You are here
The Week of November 5
Issued each Monday, FYI This Week highlights upcoming science policy events and summarizes news from the past week.
The Week of November 5
Midterm Election’s Science Policy Impacts Will Remain To Be Seen
Science policy is unlikely to be the foremost subject on voters’ minds as they head to the polls on Tuesday. Nevertheless, the election results will have consequences for federal support for science, though they will likely remain unclear for some time. One looming issue is the expiration next October of the two-year spending cap agreement that enabled recent funding increases for science. Following budget sequestration in 2013, Congress has never allowed the caps to return to their original, tightest levels, but, in a volatile political environment, it is unclear how Democratic control of the House or Senate could affect negotiations. Beyond the budget, a Democratic majority would be able to call hearings and conduct oversight on subjects of their choosing. House Science Committee Democrats have identified climate change and the use of science at the Environmental Protection Agency as high priorities. But, without control of the White House, their ability to make laws would remain limited to matters on which there is bipartisan agreement.
Influential Science Policy Voices in Close Races
Elections for individual seats will have consequences primarily via their implications for committee activities. Most notably, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is in a tight race. In his role as chair of a House appropriations subcommittee, he has championed NASA, pushed forward two missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and generally resisted calls for Congress to control the allocation of funding among the National Science Foundation’s directorates. In other races, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, is believed to hold a narrow lead in his bid for reelection, as is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the committee’s Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee. Three prominent Republican members of the House Science Committee — Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Barbara Comstock (R-VA), and Randy Hultgren (R-IL) — are also in difficult contests.
Congress Returning Nov. 13 for Lame Duck Session
Newly elected members of Congress will take their seats on Jan. 3. In the meantime, the current Congress will return on Nov. 13 for its “lame duck” session. High on the agenda is completing the appropriations process for fiscal year 2019. Currently, many agencies are operating with stop-gap appropriations, including NASA, the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Geological Survey, and Environmental Protection Agency. If Democrats gain control of one or both chambers, they may push to defer a final agreement until the next Congress when they would have more leverage over the legislation. It is possible that some science policy legislation will advance during the lame duck session. In particular, work on the bipartisan “National Quantum Initiative Act” gained significant momentum before Congress left on its pre-election recess.
Quantum Leaders Converging in Chicago
Top federal officials are heading to the Midwest for a two-day summit at the University of Chicago late this week that will highlight local and national efforts to advance quantum information science. The university recently announced it will help develop a 30-mile quantum communication link between Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab. The three institutions have also partnered to form the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which aims to increase collaboration between scientists at the labs and the university. Representatives of the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Department of Defense will deliver keynote addresses at the event, which will be webcast.
Space Studies Board to Discuss Lunar Science Possibilities
The National Academies Space Studies Board is meeting Wednesday through Friday in Irvine, California. There will be an extensive discussion of research that could be enabled through the orbiting lunar outpost and commercial partnerships that are central to NASA’s vision for its new lunar exploration campaign. Representatives from the board’s standing committees and NASA’s science advisory committees will also be discussing “challenges and opportunities” in their respective fields. Other presentations will address the James Webb Space Telescope, small-scale satellites, the European space landscape, the upcoming astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, and the recent midterm assessment of the last planetary science decadal survey.
National Academies Hosting Convocation on Sexual Harassment
The National Academies is convening leaders from academia, government, and professional societies on Friday to discuss promising policies and strategies to prevent sexual harassment in academia. The convocation builds on the recommendations of the recent National Academies report on the issue and comes as some federal agencies and scientific societies are advancing initiatives to combat sexual harassment. Morning plenaries will focus on moving beyond legal compliance toward prevention, responding to misperceptions about sexual harassment, and discussing the role of federal agencies. Afternoon breakout sessions will shift to developing new strategies for training, data collection, reporting mechanisms, and improving organizational culture.
Student Group Convening Science Policy Symposium
The East Coast branch of a federation of student groups called the National Science Policy Network is convening a symposium in New York City this weekend, bringing together early career scientists who share an interest in policy, advocacy, and diplomacy. The symposium features sessions on careers in science policy, basics of science advocacy, and science communication. The plenary speaker is Kerri-Ann Jones, who served as assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs from 2009 to 2014.
DOJ Launches Effort to Counter Chinese Economic Espionage
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Nov. 1 that the Department of Justice has begun a “China Initiative” to crack down on the country’s allegedly systematic efforts to steal American intellectual property. Top U.S. attorneys outlined the initiative at a press conference during which DOJ unsealed the latest in a series of indictments connecting the Chinese government to economic espionage activities. In addition to allocating more resources to trade secret theft cases, Sessions said the department will seek to better protect non-traditional targets, such as universities. A fact sheet on the initiative states the department will “develop an enforcement strategy concerning non-traditional collectors (e.g., researchers in labs, universities, and the defense industrial base) that are being coopted into transferring technology contrary to U.S. interests.” The FBI, which is within DOJ, has made a concerted effort to increase awareness about such non-traditional collection efforts this year, raising the subject in congressional hearings and briefings to academic institutions.
