Congress took a step over the weekend toward finalizing federal spending for fiscal year 2020, with leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees announcing they have agreed on how to allocate the overall budget among its 12 component spending bills. Details on the allocations reportedly will not be made public until further progress is made in finalizing the legislation. To buy more time for negotiations, Congress passed legislation last week that extends stopgap funding for the federal government through Dec. 20. A major dispute over border wall funding remains to be resolved, and Congress could end up extending the stopgap into the spring or even to the end of the fiscal year if the negotiations prove intractable. Congress resorted to a full-year stopgap twice earlier this decade during a previous stretch of budget disputes. Various research advocacy groups have written to Congress highlighting the negative impacts of extending the stopgap further into the fiscal year.
The Senate is scheduled to vote next Monday afternoon on Dan Brouillette’s nomination to lead the Department of Energy, following an uneventful nomination hearing on Nov. 14. Brouillette has been serving as DOE’s deputy secretary since 2017, and it is expected he will not make major changes to the department’s priorities after current Energy Secretary Rick Perry officially steps aside on Dec. 1.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology held its first meeting of the Trump administration on Nov. 18, though only seven of its anticipated 16 members were sworn in. Two other members have been announced, while the remaining seven have yet to be appointed. At the meeting, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier, who chairs the council, said its immediate aim will be to produce “actionable” near-term policy recommendations rather than major reports. He also said the focus will be on three “priority workstreams”: creating a five year plan around the four “industries of the future” the Trump administration has identified; examining the development of the U.S. STEM workforce, which will include matters related to attracting international researchers and research security; and better engaging DOE national laboratories and other federal labs in the U.S. R&D enterprise as a whole. Discussing other features of the new PCAST, Droegemeier said it will work in parallel with a 20-person subcommittee comprising students, postdoctoral researchers, and other early-career scientists. In addition, the main council will partner closely with the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation, which is similarly tasked with providing advice to the president and Congress on science and engineering-related matters.
A Senate investigations subcommittee issued a bipartisan report last week that criticizes the FBI and several federal science agencies for being slow to grasp how talent recruitment programs sponsored by the Chinese government can encourage participants to misappropriate U.S.-funded research. The panel also released examples of recruitment contracts and case studies of talent program participants that showcase concerning behavior. The report includes 14 recommendations, which range from harmonizing reporting requirements for disclosure of foreign research support to assessing “whether openly sharing some types of fundamental research is in the nation’s interest.” At a hearing on the report, Subcommittee Chair Rob Portman (R-OH) said he plans to develop legislation on the subject, noting one idea is to require agencies to harmonize their grant application formats.
Last week, lawyers for University of Kansas chemical engineering professor Feng Tao filed a motion to dismiss federal charges that allege he failed to disclose part-time work at a Chinese university to his employer and his funders at the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. The lawyers assert Tao never accepted a position at the university and that a disgruntled colleague submitted false tips to the FBI as retribution for a dispute over co-authorship on a research paper. They also protest the government’s prosecutorial strategy, arguing it has “stretched the mail fraud and program fraud statutes beyond recognition by transforming what is nothing more than an employment dispute between [the University of Kansas] and Dr. Tao into a nefarious scheme to commit wire fraud and program fraud that could potentially deprive Dr. Tao of his liberty for fifty years.” Tao’s case is one of three examples involving NSF used in last week’s Senate report on talent recruitment programs.
In a letter dated Nov. 21, Republicans on the House Science Committee formally protested the panel’s policy direction under Democratic leadership, calling for it to pay greater attention to competition with China and critical technology areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science. They argued the committee has “shifted its attention to tangential issues that serve parochial interests of its Democratic members” and has focused on expanding applied research programs “at the expense of basic research priorities.” As a starting point in pivoting the committee’s priorities, they propose holding a hearing focused on “China’s R&D agenda, objectives, tactics, and technological prowess, at which we can compare U.S. progress in those areas and evaluate the security of our scientific enterprise.” Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) defended her approach in a reply the next day, noting that all bills the panel has approved in the current Congress have had Republican cosponsors. She also noted that one of the committee’s first hearings of the year covered the “competitive challenge presented by China.”
The House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee heard testimony last week on what goals the Department of Energy might set for advancing energy innovation as a way to mitigate climate change. Rich Powell, executive director at the advocacy group ClearPath, emphasized the usefulness of “moonshot goals,” pointing as an example to the Senate’s proposal for DOE to finance two advanced nuclear reactor demonstration projects by 2025. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz called for Congress to “up the ante,” suggesting the number of demonstrations should be closer to five or ten. More broadly, Moniz described his Green Real Deal framework for transitioning to a low-carbon economy while simultaneously promoting social equity. Subcommittee Chair Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) expressed interest in DOE doing more to set “clear goals that the American people can feel” and asked for input on how to spur regional energy innovation efforts.
