NASA is scheduled to launch its flagship Mars Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as early as Thursday morning. Taking advantage of an opportunity for a rapid journey that opens every two years, the rover will be the third mission heading to Mars this summer, following successful launches by the United Arab Emirates and China. NASA officials will provide briefings throughout the week on the rover’s capabilities, the science activities it will perform, and the mission’s helicopter demonstration. Perseverance is the first in an expected series of NASA and European Space Agency missions that together aim to gather and return samples from the planet’s surface to Earth. First announced in 2012 as a follow-on to the agency’s Curiosity rover, NASA originally planned to spend between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion on the project, though development costs ultimately rose to $2.4 billion. Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars in February 2021.
A virtual meeting of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) on Thursday will feature discussion of a subcommittee report looking at “feasible upgrade paths” for Oak Ridge National Lab’s half-century-old High Flux Isotope Reactor as well as the scientific case for building a new research reactor. The Department of Energy requested the report last year, citing an American Physical Society report spotlighting the dearth of research capacity at U.S.-based neutron sources relative to Europe and Asia. BESAC’s subcommittee was chaired by University of Missouri Research Reactor Executive Director David Robertson and former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, physicist Robert Birgeneau. BESAC members will also discuss ongoing work on a separate charge to identify research areas and facility capabilities in which U.S. global leadership is most threatened and to advise on how the DOE Basic Energy Sciences program can most effectively allocate its resources going forward. The meeting is the committee’s first since Linda Horton became the head of the Basic Energy Sciences program this spring.
The France-based ITER fusion energy project is holding an online event on Tuesday to mark the beginning of its “machine assembly” phase, featuring remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron and officials from the seven international project members. Prior to this year, onsite work has focused on building the facility that will house a tokamak apparatus designed to sustain a burning plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. Now, work on the tokamak itself is underway, beginning with the installation earlier this year of a massive cryostat built in India that will cool and support other tokamak components. Components built in other member countries are now also arriving at the site, allowing construction of the tokamak’s first sub-assembly to commence. The main U.S. contribution to the project is the tokamak’s central solenoid, a five-story superconducting magnet that is being funded by the Department of Energy and built by General Atomics.
The House is considering a package of seven spending bills this week covering most major science agencies. The legislation includes $23.5 billion in economic stimulus funding for the Department of Energy that would support a range of infrastructure projects, as well as $5 billion to address pandemic-related disruptions to research funded by the National Institutes of Health. Outside this emergency funding, the House is proposing generally steady funding across agencies:
For details, consult FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday to examine technological and natural means of capturing, storing, and utilizing carbon dioxide. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy head Steven Winberg will testify, as will former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Joseph Hezir of the Energy Futures Initiative, Sasha Mackler of the Bipartisan Policy Center, Shannon Angielski of the Carbon Utilization Research Council, and Columbia University energy policy scholar Julio Friedmann. Carbon management would take on a newly prominent role in the Office of Fossil Energy’s portfolio under the American Energy Innovation Act, a sprawling policy bill unveiled earlier this year by Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV). The legislation stalled on the Senate floor in March and Murkowski and Manchin are now working to revive its fortunes. They have already attached separate provisions of the bill concerning nuclear energy technology to the Senate version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which will soon head to conference committee where lawmakers will hammer out a final version.
On Monday, the National Academies is beginning two weeks of online workshops dedicated to “enhancing federal clean energy innovation.” Sessions will address subjects such as management of R&D and technology demonstration projects at the Department of Energy, strategies for accelerating innovation, and the role of advanced manufacturing in addressing climate change. Participants include former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, former Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy directors Ellen Williams and Arun Majumdar, former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Arati Prabhakar, former DOE Office of Science Director Cherry Murray, Joint Center for Energy Storage Research Director George Crabtree, and eminent innovation advocate Norm Augustine. DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar will deliver opening remarks.
The National Science Board meeting this week will include a panel discussion on the experiences of Black people in science and engineering, as well as a presentation on the National Science Foundation’s work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The panelists will address the “ramifications of marginalizing Black people in STEM” and ways to remove barriers to their entry, retention, and advancement in the science and engineering enterprise. The discussion follows the board’s recent statement on racism in science and engineering, which committed to increasing support for research at HBCUs as part of the board’s Vision 2030 roadmap. The meeting will be the first since Sethuraman Panchanathan took the helm as NSF director last month, and is also the first for new board members Sudarsanam Suresh Babu, Aaron Dominguez, Darío Gil, and Melvyn Huff.
Top officials from the Department of Energy held a press conference at the University of Chicago on July 23 with local politicians to mark the release of a workshop report identifying R&D priorities for building a “quantum internet.” Envisioned as a nationwide secure communications network that leverages the unique properties of entangled photons, the quantum internet would over time incorporate all 17 DOE national laboratories as nodes. The department has already established quantum links between Brookhaven National Lab and Stony Brook University in New York and between Argonne National Lab and the University of Chicago in Illinois, with plans to connect up soon to nearby Fermilab. DOE first announced its intent to develop a quantum internet in its budget request this February, though it has not outlined how much the initiative might cost. Meanwhile, Europe has also embarked on plans to develop a continental quantum internet, and China is continuing to develop both terrestrial and satellite quantum communications networks.
