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The Week of July 10
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 July 10
BESAC To Review 40 Years of Work in Basic Energy Sciences
On Thursday and Friday, the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, which serves the Department of Energy, will meet in Rockville, Maryland. This will be BESAC’s second meeting of 2017, and its first under its new chair, physicist Persis Drell. At the meeting, Drell will be discussing BESAC’s latest charge, the assembly of a report commemorating the 40th anniversary of DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program. Issued June 16, the charge letter states that, in addition to reviewing key accomplishments, the report should examine BES’s past investment strategies with an eye toward informing future deliberations. The meeting will also include updates on two recent Basic Research Needs workshops as well as presentations on the future of computing and the role of national laboratories in advancing DOE missions. The full agenda is available here.
Details of House DOE Spending Bill To Be Revealed
On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee will vote on the fiscal year 2018 spending bill for the Department of Energy. The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee approved the draft bill on June 28 but has not yet released the accompanying report that specifies funding levels for individual research program offices and projects. The report will be posted before the Wednesday markup or shortly afterward. Although the draft bill holds funding for the DOE Office of Science flat at the fiscal year 2017 level, the report will indicate whether the committee seeks to redistribute funding between the research programs. The House’s bill last year favored High Energy Physics and Fusion Energy Sciences over the Office of Science’s four other main research programs. (Update: The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled markups of the Commerce-Justice-Science and Labor-Health and Human Services-Education appropriations bills for Thursday.)
Annual Defense Policy Bill Reaches House Floor
This week, the House will consider its version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the sweeping annual bill that sets policy for the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Viewed as a must-pass measure, the bill always attracts a large number of amendments; this year, members have filed over 390 amendments for consideration on the House floor. The House Armed Services Committee approved the bill on June 28 on a vote of 60–1. The Senate Armed Services Committee advanced its version on the same day by a unanimous vote. The text of the Senate bill is not yet public, but a summary provided by the committee, which contains a section on “Driving Innovation in R&D,” is available here.
Senate Energy Policy Bill Back in Spotlight
The senators who led last year’s failed effort to pass comprehensive energy legislation — Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) — have reintroduced their bill and will try again this Congress. The bill, which could see floor action as soon as this week, includes a research title authored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would authorize annual 7 percent funding increases for the Department of Energy Office of Science over five years and roughly steady funding over the next five years for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which the Trump administration has proposed to eliminate. The bill also retains its energy innovation provisions, a section to facilitate federal oversight of the nation’s critical mineral supply, authorization of new programs in volcano monitoring and landslide hazard reduction, and a section supporting advanced nuclear research and innovation. Alexander summarized the research and innovation provisions of the bill in a press release, and the bill’s full text is available here.
Science Committee Dems Holding Second Climate Roundtable
House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is hosting a roundtable event on Wednesday focusing on the national security implications of climate change. Three former military officials are speaking on the panel, including retired Rear Adm. David Titley, the former Chief Oceanographer of the Navy; retired Rear Adm. Ann Phillips, a former member of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Climate Change Task Force; and retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project. The event is the second in a series of planned roundtables by the minority party. Explaining the roundtables’ rationale in an interview with Scientific American, Johnson said, “There are a number of issues that we’re not getting the opportunity to have honest hearings on under the leadership of the committee.”
House Appropriators Unveil Science Spending Bills
House appropriators have unveiled drafts of three major spending bills that propose funding levels for key federal science agencies. In general, the legislation indicates limited support in the chamber for the substantial cuts to science programs proposed in the Trump administration’s budget request.
- The Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, released on June 27, proposes flat funding the Department of Energy’s Office of Science but would defund the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and halve the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
- The Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill, released on June 28, resembles last year’s version. The bill would once again hold funding for the National Science Foundation’s research grants and education activities flat, and it would slightly increase overall funding for NASA Science while cutting Earth Science. The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s science programs would see a 4 percent cut, far from the 13 percent cut requested. However, in a significant break from last year, the bill would cut the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 13 percent, comparable to the level sought by the Trump administration.
