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The Week of June 10, 2019
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of June 10, 2019
(Image credit – OSTP)
White House-Led Conference Looking Across the ‘S&T Enterprise’
The White House National Science and Technology Council is convening a public conference at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland this week titled, “Building Bridges Across the S&T Enterprise.” Speakers and panelists are drawn largely from federal agencies, and the event is billed as an opportunity for agency leaders to share best practices on research portfolio management. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier, who is delivering a keynote address on Thursday, has spoken of his desire to develop an enterprise-wide understanding of U.S. R&D and to strengthen partnerships between research institutions. The conference will include breakout sessions on metrics for evaluating R&D outcomes, international planning for large-scale research infrastructure projects, and public access to research results, among other subjects. In addition, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan will deliver a keynote address on the administration’s technology transfer policy initiative, and the recently confirmed director of the Department of Energy Office of Science, Chris Fall, will provide closing remarks on Friday.
FCC Leaders to Testify Amid 5G Spectrum Debate
All five members of the Federal Communications Commission will testify before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee at a hearing on Wednesday. While the event is billed as a general oversight hearing, it arrives as the commission clashes with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA over how to open portions of the electromagnetic spectrum for 5G telecommunications equipment without interfering with Earth-observing satellites. FCC disputes an analysis by the agencies that finds planned use of the 24 GHz spectrum band could severely degrade weather prediction capabilities and scientific research. Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter to FCC in May calling for it to address these concerns before opening the band. In a separate development, the commission has finalized plans for opening bands above 95 GHz that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the National Academies’ Committee on Radio Frequencies have warned could interfere with radio astronomy and Earth-observation activities.
Science Committee Reviewing Responses to Sexual Harassment
The House Science Committee has invited three university administrators and the head of the science team at the Government Accountability Office to testify Wednesday at a hearing on approaches for combatting sexual harassment in science. Committee leaders have already introduced bipartisan legislation on the topic, building on oversight efforts begun last year. (Several AIP Member Societies have endorsed the bill). Coincident with the hearing, GAO will provide a summary of an in-progress study requested by the committee on the prevalence of sexual harassment among federally funded researchers and the consistency of policies across agencies for preventing harassment. Among the witnesses is Wellesley College President Paula Johnson, who co-chaired a landmark National Academies study on sexual harassment in academia published last year. The other two witnesses represent institutions that have recently responded to allegations of harassment against researchers, Boston University and the University of California, Davis.
NASA Science Missions in Congressional Spotlight
Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, is returning to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify at a House Science Committee hearing. The three other witnesses are Chelle Gentemann of Earth and Space Research, Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute, and Princeton University astronomy professor David Spergel. Policy issues currently facing the directorate include its efforts to keep the James Webb Space Telescope on track to launch in March 2021, its level of commitment to the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, and the feasibility of its plans for two missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA has also announced that the Mars 2020 rover will again overrun its budget but has not specified by how much. If it is by more than 15% of the mission’s total cost, NASA must notify Congress and initiate a replanning process. In addition, NASA is currently moving forward with plans to send robotic missions to the lunar surface in association with its high-profile plans for a crewed landing.
House to Take Up Package of Spending Bills
A set of appropriations bills that include funding proposals for the Departments of Energy and Defense and National Institutes of Health are scheduled to reach the House floor this week, where members will consider amendments before voting to approve the package. The bills would provide substantial budget increases to DOE and NIH as well as revive Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. The Senate has yet to release its counterpart proposals, which will ultimately have to be reconciled with anything the House approves. See FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker for details.
House Defense Policy Proposals Move to Full Committee
The House Armed Services Committee is meeting Wednesday to debate its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. The committee will integrate the proposals produced by its six subcommittees and consider amendments in a session that typically stretches into the night. As it did last year, the session is likely to include a discussion of approaches to protecting research institutions against espionage. Leaders of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee are co-sponsors of the Securing American Science and Technology Act (SASTA), which would create a working group tasked with developing a uniform approach to the topic across federal agencies. The measure is not included in the subcommittee’s portion of the NDAA advanced last week, but a summary indicates the panel recommends funding a National Academies roundtable on the topic, which SASTA also proposes. The markup is also likely to include contentious debate over President Trump’s proposal to establish a Space Force as a new service branch as well as nuclear weapons policy. The committee’s Republican minority has criticized the Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s portion of the bill for blocking deployment of a new low-yield warhead and not supporting the Trump administration’s plutonium production strategy, among other items.
NIH Leaders to Discuss Harassment Prevention and Research Security
The National Institutes of Health’s working group on changing research culture to prevent sexual harassment will provide an interim report on its activities at a Thursday meeting of the agency’s principal advisory committee. The update comes in the wake of a public listening session on the topic in May. On Friday, NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak will discuss the agency’s efforts to address undue “foreign influences” on research integrity, such as undisclosed financial support and abuse of the peer review process. In testimony on the topic last week before the Senate Finance Committee, Tabak noted NIH is working with university associations to develop best practices for addressing the problem.