NASA announced five companies on Nov. 18 that will participate in the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, adding to the nine it selected one year ago. The purpose of the program is to establish a pool of commercial service providers that compete for task orders to convey scientific instruments and technology demonstration payloads to the lunar surface. While the original set of participants is focusing on building small landers, NASA has indicated it is also looking ahead to flying larger payloads, including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission it announced in October. Among the five companies is Blue Origin, which is offering its proposed Blue Moon crewed lunar lander as a cargo vehicle. SpaceX meanwhile is offering Starship, a reusable super heavy-lift rocket it is developing, as an option for conveying up to 100 metric tons of cargo, well exceeding the CLPS program’s requirements. According to reporting by SpaceNews, NASA is telling companies it has notional plans to order three missions next year that would fly in 2022 and 2023. Currently, two commercial lander missions are scheduled for 2021.
Negotiators at the World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt have agreed to set out-of-band emissions limits on 5G telecommunications technologies at -33 decibel watts until Sept. 1, 2027, and -39 decibel watts thereafter. The World Meteorological Organization had been advocating for a considerably more stringent limit to prevent interference with satellite observations of water vapor. While the agreed limit is stricter than the -20 decibel watts limit advanced by the Federal Communications Commission, WMO remains concerned that weather forecasting capabilities will still be affected. Earlier this year, Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the House Science Committee that analyses his agency and NASA performed indicated a limit near -50 decibel watts would be needed to ensure “roughly zero data loss.” He also said that data loss of 2% or more would very likely cause NOAA to reconsider proceeding with its multi-billion dollar acquisition of next-generation polar-orbiting satellites.
The House Science Committee held a hearing last week to review the rationale for the planned Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC), which aims to better enable non-federal researchers to contribute to government weather models. Two witnesses from outside the government said U.S. weather research efforts are currently fragmented across agencies and the public and private sectors, with EPIC presenting an opportunity to unite the community around common goals. Committee members asked for details on the potential structure and governance framework for EPIC as well as how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is consulting with the community as it works to stand up the center. Acting NOAA Director Neil Jacobs noted the agency convened a workshop in August to gather feedback and is preparing to issue a request early next year for bids to operate the center. Jacobs said EPIC must exist outside of NOAA for it to be successful and that the agency is open to different proposals for how the center should be governed. Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences, argued that EPIC should have a single director that is the “one point of responsibility” for developing the community modeling system.
According to multiple media outlets, former AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers has asked President Trump to withdraw his nomination to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Trump picked Myers for the job more than two years ago, but the nomination never received a Senate floor vote despite advancing out of committee twice. Democrats staunchly opposed Myers, citing the conflict of interest between NOAA’s mission to provide public weather data and his family’s continued stake in AccuWeather, which provides commercial weather forecasts. Later it emerged that in 2018, while Myers was still CEO, AccuWeather agreed to compensate 39 individuals for complaints related to sexual harassment at the company, though it denied the allegations. It is unknown which Senate Republicans may have opposed his nomination. In a statement first reported by the Washington Times, Myers pointed to cancer treatment he has undergone as the reason he is stepping aside. He also decried “false news stories” surrounding him and his family, saying they had increased his resolve to see the nomination through.
At its meeting last week, the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel reviewed the significant progress made in advancing the projects recommended by the 2014 Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5). While presenters at the meeting generally regarded the P5 exercise as highly successful, they also elaborated on concerns that stagnant research budgets and increasing costs will make it difficult to take full advantage of data generated by projects and sustain the field’s population of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. The panel is planning to finish its report on the implementation of the P5 recommendations in the coming weeks, aiming for a release date late this year or in early 2020.
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The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is accepting comments from the public to inform the work of the interagency Joint Committee on the Research Environment. The request for information seeks feedback on approaches to improving the reproducibility and replicability of research; identifying and reducing administrative burdens; mitigating research security risks; and fostering a safe and inclusive research environment. Comments are due Dec. 23.
The Society of Physics Students is seeking applications from undergraduate physics students for two summer science policy internship programs sponsored by the American Institute of Physics. The AIP Mather Public Policy Internship program places two students in congressional offices, and FYI hires one student to assist with the production of science policy newsletters. Applications are due Jan. 15, 2020, though the Mather positions may be filled before the deadline.
The Eagleton Science and Politics Initiative at Rutgers University is accepting applications for its one-year policy fellowship that places scientists and engineers in legislative and executive branch offices in New Jersey. The aim of the program is to provide participating offices with “ready access to trusted in-house science advisors,” while building the fellows’ understanding of state government. Candidates must have a PhD-level degree in a STEM field, and applications are due Jan. 17, 2020.