FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, a former governor of Indiana and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, is testifying this week on the case for reopening campuses this fall.
(Image credit – Mark Simons / Purdue University)
Three university presidents will testify on approaches to returning students to campus at a hearing the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is holding on Thursday. Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has advocated for colleges to reopen in the fall with enhanced safety measures and liability protections in place. A coalition of higher education associations has requested that Congress provide “temporary and targeted” liability measures to protect against “excessive and speculative lawsuits.” However, Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) has said she opposes granting a “liability shield” to colleges, calling instead for the government to establish “clear, enforceable standards” for safety. Two of the witnesses for the hearing are Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and Brown University President Christina Paxson, who have written op-eds making the case for reopening in the fall. The other two are Lane College President Logan Hampton and American Public Health Association Executive Director Georges Benjamin. Next week, the committee is scheduled to hold a hearing focused on primary and secondary schools.
President Trump’s nomination of Sethuraman Panchanathan to lead the National Science Foundation is scheduled for a committee vote on Wednesday alongside seven other nominations. The committee has skipped the traditional step of holding a hearing on the nomination, likely due to the pandemic and the lack of any controversy surrounding it. Panchanathan, currently the chief research and innovation officer at Arizona State University, did recently appear before a separate Senate committee to testify on how federal research funding supports the U.S. economy. NSF is currently led on an acting basis by Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office and Science and Technology Policy, who assumed the role in April after France Córdova completed her six year term as director.
The National Academies is hosting a virtual workshop this week to gather input on R&D activities that could accelerate progress in understanding Earth system predictability, including “transformative big ideas.” Among six broad themes to be explored are the “theoretical limits” on Earth system predictability and the development of “purpose-driven” prediction systems that are co-designed with stakeholders to address specific needs. The workshop will inform federal agencies’ approaches to an item in the White House’s latest R&D budget priorities memorandum that directs them to prioritize efforts that “quantify Earth system predictability across multiple phenomena, time, and space scales.” Agencies have also issued a request for public input on the topic, which closes June 16.
The American Astronomical Society’s summer meeting kicks off virtually this week in place of a physical conference that it originally planned to hold in Madison, Wisconsin. The bulk of this year’s meeting will be streamed live, with some asynchronous events and significantly reduced registration fees. Town hall meetings with representatives from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are among the featured events.
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Speaking to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on May 29, President Trump announced new measures marking a more confrontational approach toward China.
(Image credit – Joyce Boghosian / The White House)
President Trump issued a proclamation on May 29 that bars Chinese nationals from “seeking to enter the United States pursuant to an F or J visa to study or conduct research” if they have past or present ties to universities or other institutions deemed to contribute to the Chinese government’s “military-civil fusion” strategy. However, the proclamation, which takes effect June 1, does not specify which institutions might meet that criterion, leaving the policy’s application to the discretion of the State Department. Nor does the Chinese government specifically identify institutions as contributing to military-civil fusion, which it frames as the ability to readily and interchangeably apply national resources to economic and military goals. Individuals seeking to study at the undergraduate level or work in fields deemed not relevant to Chinese military capabilities are exempted from the new policy, as are certain other categories of people, such as green card holders. While the proclamation was one of number of steps Trump announced in response to China’s placement of new restrictions on Hong Kong and as part of his efforts to hold China culpable for the COVID-19 pandemic, the move is tied to the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to crack down on the misappropriation of U.S. research and technology. Further actions could be forthcoming, as the proclamation also grants the State Department discretion to revoke visas already issued to individuals meeting its criteria. It also asks the department and the Department of Homeland Security to recommend further visa and immigration measures within 60 days.
Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN) rolled out a new bill on May 27 that would bar most Chinese nationals from receiving visas to take positions at U.S. academic institutions as graduate students or postdocs in any STEM field. Titled the SECURE CAMPUS Act, the bill would also bar Chinese nationals from receiving any funding from federal research grants, and it would forbid federally funded institutions from employing participants in talent recruitment programs operated by the Chinese government. Moreover, talent program participants and recruiters would be required to register as agents of the Chinese government. Although the bill is unlikely to be enacted, its provisions could provide a template for future federal policy changes, much as President Trump’s new proclamation barring visas for certain graduate students and researchers echoes a bill that Cotton and several other Republican lawmakers introduced one year ago. Seven Republican senators led by Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced a separate bill on May 21 that would require all Chinese nationals who hold student visas and work on research related to COVID-19 to undergo enhanced security screening, citing an FBI warning that China is targeting such research for cyberattacks.
