The Week of May 25, 2020

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

The Week of May 25, 2020

The Week Ahead

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Neptune is the proposed destination for one of three flagship planetary science mission concepts to be discussed at a workshop this week. The last planetary science decadal survey recommended NASA send a flagship mission to either Uranus or Neptune, but t

Neptune is the proposed destination for one of three flagship planetary science mission concepts to be discussed at a workshop this week. The last planetary science decadal survey recommended NASA send a flagship mission to either Uranus or Neptune, but the agency has not yet moved ahead with one.

(Image credit – NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Planetary Science Decadal Survey Shifts Into Gear

A postponed workshop on mission concepts prepared for the National Academies planetary science decadal survey is going ahead online this Tuesday and Wednesday. Among the prospective projects that will be discussed are flagship missions to Venus, Neptune, and Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, as well as missions that would land on Mercury, orbit Pluto, and explore the geophysics of Earth’s Moon. The concepts are intended to inform the survey committee’s development of rank-ordered recommendations that will guide decision-making at NASA and the National Science Foundation in the years ahead. The survey is also currently gathering input via a general call for white papers, which is open through July 4. Last week, the National Academies announced that the survey’s co-chairs are Robin Canup, the head of the Planetary Science Division at Southwest Research Institute, and Philip Christensen, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University. The survey is expected to be released in 2022.

Plasma Science Decadal Study Set For Release

The National Academies is hosting a briefing on Thursday to mark the release of its decadal assessment of advances in plasma science and “grand challenge” opportunities for the field over the next ten years. The study also comments on the funding structure and workforce needs of the U.S. research effort, which encompasses federal and private activities across several disparate subfields. Reflecting the broad scope of the field, the study was jointly sponsored by the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, and Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The study is part of an array of current efforts to improve coordination within the U.S. plasma science community and will inform a strategic plan that the Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee is preparing for the Department of Energy, targeted for release late this year.

SpaceX to Address Astronomers on Satellite Constellation Interference

The American Astronomical Society and the Satellite Industry Association are hosting a webinar on Tuesday to discuss the potential impacts of emerging satellite constellations on optical and infrared telescopes. Among the speakers is Patricia Cooper, vice president for satellite government affairs at SpaceX, which is the company furthest along in developing a low Earth orbit constellation that offers broadband internet access around the globe. SpaceX has worked with AAS to study options for dimming the constellation, such as by adding dark coatings and visors to the satellites to reduce their reflectivity. 

Forum to Focus on ‘Moonshot’ Funding Models

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is hosting a virtual event on Thursday to explore the prospect for cooperation among R&D initiatives that governments around the world have launched to address major technological and social challenges. Panelists will focus specifically on the National Science Foundation’s Big Ideas initiative, the European Union’s Horizon programs, and the Moonshot program that the Japanese government announced earlier this year. Among the participants are Koichi Akaishi, Japan’s vice minister for innovation policy; Mary Kavanagh, minister-counselor for innovation for the Delegation of the EU to the U.S.; and senior officials from NSF, the Department of Energy, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

In Case You Missed It

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking on the Senate floor on May 21.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking on the Senate floor on May 21.

(Image credit – C-SPAN)

Lawmakers Propose Adding Technology Arm to NSF

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) introduced legislation on May 21 titled the Endless Frontier Act, which would redesignate the National Science Foundation as the National Science and Technology Foundation and create a new Directorate of Technology within the agency. The new directorate’s efforts would concentrate on a periodically updated list of no more than 10 “key technology focus areas,” with an initial list of the following 10: 

  • artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware
  • quantum computing and information systems
  • robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
  • natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention
  • advanced communications technology
  • biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology
  • cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
  • advanced energy
  • materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas

The bill recommends the directorate’s budget rise from $2 billion in fiscal year 2021 to $35 billion in fiscal years 2024 and 2025, with a “hold harmless” provision mandating it cannot receive any funds in a given fiscal year if the budget for the rest of NSF declines. NSF’s annual budget is currently about $8 billion. Schumer and Young’s bill would also establish a Regional Technology Hub Program administered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology that would provide grants to consortia working in specified technology areas. The legislation would recommend a total budget of $10 billion for the program covering fiscal years 2021 through 2025. Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) have introduced a companion bill in the House.

