The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing on Thursday to discuss legislation it is developing as part of the broader congressional push to assemble a special “infrastructure” spending package that could total over $1 trillion. A 423-page draft of the committee’s bill includes provisions that would provide five years of direct funding for many efforts authorized in the Energy Act of 2020, including demonstration programs in carbon capture technology, industrial emissions mitigation, advanced nuclear reactors, and energy storage. It would also fund R&D and industrial support initiatives in related areas such as clean hydrogen production, battery recycling, and rare earth element refining, as well as a “Future of Industry” program that would set up academic centers to help manufacturers implement technologies for applications such as energy management, “smart” manufacturing, and cybersecurity. In addition, the bill would provide funding infusions for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI) and a university-based, USGS-funded “energy and minerals research facility.” Funding provided through the legislation would supplement funds provided through the ordinary annual appropriations process. If Senate Democrats cannot secure at least 10 Republican votes for such a package, they would have to pass it using a budget reconciliation maneuver that would need the endorsement of Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has expressed reluctance to use that approach.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and acting National Nuclear Security Administration head Charles Verdon are returning to the Senate this week to discuss the Department of Energy’s fiscal year 2022 budget request, appearing before the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday and the Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Granholm already testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week, where she faced questions from Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) about why the request “underfunded” initiatives authorized in last year’s Energy Act. In response, Granholm pointed out that in addition to the funding boosts for clean energy R&D included in the budget request, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan prioritizes technology areas featured in the act, such as carbon capture. Verdon last testified before the Armed Services Committee in May, and NNSA has since disclosed it is unlikely to meet the statutory timeline for reconstituting plutonium production capabilities. The administration has proposed flat funding for NNSA overall, though the agency’s budget has increased by more than 50% in recent years as efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile have ramped up.
Bill Nelson is continuing his first tour of Capitol Hill as NASA administrator on Wednesday, when he will appear before the House Science Committee, which he was a member of in the 1980s. The committee’s current Democratic leaders have been the most outspokenly critical group in Congress on the way NASA has been pursuing its Artemis lunar exploration program. Last year, they introduced legislation that would have circumscribed the agency’s priorities on the Moon to ensure it focuses on long-term Mars exploration. Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) has also continued to object to NASA’s plan to contract for the services of crewed lunar landers rather than purchase the landers outright. However, Nelson’s push to secure funding for NASA through a special infrastructure spending package has found a supporter in new Space Subcommittee Chair Don Beyer (D-VA), who has said he is not as concerned as Johnson about the lander program. The committee has not taken issue with the Biden administration’s science priorities for NASA to date, though the agency’s proposal to shut down the airplane-mounted Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) may face scrutiny.
The House Appropriations Committee is beginning a series of meetings this week to advance its versions of the 12 spending bills that will fund the federal government for fiscal year 2022, which begins Oct. 1. The bills that fund the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technology will not be up for public discussion until July 12. House Democrats have set a $1.5 trillion total budget for the bills, which accommodates President Biden’s request for large increases across non-defense science programs, though it has also drawn Republican objections. The committee has not yet announced how it will allocate the total across the 12 bills. Senate appropriators have not yet agreed on an overarching budget figure and expect that Congress will not finalize spending legislation until well after the start of the fiscal year.
The House Science Committee approved its National Science Foundation for the Future Act by voice vote last week after adopting a series of amendments. The committee retained its vision for adding a directorate to NSF focused on addressing societal challendes while refining counterproposals to provisions in the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which proposes a technology-focused directorate. The committee took a step further away from the Senate bill through an amendment offered by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) that flattened out the new directorate’s recommended funding profile and increased the target budget profile for the rest of the agency by $5 billion over five years. The amended bill now proposes the directorate grow to $3.4 billion over five years versus the $9.3 billion proposed in the USICA, which also proposes less funding for the rest of NSF. However, other amendments brought certain components of the bill closer to the Senate version, such as one from Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-IA) that prohibits NSF from funding researchers who participate in any “malign foreign talent recruitment program” supported by China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran. The Senate bill has a similar provision that applies to all agencies.
The committee also approved an updated version of its Department of Energy Science for the Future Act by voice vote. The amended bill recommends Congress increase the budget for the DOE Office of Science from $7 billion to $11.1 billion over five years, a slight increase over the target in the original bill, and includes new provisions addressing topics such as space radiation research, computer modeling of emerging infectious diseases, and DOE’s new isotope and accelerator R&D offices. Further additions include a provision by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) directing Office of Science programs to develop project roadmaps that are consistent with the budget increases proposed in the bill. Foster explained that DOE’s recent planning exercises were conducted under less ambitious assumptions of budget growth, citing as an example the recent long-range plan for fusion energy sciences. He also said the unconstrained budget scenario considered for that plan “was not then viewed as a realistic possibility [and so] insufficient effort was put into generating detailed project cost estimates.”
