The Week of October 18, 2021

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

The Week of October 18, 2021

The Week Ahead

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A concept illustration of a nuclear-propelled spacecraft at Mars.

A concept illustration of a nuclear-propelled spacecraft at Mars.

(Image credit – NASA)

Science Committee Looks to Future of Nuclear Technology 

The House Science Committee is holding two hearings this week on nuclear energy R&D, coincident with Nuclear Science Week, an annual event organized by nuclear energy advocates. On Wednesday, the Space Subcommittee will examine the potential use of nuclear fission in space travel. This summer, NASA and Idaho National Lab awarded grants of about $5 million each to three nuclear technology companies to develop reactor concepts for nuclear thermal propulsion systems. The agency is currently contemplating the use of nuclear thermal or nuclear electric propulsion methods to send crewed missions along high-speed trajectories to Mars and other deep-space destinations. Among the hearing’s witnesses is Roger Myers, who co-chaired a recent National Academies study that concluded nuclear thermal is more likely to be ready in time for a notional Mars mission in 2039. Also testifying are NASA official Bhavya Lal, who was a member of the study committee before joining the agency this year; Aerospace Corporation project leader Greg Meholic; Aerospace Industries Association executive Michael French; and Ad Astra Rocket Company founder Franklin Chang-Diaz. 

On Thursday, the Energy Subcommittee will consider the issue of “judicious spending” at the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Katy Huff, the office’s acting head, will be on the witness panel, which also includes Amy Roma, a lawyer specializing in nuclear energy issues; Todd Allen, a University of Michigan nuclear engineering professor; and Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog organization. DOE is currently supporting two projects to demonstrate “advanced” nuclear reactor technologies that could receive $2.5 billion over six years through the bipartisan infrastructure spending bill the Senate passed in August. Meanwhile, congressional appropriators are proposing to cut off funding for the Versatile Test Reactor, a proposed multibillion-dollar user facility that would support advanced reactor development and has received bipartisan backing from the Science Committee.

Senators Examining International Affairs in Space Sector

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on Thursday on “international collaboration and competition in space.” The committee states the hearing could inform future legislation and will consider actions that NASA and others could take to “promote U.S. civil and commercial space-sector competitiveness, attract and maintain strong global partnerships, and preserve U.S. space leadership.” Subjects up for discussion include a potential extension of the lifespan of the International Space Station, commercialization of low-Earth orbit, and NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program. The witnesses will be former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Chair Patricia Sanders, and Mary Lynne Dittmar and Mike Gold, who are respectively executives at the companies Axiom Space and Redwire Space.

Picks to Lead NIST and DOE Fossil Energy Office up for Review

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a hearing to consider the nomination of Laurie Locascio to be director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Locascio is currently vice president for research at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore and College Park campuses, but she spent most of her career at NIST, first as a bioengineering researcher and then in a series of senior leadership roles. On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is considering the nomination of Brad Crabtree to lead the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management. Crabtree has been vice president for carbon management at the Great Plains Institute since 2012 and is director of the Carbon Capture Coalition.

PCAST Turns Attention to Climate Change

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is holding a meeting this week on climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts, the second meeting in a series of listening sessions dedicated to the five questions President Biden posed to his science adviser Eric Lander in January. On Monday, White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Office of Science and Technology Policy Deputy Director Jane Lubchenco will discuss various cross-agency steps the Biden administration is taking to meet its goal for the U.S. to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In addition, Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer will brief PCAST on the current trajectory of climate change, and engineering professors Jesse Jenkins and Arun Majumdar will present options for accelerating the development and deployment of clean-energy technologies. On Tuesday, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory physicist Richard Hawryluk will discuss a recent National Academies report he chaired on pathways to building an operational pilot fusion power plant before 2040, and Center for Climate and Security Director Erin Sikorsky will discuss the national security risks of climate change.

DARPA Convening Microelectronics Summit

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is holding its fourth annual Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) Summit this Tuesday through Thursday. DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office announced the $1.5 billion initiative in 2017 as the centerpiece of an effort to explore new technological pathways as semiconductor miniaturization reaches its physical limits and to help ensure the Department of Defense has access to secure microelectronics. Now, ERI’s initial five-year run is approaching its conclusion and DARPA is contemplating its next phase. At the same time, Congress is considering providing $52 billion over five years for a national initiative to support domestic microelectronics manufacturing and R&D, of which $2 billion is for DOD to create a “national network for microelectronics R&D.” Most of the sessions at this week’s summit will be technical in nature, but on Tuesday officials from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will discuss possibilities for work to be done in response to enacted and pending legislation.

