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The Week of July 31
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 31
(Image credit – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee)
Senate Turns to Other Priorities After Failed Health Care Vote
The House is now in recess through Labor Day but the Senate remains in session this week. After last week’s failed attempt to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the chamber will pivot to other priorities such as advancing federal nominations and possibly taking up a comprehensive energy policy reauthorization bill that fell short last Congress. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who was one of the three decisive votes in the Senate’s rejection of the ACA repeal legislation, is leading the revival of the energy legislation, which includes a variety of research-related provisions. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs, will also hold hearings on increasing water security and drought preparedness and reducing wildland fire risk on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, respectively. However, Murkowski postponed until further notice a July 27 committee vote to recommend six nominees for Department of Energy and Department of the Interior positions. Among the nominees are Paul Dabbar and Mark Menezes, both of whom have longtime experience in energy sector finance, to be DOE under secretaries. It is unknown if the committee plans to consider Dabbar and Menezes before the chamber breaks for recess.
Senate Committee to Consider Ocean Observing Bill
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will vote on a bill to reauthorize the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act of 2009. The law led to the establishment of the national Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS), which advances R&D and deployment of coastal and ocean observation technologies and modeling systems and coordinates the gathering and dissemination of oceans observation data. Data from IOOS is used in research and operational forecasting models within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather, climate, and ocean programs. Among its provisions, the bill would require a periodic assessment of gaps in ocean acidification monitoring and submission of a prioritization plan for how IOOS equipment can be used to address those gaps. While the bill has bipartisan support, reauthorization efforts have failed in the past two congresses.
Senate Advances Science Appropriations Bill
At a July 27 markup, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 on a vote of 30 to 1. The committee report accompanying the bill, which contains detailed funding and policy direction for agency programs, is available here. The bill would decrease funding for NSF’s research and education programs by 2 percent and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate by 3 percent, a departure from the House bill which would hold funding for the NSF accounts flat and raise NASA Science by 2 percent. As in previous years, the chambers sharply diverge on funding for NASA’s Earth Science and Planetary Science Divisions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology fare better in the Senate bill than the House version, with those agencies’ research programs slated for slight increases. See FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker for further details.
Last week, the House passed a security-focused “minibus” appropriations bill composed of four bills, including those for the Departments of Defense and Energy. However, many of the spending levels set in the bill are likely to change in negotiations with the Senate. Several amendments considered during the floor debate are of note, including:
- A successful amendment by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) that restored funding for DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs. The initial bill accepted the Trump administration’s request to zero out their funding.
- A successful amendment by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) preventing DOE from purchasing heavy water from Iran. A similar amendment derailed the Senate’s DOE appropriations bill last year.
- A failed amendment by Takano that would have restored funding for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). There have been numerous attempts to resurrect OTA since it was shuttered in 1995. House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) was among the 13 Republicans who voted for the amendment.
- A failed amendment by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) that would have defunded a provision of the House’s National Defense Authorization Act that directs DOD to develop a space-based missile defense layer. During the debate on the amendment, Foster said that studies by the American Physical Society and the National Academies cast doubt on the technical feasibility and affordability of such a system. The House's NDAA from last year contained a similar provision that was ultimately watered down in the final law.
Bipartisan Open Access Legislation Reintroduced in House
Last week, Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Kevin Yoder (R-KS), and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) reintroduced the “Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act,” a bill that would require all federal agencies with extramural research budgets of more than $100 million to implement policies for increasing public access to publications resulting from the research they fund. A version of the bill has been introduced by the sponsors in the previous two congresses. Among its provisions, the bill would require manuscripts resulting from federally funded research to be made publicly available online no more than six months after their publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Currently, a one-year embargo is the standard set under a 2013 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy directive that outlined requirements for agencies to create and implement open access plans.
DOE’s Technology Strategy Under the Microscope
A recent spate of attention to the Department of Energy’s R&D and innovation policies stepped up a notch this past week. In proposing deep cutbacks to DOE’s applied energy activities, the Trump administration has argued that the private sector should stand more on its own in such efforts. Supporters of this view warn against the government picking winners and propping up economically unsustainable industries, while opponents argue that appropriately structured federal financial and technical assistance can help move emerging industries forward. On July 25, the House Science Committee examined the case of biofuels against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding for DOE’s Bioenergy Research Centers nearly in half. Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee looked at how DOE supports the development and deployment of clean energy technologies, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on hand to testify in favor of supporting advanced nuclear reactors and doubling basic energy research funding. On July 26, the Information Technology Innovation Foundation released a report that praises DOE’s Obama-era support for clean energy demonstration projects while recommending areas for improvement and supporting the idea of creating independent, federally supported entities to manage such efforts. The report’s author is David Hart, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University.
Science Committee Examines STEM & Computer Science Education
On July 26, the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the importance of STEM and computer science education for the 21st century workforce. In his opening statement, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) lamented that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in STEM education, and he and other committee members acknowledged the increasingly integral role that computing competency plays in today’s workforce. James Brown, executive director for the STEM Education Coalition, testified that the increasing importance of computing in “middle-skilled jobs” needs greater recognition, noting that when many people think of STEM careers, they often forget that middle-skilled workers, like auto mechanics, also use computing skills. “We need to make sure the high-quality programs are also in those middle-skilled tracks and that we’re not just focusing resources on ... the people that sort of fit the description of who you’d expect to see when you talk about a STEM job,” he emphasized. Last month, the House passed two bipartisan bills that support initiatives in this area.