FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
Image credit – Jake Belcher / MIT, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs is holding a hearing Tuesday to consider MIT and Harvard University’s challenge to a policy announced July 6 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that will force international students to leave the country if they can only take online classes in the fall. Burroughs has said she will make a ruling by the following day, given ICE’s July 15 deadline for universities to report whether they plan to “offer entirely online classes or programs.” The lawsuit states the policy came as a complete surprise to universities, many of which were just finalizing their plans for the fall, and suggests its true intent is to force schools to reopen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing remarks by Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli. The policy drew immediate condemnation from university groups and scientific societies, who argue it could have catastrophic effects on the U.S. higher education system and upend the lives of countless students. Separate lawsuits have been filed in other courts by Johns Hopkins University and the attorneys general of Washington State, California, and Massachusetts. The Massachusetts lawsuit was filed with 17 other state attorneys general and seeks a nationwide injunction against the policy. (Update: AIP has signed onto an amicus brief filed by the American Physical Society and several other AIP Member Societies in support of the lawsuit by MIT and Harvard.)
The House Appropriations Committee is meeting Monday to consider the bills that will fund the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2021. On top of slight increases in the agencies’ annual budgets, the bills propose that DOE receive $23.5 billion and NIH $5 billion in one-time “emergency” funding to support recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the extra NIH funding would “offset the costs related to reductions in laboratory productivity resulting from interruptions or shutdowns of research activity,” the additional DOE funding aims to stimulate the economy by bolstering clean energy programs, environmental cleanup activities, and infrastructure projects, including $6.25 billion allocated for facilities and equipment projects within the DOE Office of Science. Republican committee leaders have objected to the additional funding, though, stating they were not consulted about it and disapprove of using the emergency designation to circumvent statutory spending caps. On Tuesday, the committee will consider spending bills covering the Defense Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other science agencies. Those bills propose modest adjustments to current spending levels and do not include emergency add-ons. The Senate has not yet advanced its counterpart legislation. For details on fiscal year 2021 spending proposals, consult FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Monday that U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios will become acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering, replacing Mike Griffin, who exited the role on July 10 along with his deputy to work in the private sector. Before joining the White House in 2017, Kratsios was chief of staff for Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm. Kratsios, who is 33 years old, led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on a de facto basis until Kelvin Droegemeier was confirmed as director in 2019. The Senate confirmed Kratsios to the position of U.S. CTO within OSTP later that year, and OSTP indicates Kratisios will continue to serve in the position. Politico reported last week that Esper planned to select a replacement who is younger than Griffin and has connections with Silicon Valley. Esper also named Mark Lewis to serve as the acting deputy to Kratsios while continuing in his current role as director of defense research and engineering for modernization. Lewis is an expert in hypersonics research and served as chief scientist of the Air Force from 2004 to 2008.
On Friday, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing on the role of clean energy innovation in both spurring economic recovery and addressing climate change. The hearing comes as House appropriators are proposing $23.5 billion in one-time clean energy stimulus funding and in the wake of the House Climate Crisis Committee’s expansive “congressional action plan,” which includes an emphasis on increasing R&D spending. Among the witnesses for the Friday hearing are the former director of DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, Jetta Wong, and the director of technology deployment and outreach at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Lee Cheatham. Earlier in the week, the committee is holding another hearing to examine how the pandemic is exacerbating problems associated with extreme heat and environmental justice.
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A DOE official indicated last week that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department will have to establish a new baseline cost and schedule for its contribution to the forthcoming high luminosity accelerator upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider. Pictured here is a linear accelerator that will come online after the LHC completes its current shutdown and represents one element of the luminosity upgrade.
(Image credit – CERN)
AIP issued a report last week identifying initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical sciences, finding the field may be at a “tipping point” given both the scale of the disruption and opportunities the crisis presents to “renew” the profession. Assembled over six weeks by a panel of nine leaders in the U.S. physical sciences community, the report aims to inform pandemic-recovery efforts. It projects there will be long-term challenges stemming from stalled research, major facility shutdowns, limits on international travel, and campus closures, and observes that impacts will fall disproportionately on students and early career scientists, especially those from underrepresented groups. At the same time, it identifies opportunities to broaden participation in the profession, such as through expanded use of online classes and conferences. Separately, the U.S. government’s High Energy Physics Advisory Panel released results last week from a community survey of the pandemic’s impact on particle physicists. It found the pandemic has substantially decreased productivity and increased stress, particularly for parents of young children and early career scientists who face reduced job opportunities. Principal investigators who were surveyed reported significant cost increases and project delays across a number of major experiments. Mike Procario, the facilities director in the Department of Energy Office of High Energy Physics, also shared estimates for project delays and cost increases under three pandemic recovery scenarios, reporting that some projects will need to be rebaselined.
The U.S. sent a letter to the United Nations last week announcing its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, though the move will not take effect until July 6, 2021. President Trump has long stated his distrust of the organization, arguing that it slow-walked its response to the coronavirus pandemic at the behest of the Chinese government, and in April he cancelled the U.S. funding contribution. Some Republicans have supported the president’s rhetoric and sent a letter last week calling on WHO leadership to address China’s role in the pandemic. At the same time, the WHO sent scientists to China to scope out an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. The Trump administration’s decision has sparked widespread condemnation among health experts and Democratic lawmakers. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to undo the move on his first day in office if elected.
