FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The moon rising behind the Capitol building on March 9.
(Image credit – Joel Kowsky / NASA)
Congress failed to reach agreement over the weekend on a massive economic relief package that aims to blunt the escalating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort represents the third phase of Congress’ response to the pandemic, following the enactment of two smaller bills earlier this month that provided $8.3 billion in emergency appropriations to selected agencies and initial economic assistance measures. Draft text of the latest legislation obtained by Politico indicates Congress is looking to provide additional emergency appropriations to a broader set of agencies in addition to injecting over $1 trillion directly into the economy. Amounts specified for science agencies in the draft legislation include $4.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least $3.5 billion for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, $945 million for the National Institutes of Health, and smaller amounts for research activities at the National Science Foundation and the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce.
With federal labs increasingly halting normal operations to protect personnel and help stem the spread of COVID-19, pandemic-related research is one of the few activities that will continue at full steam. Many of the Department of Energy’s national labs are located in states that have issued “stay at home” orders, but they are still accepting proposals for how their user facilities and computing infrastructure could be used for coronavirus research. On Sunday, the White House also announced the launch of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, which will triage proposals for access to computing resources at DOE, NASA, private companies, and universities. More broadly, universities across the country are pivoting to pandemic research as they shutter most other research activities. In view of the disruption of regular work, the White House Office of Management and Budget has provided federal agencies leeway to waive administrative requirements for grantees. A compilation of agency guidance is available here.
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DOE Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar during a visit last year to General Fusion, a Canadian company that is working to develop a fusion power plant.
(Image credit – Department of Energy)
At a virtual meeting of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) last week, Department of Energy Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar praised the "Community Plan for Fusion Energy and Discovery Plasma Sciences" released earlier this month. Dabbar said he was pleased with the breadth and depth of the 15 month exercise, which solicited broad community input through workshops and white papers, and said he feels it comes “as close to representing the true consensus as possible.” Recounting DOE’s motivation for requesting the plan, Dabbar said when he joined the department in 2017 he was struck by the U.S. fusion community’s “lack of cohesion” relative to those served by DOE’s other science programs. He attributed that situation in part to a “zero sum game” mentality that took hold during a time of tight budgets. A FESAC subcommittee will now embark on the second phase of the planning process, producing a 10 year plan informed by the community plan’s recommendations. The 23 member subcommittee, led by UCLA physicist Troy Carter, currently plans to complete its work by December.
As Congress works to assemble a massive economic relief spending package, organizations representing research universities and medical schools are asking for support to address the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts on research personnel and students. In a March 19 letter to congressional leaders, they call for $13 billion in supplemental funds to be added to the next legislative package and subsequently divided among the major federal research agencies based on the size of their extramural research budgets. The funds would go toward a proposed “four-point strategy” that includes keeping university personnel on payroll; covering research ramp-down costs such as disposal of hazardous materials or loss of biological samples; ramping up support for COVID-19-related research; and addressing inactivity at federal research facilities. In a separate letter on March 19, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology asked Congress to extend economic relief mechanisms to scientific societies, such as zero-interest loans and grants to allay financial losses from the cancellation of meetings and other crisis-related developments. House Science Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) signaled his interest in providing support to research institutions in a statement issued on March 20, without referring to a particular appeal.
Late last month, the National Academies established a standing committee on emerging infectious diseases at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to respond to government requests on short notice. Chaired by former National Academy of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg, the committee held its first meeting on March 11 and released its first rapid response on March 15, on whether incidences of severe illness in younger adults in Italy indicate a genetic change in the coronavirus. The committee states there is insufficient data to determine whether susceptibility patterns had changed, but that “it is important not to downplay the potential seriousness of this infection in younger age groups.” A second response summarizes recent findings that the virus can survive on surfaces for periods of a few hours to a few days, depending on the material. It also reports the most recent estimate of the virus’ incubation period is about five days. A third response reviews studies examining the effectiveness of various forms of social distancing in curtailing the spread of the virus. This weekend, the committee also issued recommendations regarding data elements and systems design for modeling and decision making during the pandemic.
As the coronavirus has forced schools and universities to move classes to online platforms, science agencies and advocates have compiled lists of educational resources to support educators and parents coping with the shift. For instance, the National Science Foundation has highlighted supplemental teaching resources ranging from coding platforms to citizen-science tools. Scientific societies have also posted resources online, including the American Astronomical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Geophysical Union, and American Mathematical Society. Still other organizations have developed a searchable database of resources, and the House Science Committee has shared a list of STEM education resources from science groups and agencies.