In Case You Missed It

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A banner OSTP is using to promote a new request for ideas on advancing equity in science and technology.

A banner OSTP is using to promote a new request for ideas on advancing equity in science and technology.

(Image credit – OSTP)

OSTP Seeks Ideas to Advance Equity in STEM

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced last week that it is seeking responses from the public to the question, “How can we guarantee all Americans can fully participate in, and contribute to, science and technology?” The request follows OSTP’s series of private listening sessions titled, “The Time is Now,” which has focused on topics concerning women and people with gender-expansive identities, people with disabilities, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, community-centered research, and institutional settings. OSTP invites participants to address at least one of these categories, while also welcoming submissions on any topic. The request is hosted on challenge.gov, but there is no monetary prize for the competition and the entries will not be judged. In a press release, OSTP Director Eric Lander remarked, “We need everybody to be able to participate in and contribute to science and technology because different experiences and perspectives are the bedrock of new scientific and technological insights, because having everybody on the team is essential to America’s global competitiveness in the 21st century, and because it’s the right thing to do.” Submissions will be accepted through Nov. 19.

Administration Targets Climate Risk, Plans Improved Climate Services

The Biden administration took a series of actions last week aimed at further integrating the results of climate change research into planning in the public and private sectors. At the top level, the White House outlined a cross-government strategy for addressing social and economic risks stemming from climate change. In addition, federal agencies issued notices about their plans to increase attention to climate risks in federal procurement decisions, revise federal floodplain standards that bear on the cost of flood insurance, and strengthen employee retirement plans’ obligation to consider climate risks in their investments. To improve the availability of climate information to decision-makers and the broader public, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rolled out a redesign of its climate.gov website. In an interview with the news site Axios, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said the agency is also quietly making other moves as it prepares to take on a “much, much more visible and influential role in the federal government.” Meanwhile, the interagency Federal Geographic Data Committee released a brief report that charts a path toward a “consolidated federal geographic mapping service” that would assist governments at all levels in bolstering climate resilience. A separate report assembled by NOAA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy provides a more general overview of how the federal government could expand and improve the “climate information and services” it provides to the public. Last week’s moves follow the release earlier this month of climate adaptation plans by 23 federal departments and agencies.

Interagency Strategy for US Research Infrastructure Released

Last week, the interagency National Science and Technology Council released a report outlining a strategic vision for federal R&D infrastructure over the next two decades. The report asserts that science has undergone a “paradigm shift,” moving from a “big science” approach focused on large-scale standalone facilities, to an interconnected, digital, and data-rich R&D ecosystem. Accordingly, the report defines R&D infrastructure broadly, emphasizing data assets and research cyberinfrastructure alongside facilities and major equipment, and it stresses a need for a more coordinated approach to building out infrastructure. It goes on to identify key policy opportunities in four areas: improving infrastructure planning, ensuring a flexible R&D enterprise, supporting cross-discipline and cross-sector research, and balancing openness with security needs. The council states the report responds to a provision of the 2007 America COMPETES Act that directs the White House to report annually on “deficiencies in research infrastructure” and catalogue associated budget proposals for major instrumentation acquisitions. The new report highlights examples of infrastructure capabilities and needs in six areas, but it does not provide a list of project proposals.

Vaccine Mandates at National Labs Tested in Court

Last week, a state judge in New Mexico declined an injunction request from 114 employees of Los Alamos National Lab who sought to block its policy of requiring workers to be fully vaccinated. The policy took effect Oct. 15 and requires workers who decline a vaccine and request a religious exemption to use vacation time or take leave without pay to retain their employment. The lab, which employs more than 13,000 people, stated last week that 96% of its workers had been fully vaccinated. While the Los Alamos policy withstood the legal challenge, a similar policy implemented by Oak Ridge National Lab was temporarily blocked last week by a federal judge in Tennessee following a lawsuit by six workers. The ruling prevents the lab from placing employees on indefinite leave without pay or firing them if they seek a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine. Oak Ridge has more than 5,000 staff and is reported to have received 145 requests for religious exemptions and 75 requests for medical exemptions. The Department of Energy, which oversees 17 national labs, issued a directive last week requiring its site contractors to implement vaccine mandates, in accordance with an executive order by President Biden.

