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The Week of October 30
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 October 30
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a hearing to review four of President Trump’s nominations, including Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be NASA administrator and Panasonic Avionics chief atmospheric scientist Neil Jacobs to the position that oversees environmental prediction and observations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers, the nominee for NOAA administrator who has stirred controversy over potential conflicts of interest, is not on the schedule. While Jacobs’ nomination has not faced public opposition to date, Bridenstine’s nomination has been criticized by a handful of senators. Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have said that the head of NASA should not be a politician, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) announced last week that she will oppose Bridenstine’s nomination in part for his past statements at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change.
Low Dose Radiation Research Back on Tap for Science Committee
The House Science Committee’s Energy Subcommittee is holding a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the future of low dose radiation research. Two of the witnesses are experts in medical radiology, while a third from the Government Accountability Office, will be discussing GAO’s new report, “Low Dose Radiation: Interagency Collaboration on Planning Research Could Improve Information on Health Effects.” Federal research on the health effects of low dose radiation has been decreasing, and the Department of Energy brought its work in the area to a close last year. However, some members of the Science Committee have been eager to see the work continue. In 2014, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) introduced the “Low-Dose Radiation Research Act” to protect the program, and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) reintroduced the bill in 2015. A measure to restore the program is also included in the “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act,” which the House passed early this year, as well as in the comprehensive energy policy bill that leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee reintroduced in June.
NOAA Science Advisory Board to Examine ‘Value of Information’
On Monday and Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Science Advisory Board is meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland. The board will hear agency updates from NOAA Deputy Administrator Tim Gallaudet and head of the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Craig McLean. This is the first time that Gallaudet is addressing the board since his confirmation in September. The meeting’s main focus will be to examine the value of information gathered by NOAA. The agency’s chief economist, Monica Grasso, will deliver a presentation on economic valuation of NOAA’s products and services.
The National Academies’ Space Studies Board is holding its fall meeting this week in Irvine, California. Among the agenda items are discussions of preparations for the 2020 astronomy decadal survey, ways to improve peer review in NASA’s Research and Analysis program, and applications of machine learning in astronomy and astrophysics. During the decadal survey planning session, the board’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) will discuss their perspectives on a recent assessment of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which projected that the mission is on course to exceed its original cost target of $3.2 billion by hundreds of millions of dollars. In response to the report, NASA directed WFIRST to be descoped back to $3.2 billion while still retaining a coronagraph, a device that can aid in the identification of exoplanets by blocking light from a star’s center. SpacePolicyOnline reports that CAA members asked NASA at an Oct. 25 meeting whether the coronagraph could be dropped to save costs, and probed why the instrument is being included on a flagship mission as a technology demonstration project without associated science requirements.
On Wednesday, the National Academies’ Board on Research Data and Information is convening a symposium on international coordination of science data infrastructure projects. Members will hear about emerging global efforts to create science data infrastructure, such as the Cross-Continental Collection Access and Management Pilot (C2CAMP), Metadata 2020, and the Open Knowledge Network. Among the symposium’s attendees will be members of the National Academies committee exploring how to move toward an open science enterprise, which is holding its third meeting earlier in the week.
DOE Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Panel Convening
The advisory committee for the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) is meeting on Thursday and Friday in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Among the agenda items are discussion of a recent report on “Advancing U.S. Bioscience” by the Council on Competitiveness, the Plant Genome and Microbiome Interagency Working Groups, and the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project. The committee will also review and vote on a draft report that articulates “grand challenges” in research fields supported by BER.
Griffin Picked for New Defense Research and Engineering Post
The White House announced on Oct. 27 that President Trump intends to nominate Mike Griffin to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. The position would put him in line to become under secretary of defense for research and engineering (R&E) once the Defense Department formally creates the position by Feb. 1, 2018. Mary Miller is currently the acting assistant secretary for R&E and will presumably continue in the position until the reorganization is implemented. Griffin served as NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. Trained in aerospace engineering, he has also held a variety of other positions in government, the private sector, and academia.
Congress Sizes Up Quantum Technology
Two hearings last week showcased the growing congressional interest in emerging applications of quantum-based technologies and U.S. competitiveness in quantum R&D. At an Oct. 24 House Science Committee hearing, federal agency witnesses testified that the field of quantum information science is at an “inflection point” and pointed to a 2016 National Science and Technology Council report as offering a roadmap for enhancing federal investments in the field. Several committee members expressed interest in the U.S. launching a national initiative to advance quantum R&D and probed the tradeoffs associated with different investment approaches. Potential applications of quantum technologies were also discussed at an Oct. 26 hearing on energy infrastructure cybersecurity held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Leaders of both committees noted the large investments being made by other countries, such as China’s recently announced plan to build a $10 billion quantum research center.
