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The Week of March 18, 2019
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of March 18, 2019
(Image credit - Senate Budget Committee)
Budget Rollout Continues
The Trump administration is continuing its rollout of the fiscal year 2020 budget request this week. The White House Office of Management and Budget published supplementary material on Monday, including a chapter on R&D spending across the government. Individual agencies are also expected to issue additional budget documentation in the coming days, and some details have already emerged. The Department of Energy posted a “budget in brief” document late last week that includes topline figures for the main programs within the DOE Office of Science and other offices across the agency. See FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker for details. In testimony last week, Acting White House Budget Director Russell Vought defended the administration’s proposed cuts across nondefense programs as prudent in a time of ballooning deficits and noted that some are simply rollbacks of recent increases.
Space Scientists Convene for Goddard Symposium
The American Astronautical Society’s annual Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium is taking place Tuesday through Thursday in Silver Spring, Maryland. Deputy NASA Administrator James Morhard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deputy Administrator Tim Gallaudet will deliver keynote addresses to open the conference. Panels will present on the future of the fields represented by NASA’s four space science divisions: Earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics. Sessions on NASA’s planned lunar architecture and the intertwining of science with human exploration will address the agency’s efforts to build a new paradigm for science missions on and around the Moon and eventually beyond.
Directed Energy Summit to Spotlight Progress on Future Weapons
Top defense industry and military officials are gathering in Washington, D.C., this week for the fifth annual Directed Energy Summit. Directed energy technologies include laser weapons as well as weapons based on microwave and particle beams. Among the speakers are Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, a proponent of developing directed energy technologies for missile defense applications, Thomas Karr, whom Griffin picked last June to lead a new office dedicated to directed energy, and Keith Englander, director for engineering at the Missile Defense Agency. The administration’s recently released Missile Defense Review emphasizes the potential of directed energy, and at a budget briefing last week, the Missile Defense Agency’s acting director for operations indicated it is planning to scale up laser power levels and pursue a “new effort” to develop neutral particle beam technology.
‘Science During Crisis’ Report Set for Release
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is releasing a report on Tuesday that examines how science could be better leveraged during responses to natural disasters. Titled “Science During Crisis,” the report discusses the integration of scientists into crisis response teams and emerging best practices. Former National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, a co-author of the report, will speak at the event.
(Image credit – Office of Sen. Dick Durbin)
Fermilab Breaks Ground on PIP-II Accelerator
At a ceremony on March 15, Fermilab broke ground on the Proton Improvement Plan II (PIP-II) project, a major upgrade to the Fermilab Accelerator Complex. PIP-II is integral to the lab’s plans for the LBNF/DUNE experiment, which will send neutrinos through the Earth to a detector at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota. The objective is to gain a better understanding of the elusive particles’ behavior, which could lead to new insights into the fundamental physics of the universe. The neutrino beam is scheduled to begin operating in 2026. The Department of Energy’s approved cost range for PIP-II’s construction is $653 million to $928 million, and it is the first U.S.-based accelerator project to also receive significant contributions from international partners. The ceremony was attended by representatives of partner nations, both of Illinois’ senators, and four of the state’s congressional representatives, including Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), who was an accelerator designer at the lab before his election to the House.
FCC Proceeds with Spectrum Auction Despite Science Concerns
Last week the Federal Communications Commission moved forward with an auction to open a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to providers of next-generation telecommunications technology, dismissing concerns that new use of the 24 to 25 gigahertz band could interfere with satellites that collect data for weather research and observations. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent a letter to the FCC on Feb. 28 warning that such interference would disrupt the transmission of “critical Earth science data.” Leaders of the House Science Committee and three appropriations subcommittees also sent letters to the FCC calling on the body to delay the auction and support an interagency review of potential interferences.
