Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
An artist’s conception of the Lynx X-ray Observatory, one of four next-generation space telescope concepts that NASA has developed for the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey currently underway.
(Image Credit – NASA / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
The National Academies study committee that will assemble the next decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics is holding its kickoff meeting Monday through Wednesday. Due for release in late 2020, the survey will provide an overview of the state of the field and convey an authoritative list of priorities to guide federal investments over the following decade. The meeting marks a turning point in the process, as survey members begin to digest the input they are continuing to receive from the scientific community, including over 500 white papers. NASA indicated earlier this year that one of the most critical inputs, its four concept designs for a next-generation space telescope, would be submitted this summer. At this week’s meeting, the survey’s steering committee will hear from officials from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy, as well as from staff members representing two congressional committees and the White House Office of Management and Budget. The committee will also hear from leaders of the previous decadal survey and that survey’s mid-term assessment.
On Wednesday, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing to examine the state of scientific integrity at federal agencies. Congressional Democrats have pressed the subject since the earliest days of the Trump administration, and this year many are backing the reintroduced Scientific Integrity Act, which would codify minimum standards for agency integrity policies. Witnesses for the hearing include representatives from the Government Accountability Office, which recently reviewed the implementation of scientific integrity policies at nine agencies, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has cataloged integrity concerns at agencies since 2004. The committee’s Democrats have also invited Joel Clement, who filed a whistleblower complaint and resigned from the Interior Department after it reassigned him, he claims, because he advocated internally for his work on the dangers climate change poses for Alaska Native communities. The Republicans have invited Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of a book on the proper use of science in policy and public advocacy. Pielke has often criticized how the science and policy of climate change are debated.
Amid ongoing controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency’s treatment of science in regulatory decision making, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday to examine the agency’s policies concerning its scientific advisory committees. The hearing will feature testimony from the Government Accountability Office, which is imminently releasing a report titled “EPA Advisory Committees: Improvements Needed for the Member Appointment Process,” according to E&E News. Deborah Swackhamer, a public health professor at the University of Minnesota, will also testify. Swackhamer chaired EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors from 2015 until 2017, when EPA installed a new chair prior to the end of her term and instituted a new policy for advisory panel membership that prevents EPA grant recipients from simultaneously serving as advisors. Swackhamer and two other witnesses, Thomas Burke and Jonathan Samet, have been critics of EPA’s treatment of its science advisory bodies, including its dissolution of certain panels. According to a notice sent out by the office of Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), the hearing will also consider President Trump’s recent executive order requiring federal agencies to reduce by one-third the number of discretionary advisory committees they have established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to vote on 23 bills at a meeting on Tuesday, including the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act, American Mineral Security Act, Energy Technology Maturation Act, and Launching Energy Advancement and Development Through Innovations for Natural Gas Act. Not included on the list are a set of five bills focused on energy storage R&D that the committee discussed at a hearing last week. Given the number of storage proposals, Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said her goal is to “synthesize the various bills and the concepts, taking the best provisions that we have in each of them, combining them into perhaps a larger, more comprehensive energy storage package that we will be able to report out of the committee.” With the August recess looming, Murkowski said she hoped the committee would pass a package “as early as the end of this month, or more likely in September.”
Amid mounting efforts in Congress and science agencies to secure U.S.-funded research against exploitation, the National Science Board is holding a plenary session on the topic at its meeting this week. NSF Director France Córdova announced a new policy last week clarifying that agency employees are prohibited from participating in talent recruitment programs sponsored by foreign governments. In an hour-long open session Thursday, the board will hear presentations on this and other agency actions from Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering. NSB Member Maria Zuber will also discuss MIT’s new review process for international research collaborations that pose an “elevated risk,” and Toby Smith from the Association of American Universities will discuss efforts by university groups to communicate best practices related to research security. Other agenda items include discussion of an NSF-funded study on reproducibility and replicability in science, the final report of the board’s Skilled Technical Workforce Task Force, and plans to update NSF’s no-cost-overrun policy for large facilities.
The STEM Education Advisory Panel, a committee of external experts that advises the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), will meet for the second time on Friday. The panel has invited leaders of CoSTEM to discuss progress in implementing the Trump administration's STEM education strategy, released in December. At the advisory panel’s inaugural meeting last September, it proposed forming a sub-group tasked with compiling “criteria, methodology, and case studies on the effectiveness of STEM programs.”
Bill Gerstenmaier testifies before the House Science Committee on July 10. Later that day, NASA announced he was being replaced as head of the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate.
(Image credit – NASA / Aubrey Gemignani)
Citing the need to advance its goal of landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024, on July 10 NASA reassigned the head of its crewed spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, to an advisory position. Gerstenmaier had led the program since 2005, and his deputy Ken Bowersox is now serving as acting head while a search proceeds for a replacement. Bill Hill, the head of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle development efforts, was also reassigned. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview with The Verge that the moves relate to his desire to overcome the history of unrealistic cost and schedule estimates in the SLS and Orion programs. House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressed dismay over the shakeup in a statement, remarking, “The Trump administration’s ill-defined crash program to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024 was going to be challenging enough to achieve under the best of circumstances. Removing experienced engineering leadership from that effort … at such a crucial point in time seems misguided at best.” The matter is likely to be further discussed on Wednesday when Bridenstine is scheduled to appear at a Senate hearing on NASA’s lunar exploration program.
