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The Week of July 23
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 23
Science Committee to Probe Webb Telescope Delay at Two-Day Hearing
The House Science Committee is holding a two-day full committee hearing on Wednesday and Thursday to investigate the latest James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) cost and schedule overruns. Under its baseline schedule, JWST was to launch this fall but incidents during its integration and testing by prime contractor Northrop Grumman have pushed the target launch date to March 2021. The delay will result in an estimated $800 million breach of the $8 billion cost cap that Congress placed on the mission’s development in 2011, triggering a requirement for congressional reauthorization. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who sat on the Science Committee as a congressman, will appear on Wednesday. He will testify alongside Tom Young, former president of Martin Marietta and chair of the independent review board that determined JWST’s updated cost and schedule. On Thursday, Young will appear again, alongside outgoing Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush.
NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee to Meet
NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee is meeting on Monday and Tuesday. Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz is delivering a division update on Monday morning, followed by a presentation from James Webb Space Telescope Program Director Eric Smith. The division is facing the critical question of how the JWST delay will impact other science missions. Answers hinge on congressional decisions concerning whether NASA or other federal programs will bear the cost burden of the delay, and whether the division’s next flagship mission, the $3.2 billion Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, will be fully funded, partially funded, or cancelled.
National Academies to Release Study on Proposed Electron Ion Collider
On Tuesday, the National Academies will hold a webinar to release a study report evaluating the case for a new U.S.-based electron ion collider (EIC). The study co-chairs, physicists Gordon Baym and Ani Aprahamian, will discuss how such a facility could advance work in quantum chromodynamics, the physics of the force that binds atomic nuclei together. In its “2015 Long Range Plan for Nuclear Science,” the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, which serves the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, identified a “high-energy high-luminosity polarized EIC as the highest priority for new facility construction” following completion of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University. Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia have each developed plans for an EIC that would complement their existing accelerators.
Conferees Near Completion of Defense Policy Bill
Negotiations on this year’s National Defense Authorization Act appear to be nearly complete, as the House reportedly plans to vote on it this week before departing for summer recess. The Senate will remain in session next week and will hold its vote sometime after the House passes the bill. Lawmakers have already revealed the final bill will contain provisions reforming foreign investment review mechanisms that the Senate included partly as a means of making it easier to block China and other nations from using investment in U.S. firms as a way to access sensitive technologies and intellectual property.
Space Weather Bill Set for Science Committee Vote
On Tuesday, the House Science Committee is meeting to consider the Senate’s bipartisan “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act,” which that chamber cleared by unanimous consent in May 2017. Several members of the committee have been pushing a similar bill. Both would delineate responsibilities for space weather research, forecasting, and preparedness across various federal agencies. At a hearing this May on space weather, Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said the legislation has broad support from the space weather community and argued it is needed to prevent “backsliding” on progress already made through the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan. On Wednesday, members of the space weather community are meeting to discuss the bill at the annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum.
Physics Teachers Descending on DC
Hundreds of physics educators are coming to Washington, D.C. this week for the summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers, which begins Saturday. Among the policy-focused events are a policy training workshop on Saturday and a Congressional Visits Day, both co-organized with AIP.
Scientific Societies and Democrats Criticize EPA Science Rule
The day before the Environmental Protection Agency’s public hearing last week on a proposal to restrict the scientific basis of many regulatory decisions to studies with publicly accessible data, over 60 scientific societies, public health groups, and academic associations indicated they “strongly oppose” the move. They argue there are many credible scientific studies for which releasing the underlying raw data is infeasible or ill-advised on confidentiality grounds. At the hearing, three Democratic members of the House Science Committee testified in opposition to the proposed rule, with Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) calling it a “thinly veiled campaign” to hamstring EPA’s ability to use science. Meanwhile, Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) issued a statement noting the rule contains provisions to protect confidential data and arguing it is consistent with the principles espoused by a new National Academies report on open science. The presidents of the National Academies also weighed in last week, writing that, although the proposal appears “generally consistent” with advice the Academies have provided in the past, they believe “much more clarity is required” on how the rule would be implemented in order to assess its impact on the quality of EPA’s regulatory decision making.
National Academies Panel Calls for ‘Open Science by Design’
The National Academies released the final report last week of a study committee that has been examining how to move toward open science “as the default approach” for the research enterprise. The report advocates the adoption of principles and practices to foster openness throughout the entire research lifecycle, focusing on the roles of researchers, research funders, and research institutions. Calling for persistent and coordinated actions to expand access to scientific publications, data, and code, the report makes five recommendations, including the creation of a “culture” supportive of open science and the implementation of open science training programs. The report does acknowledge drawbacks for scientific publishers and the organizations they support from rapid shifts in publishing business models, but study chair Alexa McCray, a professor at Harvard Medical School, called open science “a natural consequence of the digital revolution” and stressed that openness is “fundamental to the progress of science and to the effective functioning of the research enterprise.”
