Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is planning to hold a vote this week to begin floor debate on a special infrastructure spending package that is being constructed around a framework produced last month by a bipartisan group of 10 senators. The vote is intended to pressure negotiators to iron out remaining disagreements about the framework and convert it into detailed legislation. On July 14, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 13 to 7 to approve its Energy Infrastructure Act, which Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) said will be incorporated into the package. As amended prior to the vote, the bill proposes more than $100 billion in spending on programs and projects under the committee’s jurisdiction, including over $25 billion to fund energy technology initiatives, some of which were authorized in the Energy Act of 2020 and some of which are entirely new. Support for the bill split mainly along party lines, but Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Steve Daines (R-MT) broke ranks to vote in favor of it. Notably, Manchin, Murkowski, and Cassidy are all members of the group that negotiated the bipartisan framework, which in its original form did not include R&D or technology demonstration components. Just before the committee voted on the bill, Murkowski thanked its members and staff for their quick work on it saying, “Frameworks don’t work until you can fill in the details.”
The House Intelligence Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday on the subject of microelectronics and national security. The witnesses will be Center for Security and Emerging Technology research analyst Will Hunt, Semiconductor Industry Association government relations head David Isaacs, and former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Lisa Porter. The Defense Department undertook a significant surge in microelectronics R&D during Porter’s time there, and before that she served as head of laboratory programs for In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit venture capital firm that invests in technologies for U.S. intelligence agencies. The Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act includes $52 billion in direct funding for the semiconductor manufacturing and R&D programs authorized in the CHIPS for America Act. Parallel spending provisions have not been introduced in the House, but Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Reuters last month that “all signals from the House have been positive that they support getting something done in a short period of time.”
On Tuesday, the House Science Committee is holding a hearing to discuss how reallocations of the electromagnetic spectrum for new commercial applications may disrupt existing spectrum users in the Earth and space sciences. Leaders of the committee from both parties have raised concerns that the opening of certain spectrum bands for 5G applications may severely degrade weather data collection absent sufficient mitigation measures. The U.S. ultimately adopted more stringent interference limits than the Federal Communications Commission initially proposed for a 24 gigahertz band that is adjacent to one used by Earth observation satellites, but critics argue the limits are still insufficient, and auctions of additional bands have raised further concerns. In 2019, the committee requested a study on the topic by the Government Accountability Office, which will report on its findings at the hearing. Among the other witnesses are Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Bill Mahoney, director of the Research Applications Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding subcommittee meetings on Monday and Tuesday to advance components of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’ comprehensive annual update to national defense policy. As usual, most of these meetings will take place behind closed doors, including all the key ones for research and technology policy. Debate at the full committee level will begin on Wednesday, also in closed session, and could run into Thursday. The House Armed Services Committee will be holding subcommittee meetings on their version of the legislation next week, but they are not scheduled to take it up at the full committee level until after Congress’ August recess. Unlike the Senate meetings, the House meetings are generally conducted in open session.
Three advisory committees to federal science agencies are holding meetings this week:
On Wednesday, the National Academies is launching a congressionally requested study that will develop a long-term agenda for research on the health effects of low doses of radiation and identify options for improving interagency coordination and public outreach on the topic. The study committee is chaired by oncologist Joe Gray and is sponsored by the Department of Energy, which will offer its perspective on the study charge at the meeting. Separately this week, a newly formed National Academies assessment panel for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Center for Neutron Research will conduct a three-day virtual site visit of the facility. The last National Academies report on the center in 2018 recommended that NIST begin preparing to replace the reactor, which is more than 50 years old. In a recent letter to House appropriators, House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) also advocated for the agency to receive funds to begin planning for “the future of the reactor after it is set to decommission in 2029.” Currently, the reactor is in an extended shutdown due to a radiation incident earlier this year that has been linked to operator error.
Update: NIST wishes to clarify that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's license for the NCNR reactor is due to expire in 2029, but that it is anticipated the license will be renewed at that time. NIST states that it has no plans to decommission the reactor.