NASA Exploration Chief Resigns, Citing Lunar Program ‘Mistake’

Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, resigned on May 18 after only seven months on the job. In a message to NASA staff, Loverro cryptically wrote that a “risk” he had taken earlier this year to fulfill the directorate’s mission had turned out to be a “mistake.” In an interview with the Washington Post, he elaborated that the incident involved an effort to move quickly to achieve NASA’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and was unrelated to the Commercial Crew program, which is scheduled on Wednesday to launch astronauts aboard a U.S. vehicle for the first time since 2011. NASA’s inspector general opened an audit of the lunar program’s acquisition strategy in March, and unnamed sources have told journalists that Loverro may have broken procurement rules in the process of awarding contracts for lunar lander development. NASA’s intensive pursuit of the 2024 goal was also a primary driver behind its removal of Loverro’s predecessor Bill Gerstenmaier last summer.

WFIRST Renamed After Astronomer Nancy Roman

NASA announced on May 20 that it has renamed its flagship Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Roman, who died in 2018, led NASA’s astronomy program from 1960 to 1979. She was instrumental in the development of space-based astronomy and was a key champion of the project that became the Hubble Space Telescope. The Roman Space Telescope passed its confirmation review earlier this year and, although the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed cancelling it, Congress has provided it with the funding required for it to meet its target launch date in the mid-2020s. The telescope is the second major astronomical facility in the past year to be named after a pioneering woman in the field, following close on Congress’ designation of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

White House Expected to Expand Visa Restrictions

President Trump is reportedly preparing to expand an April 22 executive order restricting immigration to the U.S. The initial order suspended the issuance of green cards and ordered a 30 day review of nonimmigrant visa programs that will recommend measures to “ensure the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.” Among the programs the administration is expected to restrict is Optional Practical Training, which permits foreign STEM students on F-1 visas to work in the U.S. for up to three years post-graduation. In anticipation of potential new restrictions, 324 business and higher education groups sent a letter on May 21 urging Trump to “avoid outcomes, even for temporary periods, that restrict employment-authorization terms, conditions, or processing of L-1, H-1B, F-1, or H-4 nonimmigrants.” A group of 36 scientific societies, including AIP, also wrote to the White House on May 20 calling on the administration to “prioritize the immigration of science and technology talent that will spur the scientific breakthroughs and economic growth of the United States that is needed for rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

NIH Under Fire Over Coronavirus Grant Termination

Thirty-one scientific societies wrote to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on May 20 protesting the agency’s decision to terminate a grant it had made to EcoHealth Alliance for research on bat-borne coronaviruses. While NIH told EcoHealth Alliance its project did not “align” with the agency’s priorities and program goals, the move came after President Trump said his administration would “end that grant very quickly.” The grant had attracted negative attention from Republican politicians who objected that it had funded collaborative activities with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some Republicans have sought to implicate the institute in the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins, though there is no evidence the institute was studying the virus before it spread from animals to humans. The societies’ letter states NIH’s action threatens to undermine international scientific collaboration and “sets a dangerous precedent.” On May 21, a group of 77 U.S. Nobel Prize laureates in science also protested the grant termination, calling NIH’s explanation “preposterous.” Their letter calls on NIH and its parent department to review the decision and “take appropriate steps to rectify the injustices that may have been committed” in revoking the grant.

Research Security Efforts Highlighted in China Strategy Report

A congressionally mandated report released by the White House last week on the administration’s strategy toward China includes a summary of research security initiatives, such as the efforts of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment to coordinate conflict of interest policies across science agencies. Notably, the report states the Department of Defense is currently “working to ensure grantees do not also have contracts with China’s talent recruitment programs.” The department has previously indicated it was implementing such restrictions, though the move has not been widely reported. While other science agencies have restricted their own employees from participating in such recruitment programs, they have not extended those restrictions to grantees. The report also references the administration’s efforts to step up visa screening for students and researchers and to tighten export controls for critical technologies.

