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The Week of June 12
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 June 12
National Academies To Release ARPA–E Assessment
On Tuesday, the National Academies will host a release event for a new report that aims to provide a detailed programmatic examination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy at a pivotal moment in the agency’s short lifespan. President Trump is proposing to eliminate the $306 million agency, which Congress created in 2007 via the America COMPETES Act. The report will appraise the appropriateness and effectiveness of ARPA-E’s processes and operations with respect to its mission and goals, and also present a retrospective and technical assessment. The agenda, registration, and webcast link are available here.
Appropriators Turn to NNSA and DOD Budgets
On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing on President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal for the National Nuclear Security Administration. NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz, Deputy Administrator for Naval Reactors Adm. James F. Caldwell, Jr., and Acting Deputy Administrators Philip Calbos and David Huizenga will testify. Also on Wednesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford will testify before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to discuss the budget for DOD. The two will then appear before the same subcommittee in the House on Thursday. Most of the discussion at these hearings is likely to revolve around general issues of defense and nuclear weapons, but questions pertinent to R&D could be asked.
Several NSF Advisory Committees Convening
Multiple National Science Foundation directorate-level advisory committees are meeting this week, including those for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Education and Human Resources, and the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorates. Among the items to be discussed by the EHR panel are investments in the STEM and skilled technical workforce as well as increasing public ownership of scientific research. The MPS panel will discuss ongoing management transitions of astronomical and materials research facilities, and National Academies studies and decadal reports. See “Upcoming Events” for details on each.
NIST Advisory Committee to Discuss Lab Structure
The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology is gathering in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on Tuesday and Wednesday. The committee will hear from a number of NIST programs and laboratories, which will include updates on ongoing agency-wide strategic planning efforts. NIST Acting Director Kent Rochford will provide an NIST-wide update on Tuesday and lead a discussion on NIST’s laboratory structure on Wednesday. The recently enacted American Innovation and Competitiveness Act directed NIST to develop a strategic plan for its laboratory programs that “expands interactions with academia, international researchers, and industry; and commercial and industrial applications.”
OSA & APS Event to Highlight Revolution in Medical Imaging
The Optical Society (OSA) and American Physical Society are hosting an event on Wednesday at OSA’s headquarters to highlight advances in biomedical optics and photonics. Panelists from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University, and Howard Hughes Medical Center will discuss how emerging optical technologies are enhancing the medical imaging market and driving a revolution in diagnostic medical imaging.
Trump Keeps Collins as NIH Director, Appoints Cancer Institute Head
On June 6, President Trump announced that Francis Collins, who has been director of the National Institutes of Health since 2009, will continue to serve in that capacity. Trump had already asked Collins to stay on temporarily but this arrangement appears more permanent. In addition, on June 9, Trump announced that he will appoint Ned Sharpless, a physician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to be the next director of the National Cancer Institute. Among the challenges the two will grapple with, the administration is proposing to slash the NIH budget by 22 percent in fiscal year 2018.
NIH Drops Controversial Grant Cap Proposal, Establishes New Fund for Early Career Scientists
After receiving considerable pushback, the National Institutes of Health has backed off from a proposal to cap the total grant support that individual principal investigators can receive from the agency. Instead, NIH is creating a new fund to support early and mid-career scientists as part of the Next Generation of Researchers Initiative created by the recently enacted 21st Century Cures Act. In a presentation at a June 8 advisory committee meeting, NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak announced that “beginning immediately,” NIH will allocate about $210 million for the fund and will grow it over the next five years to provide an annual funding level of about $1.1 billion.
NSF Director Córdova Testifies at Budget Hearing
On June 7, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee welcomed NSF Director France Córdova to discuss the agency’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee expressed their desire to give robust funding to NSF in the face of the Trump administration’s proposal to cut its budget by 11 percent. However, Subcommittee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) acknowledged that larger budgetary considerations will also weigh on what they can provide and that the subcommittee had not yet been informed what its share of appropriations for the next fiscal year would be.
Representatives Tussle over NASA Earth Science, Decry Education Cuts
On June 8, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot met with both the House Science Committee and the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee to discuss the fiscal year 2018 budget. Much of the discussion focused on the proposed cuts to the Earth Science budget and the termination of the Office of Education. Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) emphasized NASA is not a “piggy bank for funding climate activities,” but committee member Don Beyer (D-VA) was concerned that the termination of five Earth Science programs could have detrimental effects on research. Lightfoot assured committee members that the five programs slated for termination would not diminish NASA’s earth science work as a whole. Appropriations subcommittee member Hal Rogers (R-KY) focused on the termination of the Education Office, stressing “NASA is more than a space-launching agency.” Lightfoot said NASA is looking to assimilate many of the education programs into NASA’s mission directorate-based outreach activities.