The National Science Foundation announced last week that it will provide $75 million over five years to three new research centers focused on developing quantum sensors, networks, and computers. They are the Institute for Enhanced Sensing and Distribution Using Correlated Quantum States led by the University of Colorado Boulder, the Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computing led by the University of California, Berkeley. According to NSF, the institutes will together support partnerships between 16 core academic institutions, 22 companies, and eight national labs. NSF created the centers in response to a provision in the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act. The Department of Energy plans to announce its own set of quantum research centers next month, funded together at up to $625 million over five years.
The House and Senate passed their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 on votes of 295 to 125 and 86 to 14, respectively. Congress will now establish a conference committee to integrate the bills into a final version. On the floor, senators attached an amendment aimed at boosting domestic microelectronics research and manufacturing similar to the one that was adopted by the House. Among the more controversial amendments, House Democrats voted to block funding for any nuclear weapons testing that generates an explosive yield in response to reports the White House has considered ending the moratorium on such tests. Conversely, the Senate bill would recommend $10 million be provided for activities to reduce the time needed to prepare for a test. Notably, this year’s legislation faces a high-profile veto threat over provisions in both the House and Senate bills requiring military bases named after Confederate officers to be renamed in addition to other objections the White House has raised.
In a briefing with reporters on the U.S. government’s closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston last week, unnamed administration officials alleged the consulate has engaged in a range of actions that exploit the U.S. research system. Referencing an “investigation of grant fraud at a Texas research institution,” an official stated the consulate was “directly involved in communications with researchers and guided them on what information to collect.” Though not specifically identified as the institution in question, the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has been the subject of a sweeping federal investigation into Chinese talent recruitment programs. Another official estimated that over the past decade the consulate has supported more than 50 participants in talent recruitment programs. More broadly, the officials suggested that Chinese consulates in the U.S. have supported a “network” of individuals seeking to evade scrutiny, referencing recent charges against four researchers who allegedly lied about their affiliations with the Chinese military on visa applications. Three of the four were arrested in the last two months, and one who sought refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco was arrested last week. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., released a statement on July 23 calling the allegations about the Houston consulate “groundless fabrications,” and China has ordered the U.S. to close its consulate in Chengdu in retaliation.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved an amended version of the bipartisan Safeguarding American Innovation Act last week on a voice vote, even as U.S. university associations sent the committee two letters outlining various concerns. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), the bill’s lead sponsor, said the amendment addresses some of the university associations’ objections, but also expressed frustration with their continuing opposition to the measure, suggesting some universities are deliberately turning a blind eye to the exploitation of the U.S. research system by foreign governments. The amendment narrows the scope of “outside compensation” that federal grant applicants would have to disclose and modifies requirements pertaining to university reporting of foreign gifts and contracts. It does not address concerns with provisions that would create a new research security council and broaden the State Department’s ability to deny visas. The bill’s lead Democratic sponsor Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) said it is a “work in progress” and that he hopes it will be further modified before the full Senate votes on it.
The National Science Foundation released an updated solicitation for its prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program last week that indicates it will prioritize applications involving artificial intelligence, quantum information science, or computationally intensive research. The announcement quickly attracted blowback on social media, with scientists and students questioning the appropriateness of favoring particular fields in a program designed to support promising talent rather than fund research. Some also argued the move would lead to a less diverse pool of applicants. In its last two budget requests, NSF has stated the program would address particular priority areas, but this is the first time the solicitation itself has referenced the priorities.
European Union national leaders agreed to a €1.8 trillion, seven year budget deal last week that will channel €81 billion into Horizon Europe, the EU’s main research program. The negotiated amount is significantly less than the €94 billion proposed by the European Commission two months ago and would leave science funding through the EU’s Horizon program essentially flat for the next seven years, as the predecessor program Horizon 2020 received €77 billion for the 2014–2020 period. The €750 billion in the deal for pandemic recovery includes €5 billion for Horizon Europe, though none of the recovery spending will go toward the European Research Council’s basic research programs. The broader budget deal also includes up to €5 billion for the ITER fusion reactor, €6.8 billion for artificial intelligence and supercomputing, and up to €13 billion for space programs, focused on the Galileo and Copernicus satellite programs. The budget must be approved by the European Parliament, which suggested €120 billion for Horizon Europe.
The European Research Council announced last week that it reached a “unanimous decision to follow a path towards Open Access implementation that is independent of cOAlition S activities,” referring to the science-funding agencies and organizations around the world that support the Plan S open access initiative. Though the council emphasizes it still supports the underlying principles of Plan S, its announcement notes that it reached the decision after considering the “detrimental” impacts that restricting publication choice would have on early-career researchers. In particular, it cites the policy that publishing in hybrid journals would be considered “non-compliant” after January 2021. Responding, cOAlition S argued, “Maintaining the current status quo on hybrid journals will exacerbate inequalities among European researchers, since only those that benefit from generous funding will be able to cover expensive publication fees.” Robert-Jan Smits, a principal organizer of the Plan S initiative, called the council’s move a “slap in the face” to organizations working toward open access.
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The National Academies is hiring a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, a newly created position that will report to the chief human resources officer and work to develop policies to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Applicants must have at least five years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is seeking a director for its Cyclotron Road Division, which promotes entrepreneurship initiatives at the lab. The director manages the Cyclotron Road Fellowship Program, which provides two year fellowships for scientists working to commercialize technology concepts. Applicants must have a doctoral degree in a science or engineering field, with at least five years of relevant experience. Applications are due Aug. 15.
The American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, and Association of Science and Technology Centers are accepting applications for their Community Science Fellows program. The program matches fellows with local leaders to design projects that leverage science to address a community priority. Applications are due Nov. 6.