Appropriations Chair Joins Chorus Opposing Research Overhead Cuts
At an Oct. 24 appropriations hearing, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), chair of the subcommittee that writes the spending legislation for the National Institutes of Health, came out forcefully against the Trump administration’s proposal to scale back reimbursements for research overhead costs, also known as “indirect” or facilities and administrative costs. In his opening statement, Cole said,
I am very concerned that the proposed [facilities & administrative costs] rate cut would drastically reduce the amount and quality of research conducted in the U.S., and that public universities would be particularly hard hit.
Other key appropriators, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who chairs the equivalent appropriations subcommittee in the Senate, have also pushed back, with Alexander calling the proposal “hare-brained” over the summer. The House and Senate Appropriations Committee reports accompanying fiscal year 2018 spending legislation include language that explicitly rejects the administration’s proposal, and the continuing resolution currently funding the government includes a provision blocking its implementation.
Research Organizations Criticize New Trump Immigration Order
Over 80 science and engineering organizations sent a letter to President Trump on Oct. 17 describing their concerns about his updated executive order restricting entry to the U.S. from certain countries. The organizations argue that the administration’s actions could diminish the U.S.’s ability to attract top talent from around the world and weaken the nation’s science and engineering capacity. Seven AIP Member Societies are signatories. Implementation of the order has been halted nationwide through injunctions granted by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland. The Supreme Court was scheduled to consider an earlier version of the executive order but dropped it from its docket after the new version was issued. The court has not yet indicated if it will take up the new order.
On Oct. 24, at its fifth public meeting, the year-old Defense Innovation Board took up the question of how the military services should foster technical talent, and are poised to recommend a new STEM career track for uniformed personnel. Board members observed that the services’ ordinary system of promotion and duty rotations makes it difficult for personnel serving in technical roles to develop skills and projects. The board’s chair, Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, pointed out that exceptions within the system already exist for specialists in areas such as medicine. He remarked, “Do they take the doctors in the military and then turn them into programmers? Do they turn them into technicians? I don’t think so. Do they take the lawyers in the military and make them doctors and so forth? It’s insane.” The board may also recommend creating a means of incubating innovation that would allow military personnel to develop risky ideas and “elevate” them into practice without courting damage to their careers.
EU, US Highlight Research Collaboration at Horizon 2020 Launch
At an Oct. 27 Wilson Center event, Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s director general for research and innovation (R&I), discussed the launch of the €30 billion ($34.9 billion) EU Horizon 2020 Work Program for 2018–2020. Smits said the new program will focus around five strategic orientations that aim to address common concerns, such as strengthening international R&I cooperation, societal resilience, and increased investment in sustainable development and climate related R&I. He also highlighted “marine Arctic, health, transport, energy, and nano safety,” as examples of areas where the new program invites U.S. cooperation. Also attending was Lisa Brodey, director of the State Department’s Office for Science and Technology Cooperation, who discussed the U.S.’s continued support of long-standing cooperation on science and technology, and said that the U.S. intends to reaffirm this partnership by renewing the U.S.–EU Science and Technology Agreement in 2018.
NASA Concludes GRACE Satellites’ Science Mission
NASA announced on Oct. 27 that it had ended the science mission of the two-satellite Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) after the battery system on one of the satellites failed. Launched in 2002, initially on a five-year mission, GRACE used precise distance measurements between its satellites to detect subtle variations in the Earth’s gravitational field. These measurements allowed researchers to track shifts in the distribution of mass over the surface of the Earth, such as from shrinking ice sheets. GRACE was a joint project with the German Aerospace Center. A successor mission, GRACE Follow-on, is a joint project with the German Research Center for Geosciences. It is expected to launch in early 2018.
CORRECTION: House Sponsors of ARPA–E Bill Seek Broader Support
Last week, FYI reported on a “dear colleague” letter that the backers of the “ARPA–E Reauthorization Act” are circulating. That item erroneously stated that the letter cites Bill Gates, Norm Augustine, and Chad Holliday as supporters of the legislation. In fact, the letter states that the three have said that funding for ARPA–E should be increased. Gates, Augustine, and Holliday have not taken a position on the legislation itself. The bill is now sponsored by 15 Democrats and 7 Republicans.