Astro2020 Decadal Survey Receives Marching Orders
On Oct. 29, the National Academies released its statement of task for the upcoming decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics. The survey report is expected to be released about two years from now, whereupon it will become the guiding document for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy as they develop the relevant portions of their science portfolios. In addition to reviewing the state of the field and prioritizing major projects, the survey, unlike its prior iterations, will recommend decision rules to guide agency responses to changing budgets and undertake a detailed assessment of the state of the astronomy and astrophysics profession. A document detailing the scope of the survey notes that, in addition to considering future projects, it should advise NASA on the scale of its commitments to the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), the Advanced Telescope for High-Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA), and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). Jim Lancaster, director of the National Academies Board on Physics and Astronomy, said last week that he expects the survey committee leadership will be announced within days, and by December at the latest.
NASA Concludes Kepler and Dawn Missions
NASA announced the conclusion of two science missions last week, the Kepler space telescope and the Dawn spacecraft. Launched in 2009, Kepler was the first telescope designed specifically to search for exoplanets. A year after a mechanical failure ended its initial mission in 2013, it entered a second phase of operation called K2 that allowed it to continue making observations until its fuel was depleted. The mission, which had a lifecycle cost of about $600 million, has to date resulted in the confirmed discovery of over 2,600 exoplanets, with additional results expected to emerge from its data archives. Dawn, which had a lifecycle cost of about $500 million, was the first spacecraft to orbit an object in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt and the first to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies. It launched in 2007 and rendezvoused with the asteroid Vesta in 2011 before moving on to the dwarf planet Ceres, where it remained until its fuel was expended. Both Kepler and Dawn were developed through NASA’s Discovery program, which was created in the 1990s to foster relatively low-cost missions performing focused scientific investigations.
NASA Reorganizing Astrobiology Efforts
NASA announced on Nov. 1 that it is transforming its Astrobiology Institute into an array of “research coordination networks” (RCNs). The Astrobiology Institute is a “virtual institute” that was created in 1998 and is administered by a small staff at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The new RCNs will be self-organized by researchers and modeled on the existing Nexus for Exoplanet System Science. NASA expects new networks devoted to life detection, ocean worlds, prebiotic chemistry and the early Earth, and cell formation will be created by the end of 2019. The reorganization conforms to recommendations in the recent National Academies strategies for exoplanet research and astrobiology to foster collaboration across NASA’s science divisions. It will not alter how NASA funds research related to astrobiology.
New Supercomputer to Triple Berkeley Lab’s Computing Power
The Department of Energy announced on Oct. 30 that the National Energy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC) Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has signed a $146 million contract with Cray to build a pre-exascale supercomputer. Called Perlmutter, after astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, the machine is expected to more than triple the computational power currently available at NERSC. It will be used to run large-scale simulations and analyze the increasingly vast datasets produced by vanguard scientific facilities.
Los Alamos National Lab Management Transition Complete
On Nov. 1, the management contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory transferred to Triad National Security, a non-profit consortium led by the University of California, Texas A&M University System, and Battelle Memorial Institute. Thom Mason, the consortium’s CEO and former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is now serving as the national security lab’s twelfth leader in its 75-year history. According to the lab, nearly all of its employees were retained in the transition, with only a few senior leadership personnel changing under the new management. The Department of Energy recompeted the contract after a series of nuclear safety mishaps at the lab led to a loss of confidence in its management.
NNSA Updates Stockpile Stewardship and Nonproliferation Plans
Last week, the National Nuclear Security Administration released the first annual reports to Congress on its nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship and non-proliferation programs since the Trump administration issued its Nuclear Posture Review this February. Together, the reports provide a synoptic view of NNSA’s efforts to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the absence of underground testing while also guarding against the spread of nuclear materials around the globe. The reports outline approaches for addressing challenges that face NNSA’s R&D programs and identify overarching concerns related to infrastructure and workforce development.
(Image credit – NNSA)
Report Lauds NIST Physics Divisions, Flags Long-Term Issues
A National Academies review of four physics divisions in the National Institute of Standards and Technology released last week offers a glowing assessment of their scientific expertise and identifies long-term challenges to their vitality. The review panel concludes the divisions’ capabilities remain world class overall, although it also observes that some staff are located in a building that has not been upgraded since the 1960s and are “rapidly reaching the day when the decaying infrastructure will limit their ability to perform their necessary duties.” It further calls on NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder to fund renovations at their joint research institute, JILA, writing that the oldest wing of the lab is “simply incompatible with the extraordinary experiments being pursued there.” It also raises concern about JILA’s reliance on a Physics Frontier Center grant from the National Science Foundation, identifying a need to plan for the eventuality that the center is not renewed.