FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are the respective sponsors of the NSF for the Future Act and the Senate version of the Endless Frontier Act.
(Image credits – Aubrey Gemignani / NASA, Office of Sen. Schumer)
Competing bipartisan proposals for expanding the National Science Foundation will face their first votes this week. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is meeting Wednesday to consider amendments to the Endless Frontier Act, which proposes attaching a massive technology directorate to NSF. The bill was originally scheduled for consideration two weeks ago, but was delayed after committee members offered more than 200 amendments. Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the House Science Committee is meeting on Thursday to advance the NSF for the Future Act, which proposes a more modestly sized directorate focused on “societal challenges” as part of a broader expansion of the agency. Outside their directly competing visions for a new directorate, the two bills differ significantly in scope, as the Endless Frontier Act is designed as a flagship national innovation initiative that will fit into a legislative package aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness with China, whereas the NSF for the Future Act is a policy update for NSF as a whole that will be complemented by forthcoming legislative proposals for other science agencies.
In recent weeks, the House Science Committee has built its case against creating a technology-centric directorate at NSF. At the latest of two hearings on the subject, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said NSF should also address “challenges for which technology is only part of the solution,” such as climate change and social inequity. She further argued that in developing technology it is important to “engage nontraditional stakeholders and diverse voices in NSF research, including civic organizations, labor, local and tribal governments, farmers, and even the public at large.” Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) implied the Endless Frontier Act could “break apart” the U.S. innovation ecosystem by assigning NSF a role already held by other agencies. He also cautioned against “creating a situation of feast and famine for our research enterprise," arguing in favor of steady budget increases rather than rapid injections of funds. The NSF for the Future Act has been endorsed by several major scientific societies, whereas the Endless Frontier Act’s backers include various industry associations and former national security officials. The Association of American Universities has also praised the Endless Frontier Act, while urging Congress to increase funding for NSF’s existing programs.
The National Academies is kicking off a study this week that will assess the status of high energy density physics research and identify knowledge gaps and potential directions for future work. The congressionally mandated effort is sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration and will focus on issues related to nuclear stockpile stewardship, including inertial confinement fusion, material phases, and “plasmas atypical of astrophysical conditions.” The study will also consider the status of the U.S. scientific workforce in the field and how domestic efforts compare with those in other countries, and it will make recommendations about funding levels and research infrastructure needs. The co-chairs of the study are Giulia Galli, a molecular scientist at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Lab, and Raymond Jeanloz, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and chair of the National Academies Committee on International Security and Arms Control. The new study will complement the “decadal assessment” of the field of plasma science that the National Academies released last year.
The National Academies is also launching a study this week that aims to help NASA assess the “health and vitality” of the research communities supported by its Science Mission Directorate. The study will develop evaluation metrics and identify data collection needs for future decadal surveys in particular scientific disciplines, considering factors such as demographics, career-stage structure, and distribution of funding. It will also identify “statutory, regulatory, or policy impediments” to collecting the necessary data and review limitations in the data available to past surveys. The study is co-chaired by former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and retired Lockheed Martin vice president Wanda Sigur, who managed the company’s civil space programs.
On Tuesday, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is hosting a webinar to explore the prospects for creating a nonprofit foundation affiliated with the Department of Energy that would solicit private funds to support the commercialization of clean energy technologies. In Congress, the idea is currently embodied in the Partnerships for Energy Security and Innovation Act recently introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM). Last year, ITIF issued a report laying out a vision for the foundation, and earlier this year a congressionally mandated report from the National Academy of Public Administration endorsed creating a foundation that would complement the work of DOE and the three foundations currently affiliated with individual DOE national laboratories. This week’s event will feature remarks by Luján and a panel discussion with leaders from analogous foundations affiliated with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several scientific organizations are celebrating Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities Day on Wednesday, with the aim of building “new ways to empower a more diverse and dynamic STEM workforce.” Activities include a series of webinars and social media events marking the recent release of the latest biennial report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics tracking these groups’ participation in STEM. Among its findings, the report notes that scientists and engineers with disabilities have a higher unemployment rate than both those without a disability and the general U.S. population in 2019. It adds, “Further investigation is planned into the educational attainment and employment of those with disability and their career paths to better understand their representation in the U.S. S&E enterprise.”
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Attorney General Merrick Garland
(Image credit – Justice Department)
A letter sent by eight Republican senators to Attorney General Merrick Garland last week states they have become aware the Justice Department soon plans to implement an “amnesty” program that would allow U.S. scientists to report previously undisclosed foreign funding without fear of prosecution. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that the department has been weighing such a program, and last month the top Democrats on the House Science and Armed Services Committees wrote to President Biden indicating they approve of the idea. The eight Republicans, who include the ranking members of the Judiciary, Intelligence, and Homeland Security Committees, registered their objection to such a program, expressing concerns about the potential effects on pending prosecutions and “the signal that it sends to future researchers contemplating breaking U.S. law to steal research or hide affiliations with foreign governments or militaries.” Under the umbrella of its China Initiative, the Justice Department has brought charges against more than a dozen scientists to date for a variety of crimes premised on nondisclosures, such as grant fraud, tax fraud, and lying to federal investigators.
