The Week of May 18, 2020

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FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.

The Week of May 18, 2020

The Week Ahead

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

(Image credit – Office of Sen. McConnell)

Congress at Odds Over Next Coronavirus Response Bill

The next round of coronavirus relief legislation faces an uncertain future, as Senate leaders have said they have no plans to take up the roughly $3 trillion package the House passed last week on a largely party-line vote. The White House has also issued a veto threat, citing concerns about various spending provisions and the absence of liability protections for businesses. House Democrats regard the bill as a marker of their priorities. Among its provisions are proposals for addressing disruptions to the research enterprise, which have not been subject to partisan dispute. These include supplemental resources for a set of science agencies, most notably a nearly $5 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health, of which at least $3 billion would be set aside for “offsetting the costs related to reductions in lab productivity resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.” The funds, though, fall well short of the $26 billion for research recovery that has been proposed by a set of university associations. The bill also incorporates the Scientific Integrity Act, which would require agencies to develop scientific integrity policies that meet certain standards. Amid the impasse, House Democrats moved ahead with implementing temporary rule changes that permit members of the chamber to vote by proxy and allow committees to conduct official business remotely.

Space Council Convening as NASA Pitches ‘Artemis Accords’

The National Space Council is holding its seventh meeting on Tuesday, having previously postponed a meeting scheduled for March due to the pandemic. An agenda has not been released, but a likely subject of discussion is the new “Artemis Accords” governance model that NASA is proposing for international partnerships it undertakes through its lunar exploration program. The framework revolves around a set of core principles that include obligations for maintaining transparency, making space systems interoperable, providing emergency assistance, registering space objects and mitigating space debris, protecting heritage, and sharing scientific data. Echoing a recent presidential executive order, the model also holds that all participants shall recognize the right to extract and utilize resources located on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. Meanwhile, the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group has rotated off four members and added five, including former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), an ardent proponent of planetary science and space exploration, and Bruce Jakosky, a planetary geologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. The group has not announced its next meeting.

NOAA Nominee, Engineering Biology Initiative Bill Advancing

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a business meeting on Wednesday to advance ten bills and seven presidential nominations, including that of Neil Jacobs to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Jacobs, an expert in weather forecasting, has been leading the agency on an acting basis since early 2019 and his nomination is viewed as uncontroversial. Among the bills up for consideration is the newly introduced Bioeconomy R&D Act, which would launch a National Engineering Biology R&D Initiative to coordinate relevant programs across the government. The bill is similar to the House-passed Engineering Biology R&D Act, which would also create an interagency initiative. The committee will also take up the Advanced Technological Manufacturing Act, which would update policy for a National Science Foundation program that supports schools offering two-year degrees in technical fields.

EPA Administrator to Testify at Senate Oversight Hearing

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is scheduled to testify on Wednesday at an oversight hearing convened by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. EPA has recently attracted scrutiny from Democratic members of the committee for moving forward with several controversial regulatory proposals in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Among them are its proposed scientific transparency rule, which committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) has urged Wheeler to withdraw. With the comment period on EPA’s revisions to the rule expiring on May 18, a group of 39 scientific societies, universities, and other stakeholder organizations has submitted a statement calling for the agency to rescind the rule. A group of four major university associations has done likewise.

APS Seeks to Aid International Student Reentry

The American Physical Society is hosting a public webinar on Tuesday to discuss the society’s work advocating on behalf of international students during the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter to Congress last month, APS President Phil Bucksbaum urged that future pandemic relief legislation provide immigration agencies with resources necessary to process a backlog of pending visa renewals and applications for new nonimmigrant visas, noting that many international students and scholars returned to their home countries amid the pandemic. “International scientists make up a significant segment of our STEM workforce, and a return to our pre-pandemic research capabilities will require the prompt return of international students and scientists to the U.S.,” he wrote. (APS is an AIP Member Society)

Decadal Strategy for NSF Earth Science Division Set for Release

On Tuesday, the National Academies is holding a briefing to mark the release of its latest decadal survey for the National Science Foundation’s Earth Sciences Division. The report will provide recommendations on research, infrastructure, and training priorities for spurring advances in Earth sciences over the coming decade. It also comments on management models for future seismological and geodetic facility capabilities. The Academies last published recommendations for the division in 2001 and 2012.

In Case You Missed It

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) speaking on the Senate floor.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) speaking on the Senate floor.

(Image credit – Office of Sen. Portman)

Senators Seize on New Researcher Arrests to Preview Bills

Pointing to new arrests in an ongoing Department of Justice crackdown against scientists who have allegedly failed to disclose ties to China, Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) separately said they plan to introduce legislation soon to curb abuses of federal grant programs. On May 8, the FBI arrested University of Arkansas engineering professor Simon Saw-Teong Ang for wire fraud, charging that he failed to tell NASA about his connections to Chinese companies. In another wire fraud case, a former employee of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Qing Wang, was arrested on May 13 for failing to disclose to the National Institutes of Health that he had received research support through China’s Thousand Talents Program. Portman said his legislation will be bipartisan and will seek to “promote greater transparency within our federally funded research enterprise.” In a March speech, Portman said the bill would propose to add penalties for lying on grant applications, lower the threshold for university reporting of foreign gifts and contracts, and give the State Department greater power to deny visas to researchers who “seek to exploit the openness of our U.S. research enterprise,” among other provisions. Although neither case alleges intellectual property theft occurred, in a statement on the Ang arrest Cotton expressed dissatisfaction that the behavior in question is often treated as a “process crime” even though in his view it represents “economic espionage.” He said his legislation will accordingly propose to “prohibit federally funded researchers from accepting Chinese money.”