Scientific Integrity Act Reintroduced
Last week Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act. The bill was originally introduced early in the last Congress by Tonko and former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in view of their concerns the Trump administration was seeking to politically interfere with the work of scientists employed at federal agencies. In a joint statement with Schatz, Tonko asserted such concerns have been warranted, saying, “President Trump’s multi-agency assault on environmental standards has hinged on efforts to distort, bury, and even rewrite credible public scientific findings, including his absurd denial of the growing climate crisis and efforts to cover up evidence that the American people are being exposed to dangerous toxins.” Under the Obama administration, more than 20 federal agencies developed scientific integrity policies, albeit with varying levels of detail. Tonko’s and Schatz’s legislation would require and standardize such policies by statute and subject them to a review.
NASA Open to Commercial Alternatives for Planned SLS Launches
At a Senate hearing last week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified he is open to using commercial rockets to meet a June 2020 milestone for launching a new crew vehicle into lunar space. Current plans call for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that NASA is developing to serve that purpose, but Bridenstine acknowledged SLS is “struggling to meet its schedule.” NASA has previously justified SLS as the only choice for launching heavy payloads, including human exploration crews, beyond low Earth orbit. Congress has also stipulated the agency should use it to launch two planned missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa. In its recent budget requests, though, NASA has proposed using commercial launch vehicles for the Europa mission, arguing it would be more economical and reserve SLS launches for advancing NASA’s lunar exploration plans.
NASA’s Process for Cancelling Europa Instrument Questioned
The Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), an independent panel that advises NASA, released a letter on March 13 questioning the agency’s recent decision to cancel a magnetometer the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was developing for the Europa Clipper mission. NASA explained that the instrument’s cost growth breached thresholds that “trigger” a review by the agency of its inclusion on the spacecraft. OPAG states that the cancellation came as a surprise to the science community, that the process NASA used “appears to be new,” and that there is a “perception of unfairness” in how the decision was made. Accordingly, the group asks NASA to explain the process in further detail and have it formally examined by the National Academies Committee for Astrobiology and Planetary Science.
Science Committee Delves into Space Traffic Management
Much of the House Science Committee’s first hearing of the new Congress on space policy focused on the challenges posed by orbital debris. Space Subcommittee Chair Kendra Horn (D-OK) highlighted testimony indicating the U.S. lacks the capability to track the over 600,000 pieces of orbital debris smaller than 10 centimeters that are believed to exist. Frank Rose, a security fellow at the Brookings Institution, stressed that human and robotic missions are threatened in a space environment that is becoming “increasingly congested, competitive, and contested.” Horn also asked about the planned transfer of certain space traffic management responsibilities from the Department of Defense to a civilian agency, expressing concern about a potential loss of capabilities. Rose replied that he supports the transfer but added "my kind of plea to the committee is use your oversight powers to make sure we're doing it the right way because we can't afford to get this wrong.”
Pentagon Stands Up Space Development Agency
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan signed a memorandum on March 12 officially establishing a Space Development Agency under the Department of Defense. The memo states the agency will “define and monitor the department’s future threat-driven space architecture and will accelerate the development and fielding of new military space capabilities necessary to ensure our technological and military advantage in space for national defense.” In its fiscal year 2020 budget request, the Trump administration has asked for $150 million for the agency. Its first director is Fred Kennedy, who previously directed the Tactical Technology Office in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who recently announced plans to resign, opposed creating a Space Development Agency, arguing it would duplicate existing Air Force activities. However, the Defense Department states it will perform a complementary, department-wide function and plans to transition it into the proposed Space Force. Mike Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters, “We don’t have the time, the money, the brainpower, or the energy to do duplicative things.”
Landmark Public Lands Bill Now Law
On March 12, President Trump signed legislation containing over 100 bills related to public lands and natural resources. The law includes a handful of provisions related to natural hazards that gained support during the previous Congress. In a statement on the signing, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a primary co-sponsor of the legislation, highlighted provisions aiming to improve volcano monitoring and wildfire fighting technology. Initially called the Natural Resources Management Act, the bill was renamed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in honor of the long-serving congressman, who died last month.