President Biden announced on July 16 that he is nominating Laurie Locascio to be director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Locascio is currently vice president for research at the University of Maryland’s College Park and Baltimore campuses, but she spent most of her career at NIST, rising to become chief of the Biomedical Science Division, director of the Material Measurement Laboratory, and ultimately the agency’s associate director for laboratory programs. She received a master’s degree in bioengineering from the University of Utah in 1986 and a doctorate in toxicology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 1999. Before leaving NIST for her current job in 2017, she kicked off development of the first long-term strategic plan for the agency’s laboratory programs since 1981. The Biden administration is currently proposing to increase NIST’s annual budget from about $1 billion to almost $1.5 billion, with the additional funding targeted at expanding its manufacturing programs, addressing facilities maintenance backlogs, and bolstering research programs, particularly in the areas of quantum information science, artificial intelligence, engineering biology, advanced telecommunications, and climate change mitigation.
House appropriators finished approving all of their fiscal year 2022 spending legislation last week and released committee reports detailing their proposals for all federal agencies. For the National Science Foundation, they endorse the Biden administration’s proposal to create a Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships and would provide up to a 25% overall increase to $3.1 billion for a set of crosscutting priorities, just shy of the $3.3 billion requested. Within the Department of Energy, they do not support creating a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate, asserting its proposed functions can be accommodated within the existing ARPA–Energy, for which they propose $600 million, or $400 million less than was requested for the two agencies combined. The appropriators propose no funding for the Versatile Test Reactor user facility project, offering no explanation or views on if it should be terminated. Within NASA, they propose fully funding SOFIA, an airborne telescope that both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to shut down on the grounds its operating expenses are high compared to its scientific output. They follow the administration in proposing cuts to Defense Department Science and Technology accounts, though they would restrict them to 5% rather than 13%.
House leaders are planning on bringing a seven-bill spending package to the floor before the August recess that would include the bills that fund DOE, the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Geological Survey, and Environmental Protection Agency. Other bills could also be brought to the floor if time allows. Further information about the House appropriators’ funding proposals are collected in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced on July 13 that environmental scientist Allison Crimmins will serve as director of the Fifth National Climate Assessment. Crimmins has been employed at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation since 2011, undertaking scientific assessments and policy analyses, and has participated in past NCA efforts. She earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology from Michigan State University in 2001, a master’s degree in oceanography and marine science from San Francisco State University in 2006, and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University in 2010. Much of Crimmins’ work has focused on climate issues and last year she wrote an article suggesting that the federal government create a Department of Climate to coordinate and strengthen its climate change efforts. Late last year, the Trump administration appointed atmospheric scientist Betsy Weatherhead to direct the assessment, but the Biden administration removed her from the job this spring without explanation even though her selection was not regarded as controversial.
Michael Brown, President Biden’s nominee to be under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, withdrew from consideration last week due to an ongoing investigation into his hiring practices in his current role as director of the Defense Innovation Unit. DOD official Stacy Cummings, who is serving in the role on an acting basis, is herself planning to leave the Pentagon soon. Meanwhile, Biden’s nomination of Heidi Shyu to be under secretary for research and engineering, is one of a number related to national security that are currently stalled in the Senate. Together, these developments have created uncertainty surrounding the progress of the department’s efforts to accelerate private-sector innovation in defense technology while preventing rival nations from taking advantage of those innovations.
Separately, Biden announced picks last week for two positions that will also have implications for national security technology policy. Former senior DOD acquisition official Alan Estevez is in line to be under secretary of commerce for industry and security, which would place him in charge of the Commerce Department’s implementation of export controls intended to protect strategically sensitive technologies from being acquired by other nations. Andrew Hunter is Biden’s nominee for the position that oversees acquisition and R&D activities for the Air Force and Space Force. Hunter is currently director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and previously served as chief of staff to Ash Carter and Frank Kendall when they each served as the Defense Department’s lead official for acquisition and R&D during the Obama administration.