The Government Accountability Office released a report last week that examines sexual harassment policies at five federal science agencies and the prevalence of harassment complaints by their university grantees. GAO found only the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health go beyond the Title IX reporting mechanism, allowing individuals to report concerns of sex discrimination directly to the agency. It also found that the Department of Energy lacks “finalized procedures” for handling Title IX complaints and “thus cannot ensure they are consistently handling complaints.” The House Science Committee requested the study in January 2018 and received preliminary findings at a committee hearing last June. The final version increased the originally reported number of formal Title IX complaints received by the National Science Foundation over the fiscal year 2015 to 2019 period from 14 to 33. The reported numbers for other agencies are all three or less.
House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency on March 20 urging that it extend the current 30 day public comment period for the supplement to its proposed scientific transparency rule, which would restrict the agency from using studies that lack publicly available data. Citing the complexities of the rule and the disruption from the pandemic, she argued the comment period should be extended to “ensure interested parties have the opportunity to fully review the rule amidst this personal and professional turmoil.” Johnson also outlined her continued opposition to the rule, citing criticism of it by science organizations, and asked EPA to hold public hearings on it “when it is safe to do so.” EPA is currently accepting public comments on the supplementary rule through April 17.
At a symposium on the persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM hosted by the National Academies last week, former National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell outlined recommendations from the Academies’ latest report on the subject. Among its recommendations for governmental action, the committee emphasizes the need for agencies to reward positive practices, calling on the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation to develop a recognition program that provides “positive incentives” to university departments and programs that prioritize inclusion efforts. It further recommends agencies promote transparency and accountability, including by carrying out “equity audits” to ensure that grantee institutions are “working in good faith to address gender and racial disparities in recruitment, retention, and advancement.” It further recommends that NIH and NSF revise their grant review criteria to explicitly include consideration of diversity and inclusion efforts.
NASA’s Astrophysics Division announced on March 16 that it has narrowed the field of candidates for the next mission in its Small Explorers (SMEX) program down to two finalists: the Extreme-ultraviolet Stellar Characterization for Atmospheric Physics and Evolution (ESCAPE) mission and the Compton Spectrometer and Imager. The division also announced two finalists for its Missions of Opportunity program: the Gravitational-wave Ultraviolet Counterpart Imaging Mission and the Large Area Burst Polarimeter. SMEX missions have a $145 million cost cap, while Missions of Opportunity projects have a $75 million cost cap and generally take advantage of flight opportunities presented by non-NASA missions. NASA plans to select two proposals from these four next year to fund toward launch in 2025.
Although the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference was called off last week, NASA officials held a digital town hall to update the research community on recent developments at the agency. Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze affirmed that, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA is prioritizing work to keep the Perseverance rover on track to meet this summer’s launch window for a quick journey to Mars. She also said the National Academies planetary science decadal survey expects to announce its chairs and first call for white papers “soon.” Steve Clarke, who coordinates the interface between science and crewed exploration programs at NASA, noted his organization is now called the Exploration Science Strategy and Integration Office. He reviewed plans for launches in the next three years through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and the development of a program called PRISM, which will coordinate the selection of instruments and landing sites for additional CLPS missions. Slide presentations from the event will be made available here.
The New York Times reports that science policy journalist and critic Daniel Greenberg died on March 9 at the age of 88. Early in his career, Greenberg worked for the Washington Post and then Science magazine, where he pioneered reporting on the policy mechanisms of a rapidly growing research enterprise. Greenberg founded his own science policy news service Science & Government Report in 1971 and operated it until 1997. Greenberg’s classic 1967 book The Politics of Pure Science outlined his key criticism that scientists portrayed their work as isolated from politics even as they pressed for greater levels of funding and political influence. He later updated his views on the issue in his 2000 book Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion, and his 2007 book Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism.
Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
NASA is accepting nominations and self-nominations for members to join the advisory committee for its Planetary Science Division. Submissions are due March 31.
The Idaho S&T Policy Fellowship is accepting applications for a new program that will place up to three fellows in state agencies for one year. Applicants must hold an advanced degree in a science or engineering field and have a connection to Idaho. Applications are due April 20.
The news team for the journal Nature is seeking an intern to work as a full-time writer based in their Washington, D.C. office from July to December 2020. Candidates with backgrounds in both science and journalism are preferred. Applications are due March 27.
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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