Lawmakers Tease Major R&D Legislation

In a joint op-ed in USA Today last week, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN) and Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) announced plans to introduce legislation called the “Endless Frontiers Act” that will propose a “renewed national investment in public research and development.” They wrote that in addition to near term support for pandemic research, the government should also make a longer-term commitment to increasing investment across fields of science, and lamented that the federal share of R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has dropped from 1.8% in 1965 to 0.6% today. They also suggested the government should take advantage of historically low interest rates to finance “moonshot” initiatives in partnership with the private sector. Late last year, Schumer floated a draft proposal for creating a new research funding entity that would channel $100 billion into priority research areas over five years, though it is unclear whether the forthcoming legislation will resemble that proposal.

Ousted BARDA Director Blasts Coronavirus Response

At a high-profile House hearing last week, former Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Director Rick Bright offered a sharply critical inside account of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. Reviewing points from a whistleblower complaint he has filed and made public, Bright asserted the response has been marred by lost opportunities, poor coordination, and efforts to flout proper procedure to advance politically favored treatments. Because the hearing was not an oversight proceeding, Bright received few questions about the circumstances surrounding his removal, which he alleges was retaliation for his resistance to directives he regarded as unsound and corrupted by political influence. The committee also heard from Mike Bowen, the executive vice president of surgical mask and respirator manufacturer Prestige Ameritech, who has said the administration ignored the company’s early offers to restart mothballed production lines. Bright’s superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services and White House manufacturing policy adviser Peter Navarro declined invitations to appear. After the news show 60 Minutes aired a segment featuring Bright on May 17, President Trump weighed in on the case in a tweet thread, calling him a “disgruntled employee” who is part of a “whistleblower racket.”

GAO Uncovers Tensions Over Universities’ Export Control Compliance

The Government Accountability Office released a report on export control compliance last week that documents disagreements between university officials and federal agencies over the application of export controls to research. University representatives interviewed by GAO stated that the Department of Defense is “increasingly including publication restrictions in research contracts for projects that the universities believe only entail fundamental research.” For its part, DOD acknowledged that the term “fundamental research” has been misinterpreted by some department officials, particularly those outside of programs that primarily fund such work. However, the report states that DOD officials have explained they must “constantly ensure that the research being conducted is properly categorized as basic or fundamental research and has not transitioned into applied or non-fundamental research in the course of the contract.” It also states that DOD has recognized that “reducing the quantity and competitiveness of early ideas flowing through the university system to the department by non-judicious use of controls could have negative consequences,” citing a non-public report the department submitted to Congress in September on the “Research Protection Initiative” created by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.

DOE Initiates Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program 

Last week, the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy launched a new program that will fund the demonstration of advanced reactor concepts through cost-sharing partnerships with private industry. The program will provide $160 million in initial funding for two demonstration projects to build “fully functional” reactors within seven years. It will also support projects that address technical, operational, and regulatory challenges for future demonstrations and develop innovative early-stage reactor concepts that could be commercialized in the mid-2030s. Though DOE did not request funds for the program, Congress provided $230 million for it in fiscal year 2020 appropriations and urged DOE to “act aggressively” to implement the program. Congress mandated that DOE require a 50-50 cost share, though industry stakeholders have expressed a preference for a “graded implementation” of cost sharing and reservations about whether the program will be sufficiently funded in the years ahead.

Events this week

All times are Eastern Daylight Time and all events are virtual, unless otherwise noted. Listings do not imply endorsement.

Monday, May 18

 

Wednesday, May 20

 
National Academies: Ocean Studies Board meeting (continues through Friday)
 
10:00 am, Environment and Public Works Committee (106 Dirksen Office Building)
 
10:00 am, Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (G50 Dirksen Office Building)
 
12:00 - 1:00 pm
 
12:00 - 1:30 pm
 
DC Tech Transfer Society: “NIAID: Leading the Fight Against COVID-19”
12:00 - 2:00 pm
 
1:00 - 5:00 pm
 
2:00 - 3:00 pm
 
2:15 - 3:15 pm
 
2:30 pm, Energy and Natural Resources Committee (106 Dirksen Office Building)

Friday, May 22

 
1:00 - 2:00 pm

Know of an upcoming science policy event either inside or outside the Beltway? Email us at fyi [at] aip.org.

Opportunities

Day One Project Hiring S&T Fellow and Policy Analyst

The Day One Project, an initiative to identify compelling policy proposals for the next presidential term, is hiring a senior S&T fellow and a policy analyst. The fellow will be responsible for developing a Plum Book outlining key science leadership positions across federal agencies, among other duties. The fellow must have a graduate degree in a relevant field or seven to ten years of experience at the intersection of science, technology, and policy. The policy analyst will be responsible for managing the Day One Accelerator and must have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Applications for both positions will be accepted until filled.

DOD Hiring Physical Scientist for Tech Protection Office

The Department of Defense is hiring a physical scientist to work in its Strategic Technology Protection and Exploitation office. The position will serve as the department’s “focal point for community-wide initiatives that transition academic and commercial research activities to the industrial base for further maturation and system development leading to field able defense modernization capabilities.” Applications are due May 28. 

NOAA Seeking Nominations for Advisory Board 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is accepting nominations for members to serve on its Science Advisory Board for a three year term. NOAA is particularly seeking individuals with expertise in tsunami science, extreme weather prediction, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, data management, autonomous systems, or ‘omics science. Nominations are due June 22.

 

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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News and views currently in circulation. Links do not imply endorsement.

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