Emerging Tech Export Control Advisory Committee Launches 

On May 19, the Department of Commerce held the first meeting of a reconstituted committee that will advise the department as it develops the new export controls for both “emerging” and “foundational” technologies that are required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. Department officials said at the meeting that the committee members will be asked to weigh in on a forthcoming set of controls for emerging technologies and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for controls on foundational technologies. Matthew Borman, deputy assistant secretary for export administration, stressed that the department is aiming to develop multilateral controls with other countries to increase their effectiveness. He noted as an example that last year the department implemented controls on five emerging technologies through the Wassenaar Arrangement. A list of the committee members present at the meeting is available here.

Democrats Grill EPA Chief Over ‘Pandemic of Pollution’ 

At a hearing last week, Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee pressed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on how the agency’s air pollution policies may impact the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. Citing a report prepared by his staff, Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) called recent deregulatory actions by EPA a “pandemic of pollution” that could cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, with a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities. The staff report draws on a Harvard study still awaiting peer review that found exposure to high levels of particulate air pollution increases the risk of death from COVID-19. Meanwhile, Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-WY) questioned the validity of the Harvard study, citing comments by two epidemiologists in a Wall Street Journal editorial. Wheeler acknowledged the link between air pollution and increased rates of underlying health conditions such as heart disease that are risk factors for COVID-19, but argued EPA’s actions will not lead to lower air quality. He also pointed to a recently announced round of environmental justice grants as evidence of EPA’s responsiveness to the pandemic’s impacts on minority communities. Later in the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questioned the motives behind EPA’s proposed scientific transparency rule, arguing its lineage traces back to a “secret science” rule pushed by tobacco lobbyists in the 1990s. Wheeler said he was unaware of that connection, saying his understanding is that the proposed rule was based on legislation introduced by former House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX). 

Senate Moves Toward Votes on NOAA and DOE Nominees

At a hearing last week, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the nomination of Neil Jacobs to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by voice vote. Jacobs has generally earned high marks while leading the agency on an acting basis for the past 15 months, but some Democratic committee members did express reservations about advancing the nomination. Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voted in favor but said she believes a final floor vote should not occur until senators can review a forthcoming inspector general investigation into the controversy over NOAA’s rebuke of a National Weather Service office that contradicted inaccurate statements made by President Trump regarding Hurricane Dorian. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) voted against advancing the nomination, though they did not explain their votes. Separately, last week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considered the nomination of Mark Menezes to be deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. Committee leaders from both parties voiced support for Menezes, who has served as under secretary of energy since 2017, overseeing energy policy initiatives and the department’s applied energy R&D programs.

Events this week

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

Monday, May 25

 
Memorial Day

Tuesday, May 26

 
FDP: Federal Demonstration Partnership meeting (continues through Thursday)
 
 
11:30 am - 12:45 pm
 
12:00 - 1:00 pm
 
3:00 - 4:00 pm
 
4:00 - 5:00 pm

Wednesday, May 27

 
NOAA: Ocean Exploration Advisory Board meeting (continues Thursday)
 
11:00 am - 4:30 pm
 
1:00 pm
 
2:45 - 3:45 pm

Monday, June 1

 
National Academies: “Review of the SBIR/STTR at NSF,” meeting two (continues through Friday)
 
National Academies: “Assessment of the SBIR/STTR Programs at NIH”, meeting two (continues through Wednesday)
 
American Astronomical Society: 236th Meeting (continues through Wednesday)
 
NASA: Small Bodies Assessment Group meeting (continues Tuesday)
 
2:00 - 4:00 pm

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

Opportunities

AAAS Seeking S&T Policy Fellows 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is accepting applications for the 2021-2022 cohort of its S&T Policy Fellowship program starting on June 1. Fellows spend a year at a federal agency or congressional office in Washington, D.C., gaining experience in the policymaking process. Applicants must have a doctoral-level degree in a STEM field or a master’s degree in engineering with three years of engineering experience. Applications are due Nov. 1.

Input Sought on Quantum Education Concepts

The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign is seeking community input on a list of nine key concepts for future quantum information science education. The list was developed at a virtual workshop in March sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

MIT Seeking Science Journalism Fellows 

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT is accepting applications for a remote fellowship opportunity in lieu of its traditional resident fellow program. The project expects to award up to 20 fellowships for the upcoming academic year, from September 2020 to May 2021. Applicants must be U.S. residents and have at least three years of relevant journalism experience. Applications are due June 30.

 

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.

Around the web

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

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