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The Week of November 20
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 20
(Image credit - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan last week indicated that congressional leaders plan to extend the continuing resolution under which the federal government is currently operating for at least a few weeks past the current Dec. 8 expiration date, but are not yet discussing “going into next year.” This will buy congressional leaders some extra time to wrap up fiscal year 2018 appropriations and reach a deal, currently in negotiations, on raising discretionary spending caps. According to CQ, congressional Republicans are proposing to increase defense spending by $54 billion and nondefense spending by $37 billion for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 — increases of 9.8 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively, in the first year. However, Democrats are insisting that increases in defense and nondefense spending be equal to each other. Should Congress approve such a major spending boost, it would open up a path for significant increases in federal science agency budgets over the next two years. A group of leading scientific organizations, including the American Physical Society and The Optical Society — both AIP Member Societies — are sponsoring a major advocacy campaign called “Raise the Caps” that aims to secure such an outcome.
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee announced that it will release its last four spending bills for fiscal year 2018 this week, including those which cover the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior. The committee had scheduled a markup of two of the bills a month ago, but it was postponed and never rescheduled. The House unveiled all of its spending bills over the summer and completed votes on them in September.
On Nov. 17, the White House Office of Management and Budget submitted its latest supplemental spending request to Congress, asking for an additional $44 billion to support hurricane and wildfire recovery efforts. In a shift from its previous recovery requests, the administration urges Congress to consider offsetting the new spending through various mechanisms, including rescinding certain unobligated balances and extending non-defense budget sequestration by two years. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the overall request as inadequate.
Funding requests for the science agencies include the following:
- $79.6 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which $41.7 million is for repairing facilities and equipment and $20 million is for collecting new geospatial data to update maps and charts due to the significant changes to bathymetry, topography, and shorelines caused by the hurricanes.
- $58.1 million to repair NASA facilities and equipment at Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
- $32.9 million for the U.S. Geological Survey, of which $13 million is for repairing damaged stream gauges and seismic monitors, and $20 million is for collecting of high-resolution elevation data to inform recovery and rebuilding efforts.
- $7.7 million to repair National Science Foundation facilities and equipment, including Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Annual Defense Policy Bill Awaits Trump’s Signature
On Nov. 14, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’ annual defense policy bill, on a vote of 356 to 70. The Senate passed it two days later on a voice vote, and the legislation now awaits President Trump’s signature. The final compromise bill incorporates or adapts many of the R&D-related provisions from the original House and Senate versions. Among them, it directs the Defense Department to review department policies that adversely affect its “innovation, research, and engineering enterprise.” It instructs the National Nuclear Security Administration to undertake an “Infrastructure Modernization Initiative” that will slash the backlog of deferred maintenance and repair in the nation’s nuclear security enterprise, including its labs, by 30 percent by 2025. It also calls for NNSA to sponsor an assessment of the management and operating contracts of the national security laboratories, and to carry out a nuclear warhead design competition. The final bill does not include the House’s proposal of a new Space Corps, but it does direct the Air Force to undertake a major reorganization of its bureaucracy for space-related activities.
Scientific Societies ‘Extremely Concerned’ with House Tax Bill
On Nov. 16, the House passed the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” on a mostly party-line vote, with no support from Democrats and 13 Republicans voting against it. Over 40 scientific and engineering societies sent a letter to Congress on Nov. 15 saying they are “extremely concerned” with the bill, arguing that the elimination of certain education incentives will make “advanced education less affordable” and “is likely to drive some students away from seeking higher education.” Unlike the House bill, the Senate’s version, which the Finance Committee approved last week, would keep many existing education incentives intact, including the exemption of tuition waivers from taxable income. Several AIP Member Societies are signatories of the letter.
Science Committee Approves Research Infrastructure and STEM Bills
At a Nov. 15 markup, the House Science Committee unanimously approved a package of bills that would set target completion dates and authorize funding levels for eight in-progress or planned Department of Energy research facility construction projects, totaling almost $7 billion over an 11-year period. Although congressional appropriators are not required to abide by funding authorizations, the levels serve as markers of what the committee views as appropriate funding profiles. The committee also approved four STEM education and research bills, one of which would require federal science agencies to annually report to the National Science Foundation information on the demographics of all R&D grant applicants. FYI’s reporting on the bills is available here.
NSF Formalizes Path Forward for Arecibo Observatory
On Nov. 16, the National Science Foundation announced that it has formally decided to seek a collaboration with interested parties capable of continuing science-focused operations at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The new partner would assume much of the financial responsibility for the facility, as NSF plans to reduce its annual contribution from about $8 million to $2 million over a five-year period. Jim Ulvestad, the acting director of NSF’s Math and Physical Sciences Directorate, told FYI that “one or more viable collaborators” had responded to a call for proposals. Ulvestad said he thinks this means “the likelihood is quite high” that NSF will be able negotiate a new partnership before the current operating agreement ends on March 31, 2018. He added that NSF’s decision to pursue this path is contingent on the agency receiving funds from Congress to repair Arecibo to its condition prior to being struck by Hurricane Maria.
On Nov. 13, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Timothy Petty, deputy legislative director for Sen. James Risch (R-ID), to be assistant secretary of the interior for water and science, a position that oversees the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation. Petty has previously held the position in an acting capacity and also served as deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior during the George W. Bush administration. Petty received a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in water science and policy, and has worked as a geologist and hydrogeologist.
On Nov. 17, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer announced that Paul Kearns will become the director of Argonne National Laboratory, effective immediately. The University of Chicago manages the $770 million laboratory for the Department of Energy. Kearns first came to Argonne in 2010 as chief operations officer, and he has been serving as interim director of the lab since January, when the previous director, Peter Littlewood, stepped down. Before joining Argonne, Kearns was the laboratory director of Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and he held multiple positions with Battelle, which manages or co-manages seven national laboratories. He holds a Ph.D. in bionucleonics from Purdue University.
Following a six-year Department of Energy pilot study, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced on Nov. 13 that he will permit the department’s 17 national laboratories to use a new kind of technology transfer mechanism — Agreements for Commercializing Technology (ACTs) — with partners in the private sector and academia. According to the DOE press release, ACTs will facilitate “broad access to DOE Laboratories’ expertise, capabilities, and facilities to enable and encourage U.S. economic growth.” In making the announcement, Perry said, “Authorizing a new technology transfer tool will diversify the mechanisms for garnering and maintaining [more flexible lab] partnerships, along with removing barriers for businesses and other entities interested in working with DOE’s labs.”
Report Calls on Universities to Accelerate Tech Transfer
In a new report, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) notes that while public universities are already prioritizing technology transfer activities, they should go a step beyond their current focus on tech transfer revenue and transactions to also focus on the overall contributions their university is making to regional and national innovation economies. Said APLU President Peter McPherson, “In a knowledge-based economy, it’s more important than ever for public universities to engage their technology transfer efforts as part of their broader mission to drive prosperity. Institutions should continue to redefine expectations for their technology transfer offices, and connect them with other aspects of industry and entrepreneurial partnerships.”