Grassley Calls for Better Vetting of Research Grantees
At a hearing last week, Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) argued more vetting of federal grantees is warranted given the scale of some foreign governments’ efforts to exploit the U.S. research system. Grassley said China is the “most prolific offender,” citing two cases involving the theft of agricultural trade secrets and health research, and a representative of the Homeland Security Department said that Russia and Iran also are countries of concern. The hearing focused on the National Institutes of Health, which recently referred 16 allegations of policy violations to its inspector general for investigation that primarily involve failure to disclose affiliations with foreign organizations. Grassley told ScienceInsider after the hearing that he does not have a particular vetting proposal prepared, remarking, “Maybe it’s not a matter of more laws or more regulations. Maybe it’s a case of better administration of those things.” Meanwhile, warning against overreaction, Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) invited a scientist with experience working at a national security lab to testify on the value of international cooperation in science.
White House Censors Climate Testimony
Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the White House blocked the written statement that senior State Department analyst Rob Schoonover was set to submit at a House Intelligence Committee hearing last week on the national security implications of climate change. The New York Times published a draft of the statement, showing senior officials’ objections to his invocation of a number of scientific findings. For instance, a comment reportedly written by National Security Council staff member and physicist William Happer states that “more CO2 benefits the world until CO2 levels greatly exceed those today.” Although Schoonover ultimately submitted no statement, he still testified at the hearing. Congressional Democrats have made the national security impacts of climate change a focus area. At the hearing, Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) announced he is sponsoring legislation that would establish a climate security intelligence center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
National Academy of Sciences Approves Member Expulsion Process
The National Academy of Sciences announced last week it has adopted bylaws permitting the expulsion of members accused of “the most egregious violations to a new Code of Conduct, including proven cases of sexual harassment.” After the change received initial approval in April, it was put up for a vote by the society’s full membership. Of those who voted, 84% supported the change. The society’s governing council is now developing procedures for evaluating allegations against members and adjudicating appeals.
Astronomers Wary of Interference from New Satellite Constellations
Major astronomy organizations have issued statements raising concerns that planned constellations of communications satellites could interfere with astronomers’ observations. Their reaction was precipitated by SpaceX’s May 23 launch of the first 60 satellites in its Starlink constellation, which aims to provide internet access to remote locations around the globe. The American Astronomical Society and the International Astronomical Union both warned the satellites’ brightness could impact sensitive ground-based observatories and that their radio emissions could interfere with bands used for research. AAS stated it will support groups who are working to characterize and minimize interference from these constellations, and IAU urged federal agencies to develop an associated regulatory framework to mitigate impacts. (AAS is an AIP Member Society.) The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy also indicated that, although it expects the satellites will only be a “nuisance” for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, other telescopes with longer exposures and wider fields of view could experience worse impacts. The National Science Foundation, the largest funder of ground-based astronomy in the U.S., issued a statement acknowledging the satellites will use frequencies near a band used by some observatories but noted it has “finalized a coordination agreement to ensure the company’s Starlink satellite network plans will meet international radio astronomy protection standards.”
EPA Science Board to Review Transparency Rule
EPA’s Science Advisory Board voted last week to carry out a broad assessment of the agency’s controversial rule proposal titled, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” dismissing EPA's request for a narrower review. As drafted, the rule would restrict the agency from using scientific studies with non-public data in future regulations. At the meeting, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler asked the board to provide advice on how the agency should handle research data that is confidential or includes personally-identifiable information. The board nevertheless opted to perform a broader review given the array of questions and concerns raised about the scope of the rule. EPA staff indicated they intend to finalize the rule by the end of the year.
Trump Administration Releases Critical Minerals Strategy
On June 4, the Department of Commerce released an interagency strategy for ensuring the U.S. has access to reliable supplies of 35 minerals deemed critical to economic and national security. Among six overarching “calls to action,” the strategy recommends the Department of Energy lead the development of a roadmap for R&D needs related to resource diversification, recycling, substitution, and associated materials science. Other recommendations include growing the critical mineral workforce through investments in STEM education, reducing permitting times for mining on federal lands, and incentivizing private industry to develop supplies for the defense industrial base.
Landslide and Ocean Acidification Bills Head to Senate
The House passed a set of bills last week that would address risks associated with landslides and ocean acidification. The National Landslide Preparedness Act, which passed by voice vote, backs the U.S. Geological Survey’s landslide hazards reduction efforts, requiring the agency to maintain a landslide hazards database, issue research grants, and improve post-wildfire debris flow early warning systems. Among four ocean acidification bills also sent to the Senate for consideration is the COAST Research Act, which aims to standardize collection and archiving of relevant data.
Future of Ocean Exploration Charted by Science Committee
The House Science Committee invited a panel of ocean researchers and technologists to testify at a subcommittee hearing last week on their exploration goals and Congress’ role in promoting the field. Discussion focused on opportunities for decreasing the cost of exploration technology through unmanned systems, increasing partnerships with the private sector and other countries, and inspiring the public about the oceans. Witnesses advocated for setting “moonshot” goals to galvanize exploration efforts and draw young scientists into the field. Committee members asked about whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should increase its reliance on commercial exploration services rather than recapitalize aging exploration vessels. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) said she plans to introduce a companion bill to the Senate’s bipartisan BLUE GLOBE Act, which would direct NOAA to study how creating an Advanced Research Projects Agency–Oceans could address barriers to technology development.
Disaster Relief Law Includes Research Funding
President Trump signed a $19 billion disaster relief bill into law on June 6 that includes funds to repair research infrastructure and improve prediction of future natural disasters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is receiving $50 million to improve data collection, research, and computational infrastructure for forecasting hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. The U.S. Geological Survey is receiving $99 million to repair facilities damaged by recent earthquakes, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions, including the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.