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The Week of November 13
Start your week fully informed with a preview of what's ahead in science policy and funding along with a recap of last week's news.
The Week of November 13
(Image credit - Ways and Means Committee)
As early as Thursday, the House will vote on the Republican tax reform bill, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which the House Ways and Means Committee approved last week. Scientific and higher education organizations have come out in strong opposition to the bill as written, saying that proposed federal tax code changes would eliminate current deductions and exemptions designed to help offset higher education costs. In particular, the bill would eliminate the exemption of tuition waivers from taxable income and repeal the student loan interest deduction and the Lifetime Learning Credit. In a letter to House committee leadership, American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt said the changes would dissuade students from entering into STEM fields:
According to the Association of College Education (ACE) an estimated 145,000 graduate students received a tuition reduction between 2011–2012 across all fields of study. Repealing the very provision that allows graduate students to continue to study critical STEM fields means that we will be shutting the door on new opportunity for discovery, exploration and innovation.
Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities President Peter McPherson and Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman expressed similar concerns. The Senate version of the bill, which the Senate Finance Committee will begin to consider on Monday, proposes to keep many existing education incentives intact.
On Wednesday, the House Science Committee will meet to vote on eight newly introduced bills, seven of which focus on either Department of Energy facilities or STEM education. Three of the bills would together set authorized funding profiles and target completion dates for eight DOE facility construction projects, including a reactor-based fast neutron source user facility, the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, as well as upgrades to the Advanced Light Source, Linac Coherent Light Source-II, Advanced Photon Source, and Spallation Neutron Source. A committee staff member told FYI that the funding levels were chosen after consulting with DOE and facility host institutions. Although the appropriations committees would not be required to abide by these levels if the bills become law, they would serve as markers of what Congress views as appropriate funding profiles.
According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, federal agency officials serving in an acting capacity in presidentially appointed positions for which there is not yet a nominee will soon lose authority to execute “non-delegable” actions. The Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 stipulates that such individuals who became acting officials on Inauguration Day will lose this authority after 300 days, a deadline which falls on Nov. 16 this year. Only the head of the agency is then allowed to perform those functions until a nominee is announced. Among those who may be affected is Steve Binkley, who currently is the acting director of the Department of Energy Office of Science.
On Tuesday, the House is scheduled to vote on the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018,” which sets policy for the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees released their conference report for the bill last week. The report details the compromises the conference committee negotiated in order to reconcile differences between the chambers’ versions of the bills, which include many provisions related to R&D programs. The House summary of the report is largely silent on its research-related provisions, while the Senate summary describes several in a section on “Driving Innovation in R&D.”
Long-Awaited NOAA Weather Satellite to Launch
The first satellite in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is scheduled to launch on Tuesday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. JPSS has been in the works since 2010, when the Obama administration decided to cancel the troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), a joint project of NOAA and the Department of Defense. Once in operation, JPSS-1 will join the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, a stopgap with a short design life, as the first spacecraft in the latest generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites. The JPSS program — encompassing Suomi NPP, JPSS-1, and JPSS-2, targeted for launch in 2021 — is on track to cost over $11 billion. After the successful launch of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 16 last year, a successful launch of JPSS-1 will bring to an end years of anxiety that a satellite failure would leave a major gap in NOAA’s weather observations.
At a Wednesday event organized by the National Academies’ Board on Higher Education and Workforce, university and scientific leaders will be joined by members of Congress and National Academies President Marcia McNutt for a “national convocation on revitalizing the university–industry–government partnership.” House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Research and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) are among the speakers. In a related event on Tuesday evening, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are holding an inaugural Capitol Hill showcase of startups that grew out of federally funded research at universities.
National Academies Launching NASA Open Code Study
A newly formed National Academies Space Studies Board committee is meeting this week to launch a NASA Science Mission Directorate-sponsored study “to investigate and recommend best practices for NASA as it considers whether to establish an open code and open models policy, complementary to its current open data policy.” The committee co-chairs are Chelle Gentemann, a senior scientist at Earth and Space Research, and Mark Parsons, a senior research scientist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of the Science Mission Directorate, will describe current NASA policies and expectations for the study during open session on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, the committee will hear perspectives on open code from academic and federal researchers.
On Thursday and Friday, the advisory committee for the National Science Foundation’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate will hold its in-person fall meeting. Among the agenda items are discussion of NSF’s “big ideas,” forming more effective external partnerships, and creating a subcommittee to assess the Physics Frontiers Centers program. How the directorate will be able to support the big ideas in a constrained budget environment was a focus of discussion at the committee’s summer meeting. Acting MPS Director Jim Ulvestad provided an update on the big idea devoted to multi-messenger astrophysics at the National Science Board’s fall meeting.
