Higgs boson and searching for physics beyond the Standard Model. This past July, the Science Ministry asked the council, which represents the interests of the Japanese scientific community, to weigh in on the long-planned project. While the council agreed the ILC would produce compelling scientific results, it did not agree that those results would justify the large share of the project’s cost that Japan would have to bear as its host nation. The project has an expected overall price tag of about $7 billion. The Japanese government is expected to make a final decision on whether to move forward with the ILC in the early months of this year. If it is built, the U.S. Department of Energy would likely be a project partner.
New Horizons Completes Kuiper Belt Object Flyby
NASA’s New Horizons mission completed a flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1. The object, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is the farthest-ever body from Earth to be studied at close range. The probe, which cost about $700 million to develop and launch, is now beginning a months-long process of transmitting scientific data back to Earth. Having already flown through the Pluto system in 2015, it is now set to continue studying the Kuiper Belt through at least 2021 and could fly by another object should one be located along its current trajectory. New Horizons’ radioisotope fuel supply is expected to remain viable for a further 15 to 20 years.
Nancy Roman, Longtime NASA Astronomy Chief, Dies
(Image credit – NASA)
Astronomer Nancy Roman, the first woman to hold a senior leadership position at NASA, died on Dec. 25 at the age of 93. After receiving her doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949, she remained at the university as a research associate until 1955, when she joined the Radio Astronomy Branch of the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1959, she moved to NASA, which had been established the year before. In 1960, she became chief of the agency’s Astronomy and Relativity Programs, remaining in that job until her retirement from the agency in 1979. Among her achievements, Roman is best known for championing the project that became the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990 and is still in operation. An extensive oral history with Roman is available via the AIP Niels Bohr Library and Archives.
Harold Brown, Physicist and Defense Secretary, Dies
Harold Brown, a physicist who occupied a variety of high-level roles in government and academia, has died at the age of 91. Brown received his doctorate in physics from Columbia University in 1949 at the age of 21 and joined the newly established Livermore branch of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory in 1952. Working on the design of thermonuclear weapons, he quickly rose through managerial positions until he was named laboratory director in 1960. He briefly served on President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee in 1961 before Defense Secretary Robert McNamara selected him as director of defense research and engineering. Brown then became secretary of the Air Force from 1965 to 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War. In 1969, he became the president of Caltech, where he oversaw the opening of undergraduate admissions at the institute to women. During this period, he was also a U.S. delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Returning to the Pentagon as President Carter’s defense secretary, Brown directed the development of new warfare capabilities, including stealth technology, precision-guided weapons, and advanced satellite surveillance. Those efforts, which came to fruition after Brown’s departure in 1981, has been cited as a model for the Defense Department’s current efforts to improve its agility in developing and fielding game-changing technologies.