Monica Medina, President Biden’s nominee to lead the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, sailed through her nomination hearing last week. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) lauded Medina’s expertise in ocean conservation and environmental policy, especially her experience in various leadership roles in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In her testimony, Medina listed biodiversity loss, ocean regulation, and space exploration and commercialization as her top priorities for the office, and pledged to work with the committee on pandemic response and global health security measures.
At a hearing last week, Democratic leaders of the House Judiciary Committee argued that U.S. immigration requirements are unduly onerous for highly skilled immigrants and pointed to evidence suggesting that individuals on temporary visas have increasingly moved to Canada, which recently modified its immigration policies to attract STEM professionals. Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) stated that Canada has for instance implemented a startup visa program that was inspired by a 2011 House bill. Immigration Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who represents part of Silicon Valley, cited an example of how an immigrant scientist remained on temporary work visas in the U.S. for nine years but gained approval for permanent resident status in Canada within six months. In contrast, Subcommittee Ranking Member Tom McClintock (R-CA) argued that U.S. workers are displaced by participants in the H-1B skilled visa program and the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which permits recent graduates to remain in the U.S. for a period to acquire work experience in their field of study. One of the hearing witnesses, Howard University political science professor Ronil Hira, characterized the STEM OPT track as an “entitlement program” that does not have adequate admissions standards and is “divorced from any basis in labor shortages.”
The Republican staff of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee released a report last week that concludes the Commerce Department’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) has engaged in serial misconduct since its creation in 2005. Among the activities in question are attempts to uncover inappropriate connections between Chinese institutions and scientists in Commerce Department agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to whistleblower testimony, these probes targeted department divisions with higher proportions of Asian American employees. The report quotes an unnamed former department official who argued that ITMS’ surveillance and investigation of those employees walked a “fine line between extra scrutiny and xenophobia, [which] ITMS regularly crossed.” In addition, the report reviews how ITMS accused NOAA hydrologist Sherry Chen of inappropriately passing information to a foreign national. ITMS ultimately referred the case to the FBI, resulting in her arrest in 2014, only for the charges to be dropped months later. Chen was nevertheless dismissed from her position and the Commerce Department continues to resist reinstating her despite a judge finding in 2018 that her prosecution was unjust. Another NOAA scientist Chunzai Wang was arrested in 2016 following an ITMS probe for illegally participating in Chinese talent programs, but also had all charges dropped but one, which carried a token sentence. The Commerce Department temporarily suspended all ITMS investigations in May and states that its Office of Inspector General is reviewing the allegations of racial profiling.
The Department of Energy announced its second Energy Earthshot target last week, setting a goal of reducing the cost of long-duration energy storage by 90% by 2030 in order to improve grid reliability and flexibility. Building on the department’s crosscutting Energy Storage Grand Challenge, the “Long-Duration Storage Shot” will support the development of systems that can store energy for more than 10 hours at a time and will consider a variety of technologies, including electrochemical, mechanical, thermal, and chemical carriers. The administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2022 includes $1.2 billion for energy storage research at DOE, an increase of 150%, including $400 million through a proposed Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations to support commercial-scale energy storage projects. The department announced its first Earthshot goal in June, which aims to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen.
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The National Science Foundation is hiring a deputy assistant director for its Geosciences Directorate, as well as directors for divisions dedicated to Ocean Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Information and Intelligent Systems, Computing and Communication Foundations, and Social and Economic Sciences. Applicants for all roles must have a doctorate in a relevant field and will be evaluated on both their technical knowledge and managerial skills. Application deadlines vary, with applications for the mathematics position due July 21.
Several scientific organizations are partnering to sponsor the 2021-2022 cohort of Kavli Civic Science Fellows, who will work to support various civic engagement activities and research projects. Application deadlines vary by organization.
The California Council on Science and Technology, which administers a year-long fellowship in the California State Legislature, is accepting applications for a program assistant, campaign project manager, science officer, and finance director. Qualifications and application due dates vary by position.