American Meteorological Society President Mary Glackin has issued a statement condemning racism in reaction to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery that have sparked protests around the country. “We acknowledge the pain our Black and African American community members are experiencing and hope our solidarity relieves a small part of the weight of that pain. In the AMS community, we promise to continue doing all we can to challenge and change systems of inequity that perpetuate racism and bias within our community,” the statement reads in part. Marshall Shepherd, AMS president for 2013-2014, shared his own experiences as an African American scientist facing racism and discrimination in an article published in Forbes. While noting that AMS and many other STEM organizations have “woefully low numbers of Black or African American members” due to historical and systemic barriers, he applauded the statement as a "heartfelt bridge from a science community to the broader community." (AMS is an AIP Member Society)
The Washington Post reported on May 22 that the Trump administration has discussed potentially breaking a longstanding moratorium on explosive nuclear weapons testing to gain leverage in arms control negotiations with Russia and China, citing an unnamed senior official. The administration has recently questioned whether China and Russia have been abiding by commitments to not conduct tests that generate an explosive yield and it has sought to include China in the expiring US–Russia New START warhead limitation treaty. The idea of resuming testing reportedly faced internal pushback from the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that certifies the reliability of U.S. nuclear warheads through its Stockpile Stewardship Program. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz issued a statement with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) on May 27 that argues other countries would have more to gain from the resumption of testing and defends the integrity of the current non-explosive testing program. Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden also issued a statement praising the program, writing that the “scientists that lead our national nuclear laboratories have regularly affirmed that we have learned more about the weapons in the two-plus decades of the Stockpile Stewardship Program than we did during four decades of weapons testing.”
Last week, the White House announced President Trump intends to nominate Lucas Polakowski to lead the Defense Department’s nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. Polakowski is a retired Army Reserve general who previously served as deputy director of the U.S. Strategic Command Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction. The position has remained unfilled for over a year since its former occupant, Guy Roberts, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment, which have since been substantiated by the DOD inspector general’s office. Also last week, the White House announced Trump’s appointment of Melvyn Hoff, a mathematician at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, as a member of the National Science Board. There now remain two vacancies on the 24 member board, as the White House previously announced replacements for four of the eight members whose six year terms expired on May 10, and another has been reappointed to a new term.
The decadal assessment of plasma science released last week by the National Academies recommends that federal science agencies increase their coordination to better steward the highly interdisciplinary field, including by establishing joint funding opportunities between programs that support fundamental plasma science and those focused on science and technologies that utilize plasmas. The study committee observes that certain interdisciplinary fields such as plasma biotechnology have currently “fallen between the cracks of the perceived responsibilities of individual funding agencies.” The committee also highlights inconsistency of support for the field from the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate, recommending it establish a plasma-focused program to support the development of beneficial applications across subdisciplines. In addition, the committee strongly urges an increased focus on workforce development, saying they are “gravely concerned that poor demographics [in plasma science and engineering] and current hiring practices are eroding the ability of the field to meet national priorities.” The report recommends increased funding for university research programs in order to address the “lack of a critical mass” of plasma science faculty.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy led a discussion among ministers of the G7 countries last week that focused on opportunities for international scientific cooperation in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Among the outcomes, the U.S. joined the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, which will initially focus on the ethical application of AI technologies to coronavirus response and recovery. The White House also announced that two government groups in the U.K. and Switzerland would join the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium that it established earlier this year. Separately, the National Academies released three joint statements with science academies from the other G7 countries focused on increasing support for basic research and scholarly exchanges, prioritizing application of digital health technologies, and addressing global insect declines.
A bipartisan group of four lawmakers led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) rolled out legislation last week that proposes to pump $100 billion over five years into a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation. Schumer released a compilation of statements praising the proposal by education, business, and government leaders from New York. Associations representing major U.S. research universities also issued statements applauding the measure. Some observers have raised concerns, though, that the proposal could detract from NSF’s responsibility for advancing fundamental science. Arden Bement, who directed NSF from 2004 to 2010, told Science magazine he believes federal funds should instead be channeled through other agencies whose missions are more compatible with technology development. In contrast, France Córdova, who completed her term as NSF director this March, told FYI she is enthusiastic about the proposal, saying that in the decades since the founding of NSF there is now “more seamless integration of the very basic fundamental research and what people have called the use-inspired and more applied research.”
Last week, 38 House Republicans introduced the American Critical Mineral Exploration and Innovation Act, led by members on the Science and Natural Resources Committees. The bill would require the Interior Department to periodically update a list of critical minerals and assess supply chain vulnerabilities and would direct the Department of Energy to establish an R&D program focused on the processing, recycling, and replacement of critical minerals. It would also require the Interior and Labor Departments to conduct a study of mineral workforce needs and establish a grant program to support research and training at universities. A similar bill was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last summer.
All times are Eastern Daylight Time and all events are virtual, unless otherwise noted. Listings do not imply endorsement.
Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
The American Geosciences Institute is conducting a year-long study to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the geoscience community. The study aims to “understand how geoscience employers and educational institutions are changing their workplace and instructional environments and to discover which of these changes will become permanent.” U.S. geoscientists at all career stages are invited to sign up to participate in the survey, which will be sent twice a month.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is accepting applications for its 2021 Graduate Fellowship Program. Fellows spend a year in an NNSA program or site office working in areas ranging from nuclear nonproliferation and stockpile stewardship to oversight of laboratory infrastructure. Recent graduates or current students focused on policy or technical fields are encouraged to apply. Applications are due Oct. 2.
For additional opportunities, please visit www.aip.org/fyi/opportunities. Know of an opportunity for scientists to engage in science policy? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
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