- On the military side of the budget, the Defense Appropriations bill, released on June 25, would fund S&T activities above the administration’s request, albeit at 1.5 percent below levels enacted for the current fiscal year.
Senate appropriators have not yet unveiled their counterpart spending legislation.
Supreme Court Allows Limited Travel Ban To Take Effect
On June 26, the Supreme Court agreed to consider in its next term the Trump administration’s appeal of two federal appeals court rulings that halted implementation of the president’s Jan. 27 executive order temporarily barring persons from several majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S. In its ruling, the court allowed a limited version of the order to take effect but prevented it from being applied to persons who have a “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the U.S. The Trump administration has subsequently issued its interpretation of this phrase. Reactions to the ruling were mixed. Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman remarked,
While we are still reviewing the Court’s decision, the Court has rightly recognized that students, faculty, and lecturers from the designated countries have a bona fide relationship with an American entity and should not be barred from entering the United States. This should make clear to the world that the United States continues to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach, and carry out research and scholarship at our universities.
Trump Relaunches Space Council, Picks Pence To Pilot
President Trump signed an executive order on June 30 re-establishing the National Space Council. Led by Vice President Mike Pence, the council will directly advise the president and coordinate national space policy. The council was originally established as the National Aeronautics and Space Council in 1958 and last existed during the administration of President George H. W. Bush. The secretaries of state, defense, commerce, transportation and homeland security; the NASA administrator; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and several other government officials will sit on the council. The order also calls for the establishment of a Users’ Advisory Group emphasizing that “the interests of industries and other non-Federal entities involved in space activities, including in particular commercial entities, are adequately represented in the Council.”
Space Weather Bill Introduced in House
On June 27, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced the “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act,” the companion to a bill the Senate passed by unanimous consent in May. The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), aims to strengthen space weather research and prediction by delineating the responsibilities of federal agencies in the development of new forecasting technologies as well as calling for standards to measure the impact of space weather. Among its provisions, the bills call for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a backup plan for the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, which is currently the sole provider of solar imaging data used for space weather forecasting.
Textron CEO Nominated as DOD Under Secretary in Charge of R&D
On June 29, President Trump nominated Ellen Lord, CEO of defense contractor Textron Systems, to be under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. Pending Senate confirmation, Lord will have authority over the Defense Department’s research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) activities as well as over military acquisitions. Lord will also be preparing for an upcoming reorganization, in which DOD will elevate responsibility for RDT&E from the assistant secretary level to a new under secretary for research and engineering position. At that time, the AT&L position will be recast as the under secretary for acquisition and sustainment. It is uncertain which under secretary position Lord would take when the split occurs. Trump has not yet selected a nominee for the current assistant secretary for research and engineering post.
Science Committee Democrats Expand Their Scrutiny of EPA
On June 26, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and two subcommittee ranking members, sent a letter to the inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter requests an investigation of whether the EPA chief of staff inappropriately attempted to influence the testimony delivered by Deborah Swackhamer, an emerita professor of public policy at the University of Minnesota and chair of EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), at a recent Science Committee hearing. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) responded to the letter, calling it politically motivated, and said that EPA’s communications with Swackhamer were proper. This is not the first time Johnson has confronted the Trump EPA. In April, she asked Smith to initiate an investigation of whether EPA had suppressed staff members’ views in submitting information to Congress on the cost to implement the “HONEST Act.” For further details on the Swackhamer case, see reporting from ScienceInsider.
House Discusses Electric Propulsion for Deep Space Missions
On June 29, the House Space Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss NASA’s current and future plans for in-space propulsion technology. The witnesses agreed the path to sustainable transportation lies in high-power electric propulsion. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for exploration at NASA, testified that solar electric propulsion in particular is “essential for efficiently performing future deep space human exploration missions, including Mars missions,” and said that such technologies will be tested in the next few years in plans for deployment within a decade. However, he also noted that the thrust level of current electric propulsion systems is generally low, so early human deep-space exploration systems will likely need to use a combination of chemical and electric propulsions.