A House Science Committee hearing last week highlighted the work of the Basic Energy Sciences and Biological and Environmental Research programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Leading his first hearing as Energy Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who is aligned with the democratic socialist movement, stressed the role of the two programs in mitigating and responding to climate change and the need to intertwine technological efforts with social justice considerations. He also argued for directing additional attention to equity in STEM education, saying, “We need people, talented and trained professionals to perform this research and help lead us into a green, just future and we need to increase the participation of marginalized communities including with STEM education infrastructure and workforce pipelines that will unleash the talents of students of color who have been neglected.” In his opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) argued for DOE’s relevance to the broader congressional debate over U.S. innovation policy, saying, “Maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology will require a shared commitment to prioritize DOE and its Office of Science. Let me be clear, any American R&D investment plan that lacks this commitment is fundamentally flawed.” According to Bowman, the hearing is the first in a planned series that will cover all Office of Science programs over the coming months.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) released a report last week that challenges the Biden administration’s assertion that spending on green technologies will expand employment in high-paying jobs. The report takes particular aim at the technology loans and subsidies that were enabled through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which have been held up by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, among others, as a model for future action. While Barrasso maintains the oil and gas industry will continue to be more important for providing jobs, the administration is working to flesh out the links between its energy technology and economic agendas. For instance, it has established an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, which released an initial report last month. In addition, the Department of Energy is setting up an Office of Energy Jobs, reviving an initiative from late in the Obama administration.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology released new information last week about the radiation incident that occurred on Feb. 3 at its Center for Neutron Research in Gaithersburg, Maryland. According to the agency, preliminary evidence suggests a single fuel element “was not securely latched into place” when the center restarted its reactor that morning. The improperly secured element apparently impeded the flow of coolant water, leading it to overheat and cause an excess of radiation, prompting an emergency shutdown. An interim report the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent to NIST last month states the overheating was likely severe enough to damage the fuel element and that thermoluminescent dosimeter badges worn by five workers measured whole-body doses ranging from 421 millirem to 1,169 millirem. The regulatory limit for radiation workers is 5,000 millirem per year. The commission agreed with initial reports that outdoor radiation levels near the reactor never rose by significant amounts and posed no risk to the public.
The reactor has been shut down since the incident and NIST states it will not seek NRC approval to restart until completing its analysis of the incident along with a plan for correcting its training and operating procedures. The agency indicates it expects to finalize an action plan by Sept. 1. Alongside a reactor at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, NIST’s reactor is one of two research reactors owned by the federal government that are used for neutron-scattering experiments. The shutdown at NIST follows two extended, unplanned shutdowns of the Oak Ridge reactor that were linked to technical problems with its fuel elements and it puts further strain on the U.S. neutron facility user community.
All times are Eastern Daylight Time and all events are virtual, unless otherwise noted. Listings do not imply endorsement.
Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is accepting nominations for individuals to serve on the agency’s newly established Space Weather Advisory Group. The congressionally chartered group will advise interagency efforts in space weather research, forecasting, mitigation, and preparedness. The group will consist of up to 15 individuals, evenly drawn from the academic community, commercial sector, and end user groups. Submissions are due May 30.
The National Academy of Engineering is accepting nominations for 10 to 12 volunteer experts to serve on a planning committee for a virtual symposium highlighting the “groundbreaking engineering initiatives” enabled by the National Science Foundation during the period from 1950 to 2020. The event will examine how the NSF’s investments in engineering education, research, careers, and institutions have impacted society. Nominations of individuals with expertise in engineering or technology industry leadership, engineering research, product development, technology and public policy, the history of engineering, and the communication of technology and science to general audiences are highly encouraged. Nominations are due May 15.
SRI International is hiring a deputy director for the Quantum Economic Development Consortium. The consortium is a component of the U.S. National Quantum Initiative that “identifies and addresses needs for quantum enabling technologies, standards and metrics, and workforce; facilitates interaction and coordination among segments of the innovation ecosystem; and provides government with a collective industry voice to guide policies and R&D investment priorities.” Applicants should have a bachelor’s degree or higher in a STEM field related to quantum information science and at least five years of experience in a position related to emerging technology.
ComSciCon, a group that trains graduate students to be science communicators, is accepting applications for a new series called ComSciConcepts that aims to tackle more specific subjects in science communication. The first event will focus on the theme “Combatting COVID-19 with Black Communities” and will prioritize applications from BIPOC graduate students. Applications are due May 14.
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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