Speaking in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, on July 9, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden outlined a plan to spend $300 billion on R&D over four years, listing batteries, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and clean energy as target areas for investment. The text of the plan on Biden’s campaign website also mentions advanced materials, health and medicine, automotive and aerospace technology, and telecommunications. The plan calls for “major increases” in spending through the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, as well as capital financing through a “scaled-up version” of the Small Business Innovation Research program. It also includes proposals for capturing a portion of the royalties from inventions the federal government funds, implementing employee protections against negative consequences of new workplace technologies, and distributing funding more equitably across regions and demographic groups. Several proposals are specifically focused on bolstering Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other Minority Serving Institutions. The R&D plan is part of a broader $700 billion “made in all of America” initiative, which is the first of four policy initiatives the Biden campaign is planning to put forward. Last week, the campaign also released recommendations from a task force it assembled to unify the Democratic party on an array of issues, including climate change. Among the focus areas listed for investment are energy storage, heavy-duty trucking, sustainable aviation fuels, negative-emissions technologies, industrial decarbonization methods, and advanced nuclear energy.
The House Budget Committee heard from research and innovation experts last week as they discussed how federal research spending could be used to mitigate the fallout from the pandemic and support economic growth more broadly. Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) expressed concern about the decline of federal R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, saying the share has dropped from 1.9% in the mid-1960s to less than 0.7% in 2018. Ranking Member Steve Womack (R-AR) voiced concerns about the increasing share of federal spending on mandatory programs and the pressure that puts on R&D programs, which are mostly funded through the discretionary budget. Witnesses advocated for a variety of measures to reinvigorate the federal role in supporting innovation. American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Sudip Parikh proposed that the federal government return to spending 1.9% of U.S. GDP on R&D by 2035. Council on Competitiveness CEO Deborah Wince-Smith suggested the government create a “National Infrastructure Bank” to support research-intensive sectors of the economy that currently do not attract significant venture capital. Economist Paul Romer advocated for the government to provide more direct support to students, especially at the graduate level, enabling them to choose projects that interest them rather than rely on funding through grants held by professors.
The push to revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) lost momentum last week as House appropriators declined to include funds for it in their fiscal year 2021 Legislative Branch spending bill, while continuing to expand support for S&T assessment activities at the Government Accountability Office. Last year, Democratic appropriators seemed eager to bring back the office, proposing $6 million in initial funding. Explaining their reversal, the committee points to a report the National Academy of Public Administration released last November recommending Congress focus on improving the advice it receives from GAO and Congressional Research Service, among other steps. The report concluded a new office would remain susceptible to the sorts of “political challenges” that led to the original OTA’s dissolution 25 years ago. The appropriators did not entirely foreclose the idea of restarting a technology office, stating they “will continue to review [GAO’s] work to see if other steps are needed in the future.”
On July 9, the Commerce Department Office of the Inspector General released its full report on the department’s role in the Hurricane Dorian scandal last September. The report concludes that the department acted inappropriately in pressuring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue an unsigned statement that was widely regarded as rebuking National Weather Service forecasters for contradicting a tweet by President Trump incorrectly asserting the hurricane presented a danger to Alabama. It details how the statement was prompted by a directive from Mick Mulvaney, then the acting White House chief of staff, and how Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other department officials channeled that pressure to NOAA. The report’s findings complement an independent investigation into NOAA staff’s actions that found that Neil Jacobs, the agency’s acting head, violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy. Following the release of the inspector general’s report, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) tweeted that she would vote against Jacobs’ nomination to lead NOAA officially and encouraged her colleagues to do the same. She wrote that “leaders of a scientific agency like NOAA must hold themselves, and their agency, to the highest scientific integrity standard” and that the inspector general's report “makes it crystal clear Neil Jacobs is not that leader, and he failed to protect scientists from political influence.”
Chris Fall, director of the Department of Energy Office of Science, told the federal government’s High Energy Physics Advisory Panel last week that he feels reforms are needed in how the office coordinates joint efforts with the National Science Foundation and international partners. He expressed “dissatisfaction” that working with NSF requires navigating mismatches in how DOE and NSF manage projects and make major decisions. He remarked, “In order to collaborate on a major project, we are guaranteed to run into problems, we are guaranteed to have a suboptimal result. And in my mind, there's no reason why we shouldn't have some sort of mutually agreed-upon joint process for big collaborative projects.” Fall also noted he had recently established a new unit that is working on a more integrated approach to the Office of Science’s international engagements, rather than managing them on a “project by project, or lab by lab, or even program by program” basis. “This is important if for no other reason than it’s dead obvious when we talk to international partners that that’s what they’re doing. Everyone’s on the same page in other countries in a way that we’re often not,” he said.
All times are Eastern Daylight Time and all events are virtual, unless otherwise noted. Listings do not imply endorsement.
Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
The National Science Foundation is hiring a senior advisor for policy and coordination in its Education and Human Resources Directorate, which supports STEM education research and programs. Applicants should have a Ph.D. or Ed.D. in STEM or a related field as well as six or more years of research or research administration experience. Applications are due July 27.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program is seeking public comment on the proposed “themes and framework” of the Fifth National Climate Assessment. The program also seeks specific comment on “ways to make the assessment information accessible and useful to multiple audiences; specific types of detailed information on regional scales that would be most useful to stakeholders; how to best describe risks and impacts, as well as potential opportunities to reduce those risks and impacts on sectors of the economy and natural and social systems,” among other items. Comments are due Aug. 10.
The National Academies is accepting nominations for a committee that will perform a midterm assessment of the 2015 decadal survey for Antarctic and Southern Ocean research. Expertise is sought in areas such as cryosphere science; oceanic, atmospheric, and climate sciences; and polar-based astrophysics, among other disciplines. Nominations of members of historically underrepresented groups, including women, young professionals, and minority groups are encouraged. Nominations are due July 20.
For additional opportunities, please visit www.aip.org/fyi/opportunities. Know of an opportunity for scientists to engage in science policy? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
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