University Offers to Rehire and Compensate Acquitted Scientist

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) has offered to rehire Canadian nanotechnologist Anming Hu after a federal judge acquitted him last month of charges related to his nondisclosure of ties to a Chinese university. UTK fired Hu prior to his original trial, which ended in a hung jury, when his arrest prevented him from renewing his authorization to work in the U.S. The judge granted the acquittal before a second trial, concluding that federal prosecutors could not convincingly argue the nondisclosure constituted a criminal scheme. In the wake of the verdict, Hu’s supporters lobbied UTK to rehire him, though university officials noted at the time they could not do so until the U.S. government reinstated his right to work. According to a document obtained by the News Sentinel, UTK is now proposing to restore Hu’s tenure and give him partial back pay, payment for an immigration attorney, and $200,000 over three years to reestablish his research program.

Events this week

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

Tuesday, October 19

 
COGR: Fall meeting (continues through Friday)
 
DARPA: 2021 Electronics Resurgence Initiative Summit (continues through Thursday)
 
NIST: “Kicking off NIST AI Risk Management Framework” (continues through Thursday)
 
National Academies: Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board fall meeting (continues through Thursday)
 
National Academies: Chemical Sciences and Technology Board meeting (continues Wednesday)
 
Aerospace Corporation: 2021 Value of Space Summit (continues Wednesday)
 
 
Foreign Relations Committee (G50 Dirksen Office Building)
 
9:30 am, Armed Services Committee (G50 Dirksen Office Building)
 
10:00 am, Energy and Natural Resources Committee (366 Dirksen Office Building)
 
10:00 - 11:00 am
 
11:00 am - 5:00 pm
 
2:30 pm, Judiciary Committee (226 Dirksen Office Building)

Wednesday, October 20

 
 
DOE: Electricity Advisory Committee meeting (continues Thursday)
 
9:00 am 
 
Coleridge Initiative: “Show US the Data”
10:00 am - 12:00 pm
 
10:00 am, Science Committee
 
10:00 am, Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (253 Russell Office Building)
 
10:30 am
 
12:00 - 1:00 pm
 
12:30 - 2:00 pm
 
2:00 pm, Climate Crisis Committee (210 Cannon Office Building)
 
2:00 - 4:00 pm
 
2:30 - 4:00 pm
 
3:00 pm, Rules Committee (301 Russell Office Building)
 
7:00 pm

Thursday, October 21

 
 
NOAA/USDA: 2021 US Drought Monitor Forum (continues Friday)
 
 
8:00 - 10:00 am 
 
9:00 am, Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (2175 Rayburn Office Building)
 
10:00 am, Science Committee
 
10:00 am, Foreign Affairs Committee
 
10:00 am, Natural Resources Committee
 
10:00 am, Judiciary Committee (200 Capitol Visitor Center)
 
10:00 am, Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (253 Russell Office Building)
 
10:30 am, Energy and Commerce Committee (2123 Rayburn Office Building)
 
10:30 - 11:30 am
 
10:30 - 11:45 am
 
11:00 am - 6:00 pm
 
12:00 pm
 
1:00 - 2:00 pm
 
2:00 - 3:00 pm
 
3:00 - 4:00 pm
 
3:00 pm

Sunday, October 24

 
2021 Black in Physics Week (continues through Saturday)

Monday, October 25

 
Directed Energy Professional Society: Directed Energy Systems Symposium (continues through Friday
 
11:00 am - 5:00 pm
 
12:00 - 1:00 pm
 
10:30 - 11:30 pm

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

Opportunities

NSF Seeking Deputy Chief Facilities Officer

The National Science Foundation is accepting applications for a deputy chief officer for research facilities, responsible for overseeing the agency’s portfolio of major facilities and mid-scale research infrastructure. The position also manages the proposal review and portfolio selection process for the mid-scale infrastructure program. Applications are due Nov. 10. 

Anti-Racism Study Seeking Panelists

The National Academies is accepting nominations of members and reviewers for a study on “Advancing Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM Organizations.” The study committee will “review the literature on bias and systemic racism in STEM workplaces; approaches to increase racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in STEM organizations (e.g., universities, non-profit organizations, and industry); and offer policies and best practices for anti-racism and DEI initiatives, as well as outline goals for relevant, future research.” Nominations will be accepted until Oct. 20. 

Research Assistant for Sought for Science Policy Textbook

Authors of the textbook “Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 21st Century” are seeking a part-time research assistant to support production of the second edition of the book. The role will be supported via a monthly stipend of $360 and run from October 2021 to March 2022. The research assistant can work remotely but must be located within the U.S.

 

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.

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