Senate Appropriators Defend NOAA Weather & Water Budget
On June 8, the leaders of the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee expressed their concerns to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about funding cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed in the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget. Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) told Ross that the 25 percent proposed cut to weather research is “a contradiction” to his subcommittee’s support for the National Water Center and questioned how reduced funding for the new National Water Model would be “consistent with the administration’s prioritization of public safety.” Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) concurred, saying that the administration’s proposed cuts to NOAA’s hurricane and tornado forecasting programs threaten preparedness.
High Energy Physics Confronting Budget Uncertainty
The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), which advises the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, met on June 5 and 6 in the shadow of President Trump’s proposal to cut DOE’s High Energy Physics program, currently funded at almost $800 million, by 18 percent. Jim Siegrist, head of the DOE HEP office, reported the request is significantly below even the more conservative of the two funding scenarios laid out in the P5 roadmap. He said the office plans to privilege P5 priorities and seeding of long-term projects, including accelerator stewardship, particle detector R&D, and quantum information science. Slides from all presentations are available here.
National Academies Panel Launches Burning Plasma Study
A new National Academies panel tasked with developing a multi-decade strategy for magnetically confined burning plasma research held its first meeting on June 5. The head of the Energy Department’s fusion energy sciences program, Edmund Synakowski, urged the panel to “be bold” in its report, which will consider scenarios in which the U.S. remains in or withdraws from the long-delayed ITER fusion project under construction in France. A community input form is available on the project website.
House Democrats Seek Count of Scientific Jobs at Risk Under Trump Budget
In a June 9 letter led by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), 55 House Democrats called on the leaders of seven federal science agencies to provide projections on how many federal, laboratory, and university employees would lose their jobs if the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget were enacted. The letter argues the funding levels requested “would cause permanent damage to our research infrastructure and workforce” and would require the labs to lay off “critical scientific staff.” An estimate released by the office of Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), co-chair of the House Science & National Labs Caucus, projects a loss of 150 to 200 jobs out of roughly 1,700 positions at Fermilab. Science reports that DOE contractors estimate a loss of 6,700 of the roughly 29,000 jobs at 12 of 17 DOE national laboratories.
NASA Astrophysics Head Hertz Discusses Budget
At a town hall event during last week’s American Astronomical Society annual meeting, NASA Astrophysics Director Paul Hertz updated attendees on the division’s mission milestones, program changes, and budget. Some of the spending that Congress specified in the division’s fiscal year 2017 appropriations differed from NASA’s plans, which he said has affected the division’s flexibility in prioritizing its efforts. The fiscal year 2018 request, on the other hand, includes support for all existing programs and future missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Hertz revealed plans to make some changes next year, including reducing the number of named postdoctoral fellowships awarded and moving to every-other-year solicitations for certain programs, in order to pay for an increase in research grant funding. (H/t: Heather Bloemhard, Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, AAS)
Waste and Advanced Reactors Addressed at NRC Hearing
On June 7, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the fiscal year 2018 budget for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Members addressed the various proposals currently being floated for nuclear waste storage, including the Yucca Mountain facility, for which the president’s budget requests $30 million in new NRC funding. Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) asked about the absence of a request in the budget for additional funds for advanced reactor licensing activities. NRC Chair Kristine Svinicki said the $5 million specially appropriated for fiscal year 2017 is being used toward the development of licensing framework and action plans, and she said that “a small amount of activity” would continue in fiscal year 2018 using the commission’s main funding stream, which derives from licensing fees. There are two bills currently making progress in Congress that aim to push NRC to move more intently on advanced reactor licensing.
Business Leaders Urge Congress to Support Energy R&D
Last week, leaders from across the business sector sent a letter to top congressional appropriators urging them to “invest in America’s economic and energy future by funding vital programs in energy research and development at the Department of Energy.” The letter emphasizes the role of federal investment in “early-stage and high-risk research,” citing the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy as an example of “a blueprint for smart federal investments in high risk, high reward technologies that boost our competitiveness by keeping America at the forefront of global energy technology research.” The letter was organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the American Energy Innovation Council, and its signatories include the heads of several major energy companies and associations.