On June 17, the Senate confirmed by voice vote President Biden’s nominations of Rick Spinrad to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pam Melroy to be NASA deputy administrator, and Tanya Trujillo to be assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior, overseeing the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation. Nominations for science agencies that are still pending include Biden’s picks for the top R&D role at the Department of Defense, the top two science roles at the Department of Energy, and the top two roles at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Biden has yet to nominate leaders for USGS, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and DOE’s applied R&D offices. Consult FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker to keep tabs on the progress of appointments to top jobs.
The Department of Justice’s prosecution of University of Tennessee, Knoxville engineering professor Anming Hu resulted in a mistrial last week after the jury was unable to reach a verdict on charges he had concealed his connection to a Chinese university. Hu was arrested in February 2020 on wire fraud and false statement charges after he allegedly failed to disclose the connection to university administrators and NASA, which was funding his work and is restricted by law from supporting collaborations with entities in China. Hu’s lawyers argued he was in compliance with the university’s conflict of interest policy and that the FBI misrepresented the nature of his work in China. The department has not indicated if it will seek to retry the case, which is among a series it is bringing against academic scientists through its “China Initiative.” Advocacy groups have called on the department to reconsider the initiative, arguing it criminalizes administrative mistakes and unfairly targets scientists of Chinese descent, and last week three Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee asked the department’s inspector general to review the initiative and the FBI’s handling of Hu’s case. To date, the department has not secured a grant fraud conviction in the initiative through a trial, though some cases have resulted in plea deals. Last week, a NASA scientist was sentenced to 30 days in prison and fined $100,000 after pleading guilty to failing to disclose participation in a talent recruitment program supported by the Chinese government.
This month, the Biden administration released its first government-wide agenda of planned regulatory actions, which include a number of proposals by the Commerce Department to implement export controls on “emerging and foundational technologies” pursuant to a 2018 law. The administration notes that in the coming months the department will advance the rulemaking process for controls related to quantum computers, semiconductors, energetic materials, and brain-computer interfaces. It also plans to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking for foundational technologies in July and a notice for emerging technologies in August. Aside from the export control agenda, in October the department plans to finalize changes to Bayh-Dole Act regulations first proposed near the end of the Trump administration. It indicates the changes will “provide additional clarity” on the circumstances under which the federal government can exercise “march-in rights,” which allow it to override patents of products developed with federal funds. Some lawmakers have pressed the National Institutes of Health to use the authority to compel companies to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, but NIH has maintained it lacks authority under the law to take such a step and the Trump administration had proposed to explicitly prohibit the government from premising such an action solely on price considerations.
The National Academies released a report last week that urges the U.S. government to better mitigate security risks associated with the increasing use of radioactive materials by jumpstarting development of nonradioisotopic alternatives. The study panel found that the use of the highest two radioactive source categories has increased 30% over the past 12 years and that little to no progress has been made in developing alternatives for certain commercial applications. Among its specific recommendations, the panel calls for the National Nuclear Security Administration to prioritize R&D and equivalency studies on alternative technologies and for regulatory bodies to reform the radioactive materials categorization system to bolster tracking capabilities and better account for the risks of malicious applications, such as a “dirty bomb.” The panel also proposes that the National Institute of Standards and Technology launch a research initiative to develop an alternative to cesium chloride, which is used to calibrate radiation detectors, in preparation for its “possible future elimination.”
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NASA is seeking public input as it launches Mission Equity, an effort to address “potential barriers that underserved and underrepresented communities and individuals may face in agency procurement, contract, and grant opportunities.” NASA is particularly interested in comments that identify ways to increase diversity and equal opportunity at the agency or in the broader STEM community and ways to improve outreach to underserved communities, among other topics. NASA will host a virtual meeting on the mission on June 29, and public comments are due July 12.
The Association of Science and Technology Centers is seeking a two-year fellow to support its Community Science Initiative. The fellow will work to build capacity for communities to leverage scientific expertise to address local priorities. Applications are due June 30.
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research is accepting applications for a government relations specialist to work remotely in the Washington, D.C., area. Position responsibilities include managing UCAR’s appropriations requests and hosting congressional briefings and Earth science community events, among other duties. Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree and three years of experience working for or with a congressional office. Applications are due July 12.