The House Science Committee’s Energy Subcommittee advanced policy bills focused on wind, solar, and fossil energy research last week on party-line votes. The bills would direct the Department of Energy to maintain broad portfolios, spanning technology R&D as well as support for the demonstration, commercialization, and efficient operation of energy systems. They also recommend the corresponding programs receive significant budget increases over a five-year period. These include a proposal to triple funding for R&D in carbon capture, storage, and utilization from $200 million to $600 million with a new focus on the removal of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Explaining his opposition to the bills, Subcommittee Ranking Member Randy Weber (R-TX) argued their spending ambitions are “unrealistic” and that they place an outsized focus on supporting existing and near-term technologies. He also characterized the fossil energy bill as having a “singular focus on emissions control technologies.”
Members of the House Science Committee sought details on the expected magnitude of sea-level rise and other consequences of rapidly melting glaciers and ice sheets at a hearing last week. Pointing to estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a panel of geoscientists stated that sea level is estimated to rise by at least two to three feet by 2100 under the current global emissions trajectory, while stressing that the upper bounds of more dramatic melting scenarios remain very uncertain. They urged Congress to invest in interagency efforts to characterize ice melt, identifying a need for more in situ observational data and interdisciplinary research as well as better ways of attracting, training, and retaining the next generation of glaciologists. Robin Bell, a professor at Columbia University and president of the American Geophysical Union, lamented that the number of researchers in the field is not commensurate with the scale of the problem, noting that AGU’s Cryosphere Section currently has about 1,500 members. She argued that depoliticizing climate change would help attract more young people to the field.
The White House is shelving its plans to establish an internal panel to scrutinize climate science consensus reports, according to an article in E&E News last week. Sources cited in the article said “internal disagreements” had left the plan on hold until at least after the 2020 presidential election. It has been reported the idea was being pushed by William Happer, a senior staff member on the National Security Council who is also a physicist and vocal critic of the scientific consensus on climate change. Those opposed to it are reported to include Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination Chris Liddell, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.
By a vote of 365 to 65 last week, the House passed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which would remove caps on the number of employment-based visas available to immigrants from individual countries. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the lead sponsor of the bill, said during the floor debate that such caps have had a “harsh impact” on countries with large populations and high demand for visas, such as India, adding that “it can now take a decade or more for an Indian physician working in a medically underserved area or a particle physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT to receive a green card.” She stated that “way over 90 percent” of immigrants seeking employment-based green cards are already employed in the U.S. on temporary visas and that the change would not lead to a large influx of new immigrants.
The House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act on July 12 on a vote of 220 to 197, with no Republicans voting in favor. Their objections included the bill’s recommended funding levels for the Department of Defense and its prohibition on deploying low-yield nuclear weapons, among other matters. The Senate already passed its separate version of the bill two weeks ago, and the chambers will now convene a conference committee to reconcile their proposals. Threatening a veto, a White House statement identified over 40 provisions in the House bill of “significant” concern, including its proposals to establish an R&D program to explore low-enriched uranium fuel options for reactors on naval vessels and to reduce funding for plutonium pit production, which is an element of the U.S.’ long-term plans to maintain its stockpile of nuclear warheads.
At the Department of Commerce’s annual conference on export controls last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the department will soon announce members of an Emerging Technology Technical Advisory Committee that will inform the implementation of the Export Control Reform Act of 2018. Ross noted that the law requires the department to continually assess the impact of export controls to avoid harming U.S. scientific leadership and said that the department would strive to develop multilateral controls. He did not say when the department plans to propose new controls on certain emerging or foundational technologies, as required by the law, though a department official said an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for foundational technologies would be released “very, very soon.”
At a July 10 hearing, House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressed skepticism over NASA’s recently announced plans to dedicate 5% of the International Space Station’s crew and cargo resources to commercial activities and permit private astronaut missions. Johnson stated she is not yet convinced the proposal is appropriate, urging NASA to ensure their “highest priority is carrying out the research and engineering testbed activities that can only be done on the ISS.” Citing the station’s limited lifetime, crew size, and research capabilities, she remarked that NASA’s “focus should be on sending additional crew members or researchers to the station, not well-heeled individuals seeking an exotic vacation.”
Addressing the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee last week, Chris Fall, the newly sworn-in director of the Department of Energy Office of Science, said one of his priorities is to take a fresh look at how the office funds major scientific collaborations to see what has and has not been successful. Mentioning the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) and Energy Innovation Hubs as examples of models the department has used, he remarked, “I think it’s important to ask those questions before we start investing a ton of money in something like quantum and potentially investing much more heavily in accelerator science and technology.” Harriet Kung, director of DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program, reported in her presentation to the committee that the department is currently preparing for its invitation-only meeting of EFRC principal investigators at the end of this month. The theme for the event, which is expected to have about 800 attendees, will be the tenth anniversary of the EFRC model.
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In support of the administration’s artificial intelligence R&D strategy, the White House Office of Management and Budget is accepting public comments on ways to improve the accessibility and quality of relevant federal datasets and models. OMB notes that domain areas of particular interest include weather forecasting, manufacturing, agriculture, and national security, among others. Comments are due Aug. 9.
NASA is accepting public comments on its plans to implement reporting requirements regarding harassment and discrimination among its grantees. The new policy would require awardee organizations to notify NASA when any principal investigator or co-principal investigator is found to have committed harassment or if any “administrative action” is taken against a PI or co-PI. Comments are due Aug. 16.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is hiring for two positions in their Campaign for Science, a new effort to build grassroots support for science in D.C. and targeted states. The policy director will oversee research, policy, and state-level advocacy efforts, and the public affairs director will develop the campaign’s media strategy. Applications are due Aug. 8.
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