New Defense Department R&D Organization Comes into Focus
DefenseNews has obtained a Department of Defense memorandum, dated June 13, outlining plans for the new organization being created under the purview of Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (R&E) Mike Griffin. Roughly consistent with preliminary plans that DOD presented last year, there will be two directors of defense R&E, one for “research and technology” and another for “advanced capabilities.” In a departure from those plans, now each director will oversee a series of assistant directors dedicated exclusively to certain high-priority technology areas. Under research and technology, these areas will be microelectronics, cyber, quantum science, directed energy, and machine learning/artificial intelligence. Under advanced capabilities will be C3 (command, control, and communications), space, autonomy, and hypersonics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Missile Defense Agency, Strategic Capabilities Office, and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) will report directly to Griffin’s office. DOD confirmed the memo’s authenticity to DefenseNews and said it is “just one step in the reorganization,” which is being fleshed out in consultation with Congress.
At a July 19 House Intelligence Committee hearing on China’s R&D strategy, witnesses painted a dire picture of an expansive, decades-long campaign by the Chinese government to build an independent research base and acquire American technology through legal and illegal means such as cybertheft, industrial espionage, investments in technology companies, and broad participation in U.S. graduate programs. Michael Brown, a former Silicon Valley CEO and co-author of a highly influential Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) report on China’s technology acquisition strategy, called current American policy towards Chinese graduate students “the worst of both worlds” because immigration laws force many who study in the U.S. to return to China after they graduate. James Philips, CEO of NanoMech, Inc., argued China is engaging in a concerted cyber war, “invading the U.S. every day, trying to take over the U.S. in terms of all our science and technology.” Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, took a markedly different tone, acknowledging risks and benefits of R&D collaboration with China and arguing the U.S. should act “not just fearing competition with China, but rather embracing it.” In addition to defensive measures, witnesses called on the U.S. to greatly increase its domestic investments in science and technology, with Brown pointing out that federal R&D spending as a fraction of GDP has declined to 0.7 percent from 2 percent during the height of the space race with the Soviet Union.
DOE Reorganization Proposals Receive Pushback from Senate Panel
At a July 19 Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, members from both parties aired concerns about the Trump administration’s proposal to merge the Department of Energy’s applied energy offices into a single Office of Energy Innovation. While Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she supports efforts to break stovepipes between offices at DOE, she made clear she would not support any move that would weaken the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which would be eliminated as part of merger. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) also expressed concern about how the reorganization would impact funding for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. While Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) did not directly weigh in on the applied office merger, she argued that many of the administration’s reorganization proposals are focused on “fixing problems that don’t exist.” Murkowski also expressed her and Cantwell’s opposition to Section 3111 of the Senate’s version of the pending annual defense policy bill, which would reduce the secretary of energy’s authority over the National Nuclear Security Administration. She noted the administration also opposes the provision, as detailed in its Statement of Administration Policy on the bill.
On July 19, President Trump issued an executive order to create a new President’s National Council for the American Worker. According to the order, the U.S. requires new education and training opportunities to address a “skills crisis” in the economy deriving from developments in “technology, automation, and artificial intelligence.” One of the council’s initial tasks will be to develop a national campaign to focus attention on the crisis, the importance of STEM education, and the emergence of new industries and job opportunities, among other matters. The National Science Foundation and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will have seats on the council, which will be co-chaired by the secretaries of commerce and labor, the assistant to the president for domestic policy, and the head of the White House Office of Economic Initiatives.
National Science Board to Overhaul S&E Indicators
At its summer meeting last week, the National Science Board discussed major reforms it is planning for the National Science and Engineering Indicators. Julia Phillips, the chair of the Committee on National Science and Engineering Policy, praised the indicators but said their current length — over 2,000 pages in 2018 — has brought the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) “to its knees.” NCSES Program Director Beethika Khan said that, to make production sustainable, eight thematic chapters will be spun off from the main report, published on a cycle, and shortened from between 100 and 150 pages to between 20 and 30 pages each.
House Passes Spending Bill for USGS and EPA
On a mostly party-line vote last week, the House passed a package of fiscal year 2019 spending bills containing the Interior-Environment Appropriations Bill, which includes funding for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency. Although many of the 59 amendments adopted prior to passage were controversial, an amendment by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) to increase funding for USGS’s Volcano Hazards Program by $4.8 million was adopted on a voice vote. The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the bills this week as part of a broader spending package. Details about spending proposals for USGS are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.