AMS Hosting Weather Hazards Policy Workshop
On Wednesday and Thursday, the American Meteorological Society is hosting a workshop to examine U.S. natural hazards policy in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. A key goal is to identify policy options for building resilience and reducing repetitive loss from natural hazards. Workshop participants will discuss current U.S. risk and vulnerability to coastal natural hazards, emerging public and private sector innovations and partnerships that could reduce future risk, and promising place-based and federal policy options, among other topics.
NASA, NOAA Nominations Clear Committee
On Nov. 8, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee advanced President Trump’s nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for NASA administrator to the full Senate on a party-line 14-to-13 vote. At his confirmation hearing the prior week, Democratic committee members argued that Bridenstine lacks the necessary qualifications and could be a divisive leader. The committee also advanced the nomination of Neil Jacobs for a position overseeing environmental observation and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although no senators expressed reservations about his nomination at his confirmation hearing, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Ed Markey (D-MA) voted against advancing it to the full Senate. More information about the nominees, including their responses to written questions from senators, is available here.
Former NWS Directors Back Myers for NOAA Administrator
The four most recent directors of the National Weather Service, going back in tenure to 1988 — Jack Hayes, David Johnson, Jack Kelly, and Joe Friday — sent a letter the leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee endorsing Barry Myers, President Trump’s controversial nominee for NOAA administrator. In the letter, they praise his years of efforts through the American Meteorological Society to build collaborative multi-sector partnerships, writing, “We have found [Myers] to be open to, and have a keen sense for, the great potential of science and technology to benefit and strengthen their impact on society.” Former NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher also endorsed Myers in a letter to the committee leadership, although the NOAA administrators under the Obama administration — Kathryn Sullivan and Jane Lubchenco — have not formally weighed in. The committee is currently planning Myers’ nomination hearing for Nov. 29.
NSB Creates Workforce Taskforce, Mulls Facilities Oversight Reforms
At its fall meeting on Nov. 8 and 9, the National Science Board formally established a task force focused on better understanding the U.S. “skilled technical workforce,” which the board defines as “individuals who use STEM knowledge and skills in their jobs but who do not have a 4-year degree.” The board has been discussing the idea since February 2017, when it considered framing the effort as a focus on “blue collar STEM.” The task force will hold two to three listening sessions around the country and convene a stakeholder symposium in the first half of 2018. The board also discussed the National Science Foundation’s plans to establish a Facilities Governance Board chaired by a new senior facilities advisor that will oversee NSF’s major facilities though their entire lifecycle. Presentations delivered to the board are posted here.
On Nov. 8, the Department of Defense announced that the next head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will be Steven Walker, who has been the agency’s deputy director since October 2012 and its acting director since January. Walker received a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 1997 and is an expert in hypersonic flight. He spent much of his career as an engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, and previously served as deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology, and engineering. As DARPA director, Walker succeeds Arati Prabhakar, who served from July 2012 to January 2017.
Last week, congressional Democrats mobilized in opposition to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Oct. 31 directive stipulating that EPA grant recipients cannot simultaneously serve on the agency’s advisory panels. Democratic leaders of the House Science Committee wrote to Pruitt on Nov. 3, demanding he withdraw the directive, which they called “misguided and potentially unlawful.” In addition, all Democratic committee members wrote Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) on Nov. 7, requesting that he invite Pruitt before the committee to testify about the directive, among other issues. Also on Nov. 7, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), a Science Committee member and former Fermilab physicist, led 60 other House Democrats and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), in writing to Pruitt to express their own objection to the directive. Meanwhile, a group of 10 Senate Democrats, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), have requested a Government Accountability Office review of Pruitt’s justifications for the move.
Geoengineering Research Receives Bipartisan Backing at Science Committee Hearing
Members of the House Science Committee from both sides of the aisle expressed support for geoengineering research at a relatively uncontentious hearing on Nov. 8, a stark contrast to the committee’s recent hearings related to climate change. Witnesses testified that the nascent field of geoengineering is worthy of increased investment, but should not be viewed as an alternative to emissions reductions, and will require at least a decade of more research before becoming a viable option for mitigating climate change impacts. Phil Rasch, a chief climate scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said that current federal funding for geoengineering research is likely less than $1 million per year, and suggested that a more robust federal research effort is warranted. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) said he plans to introduce legislation related to geoengineering soon.