Democrats are struggling to find a path forward for both the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure spending bill the Senate approved in August and the multi-trillion partisan spending bill they intend to advance without Republican support using Congress’ budget reconciliation process. The House canceled a planned vote on the bipartisan bill last week after it appeared headed for defeat as some progressive Democrats insisted the partisan bill move ahead in parallel, and as President Biden reportedly called for delaying action until Democrats reached agreement on the partisan bill. While House Democrats have already drafted a package amounting to $3.5 trillion in spending over ten years, Senate Democrats have not released counterpart legislation and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said he will not vote for a bill exceeding $1.5 trillion. A document made public last week also details various red lines Manchin staked out in negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) earlier this summer, which include a requirement that climate initiatives focus on “innovation” rather than “elimination” of particular fuel types. Schumer is pressing for Democrats to reach agreement on the partisan bill “preferably within a matter of days, not weeks.”
Amid the impasse, Congress passed legislation just prior to the beginning of fiscal year 2022 on Oct. 1 that funds most of the federal government at current levels through Dec. 3. While the House has advanced its versions of the 12 annual spending bills that together will fund the government for the entire fiscal year, the Senate has only released three and lawmakers have also yet to agree on overall spending levels for the year. In addition to preventing a government shutdown, the stopgap legislation provides supplemental funding to several science agencies for disaster recovery and preparedness efforts, including:
On Tuesday, the House Science Committee is holding its first hearing dedicated to research security policy since 2018. In the interim, lawmakers’ attention to the topic has surged. Republicans on the committee have taken a particularly strong interest in preventing the Chinese government from exploiting U.S.-funded research, proposing to ban grantees from participating in “malign” talent recruitment programs supported by China and to bar funding for research projects conducted by entities controlled by China. At the hearing, the committee will hear testimony from NSF Inspector General Allison Lerner, who oversees the agency’s expanding portfolio of investigations into grantees suspected of failing to disclose participation in talent programs. The other witnesses are MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, who co-chairs the National Academies’ science and security roundtable; Candice Wright of the Government Accountability Office, who has assessed agency research security policies; and Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi, who was prosecuted by the Department of Justice in 2015 for allegedly transferring controlled information to China only to have the charges dropped months later. DOJ ramped up its prosecutions of academic scientists during the Trump administration and has faced increasing criticism for premising many cases on violations of disclosure policies rather than espionage. Earlier this year, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) encouraged the department to educate its prosecutors about the “norms and practices” of the research community and to allow “well-intentioned” researchers to come into compliance with disclosure policies without fear of prosecution.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing on Thursday to review President Biden’s nominations of David Honey to be deputy under secretary of defense for research and engineering and Corey Hinderstein to lead nuclear nonproliferation programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Honey holds a doctorate in solid state science and previously was director of science and technology in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Hinderstein previously served in a senior nonproliferation staff role at NNSA from 2015 to 2017 and has spent much of her career at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group. The committee is reviewing several other DOD nominations at a separate hearing this week, including that of Andrew Hunter to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the insurance company Liberty Mutual are hosting a workshop on Tuesday examining the challenges of using climate data to improve understanding of climate risk. The workshop will explore topics such as “what scientific data can be incorporated into catastrophe models to make them more suitable to assess risks in the mid-and-long-time horizons,” as well as the “identification and pricing of climate risks and the follow-on impact on the financial ecosystem.” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad and Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves will provide opening remarks at the event, and acting NOAA Chief Scientist Craig McLean will moderate an afternoon panel of NOAA scientists.
The recently created U.S.-European Union Trade and Technology Council held its first ministerial meeting in Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 and released a joint statement that sets out an agenda for cooperation in various policy areas. One key area is supply chain resilience, extending the Biden administration’s domestic focus on reinforcing supplies of critical minerals, batteries, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors. Concerning semiconductors specifically, the statement indicates the U.S. and EU will cooperate in “rebalancing” supply chains, which are currently heavily dependent on chip production in a few Asian countries, while also “avoiding a subsidy race.” EU leaders recently proposed a “Chips Act” that mirrors the U.S. CHIPS for America Act, which set the stage for a potential $52 billion infusion to bolster domestic semiconductor production and R&D. Other areas for U.S.–EU coordination include investment screening and export controls. Although the statement does not identify China as a target of such measures, the U.S. has been seeking to blunt what it alleges are systematic efforts by the Chinese government to acquire foreign technologies through both espionage and aggressive economic and business practices. The statement indicates the U.S. and EU will share information on “non-market distortive policies and practices,” such as forced technology transfer, state-sponsored theft of intellectual property, market-distorting industrial subsidies, and discriminatory treatment of foreign companies.
The Department of Energy issued guidance last week on a new policy that generally requires inventions resulting from DOE funding to be “substantially” manufactured in the U.S. The policy was first announced in June as part of a broader Biden administration effort to bolster supply chains of critical technologies and to spur domestic manufacturing, and it is being implemented through new funding opportunity announcements as of Oct. 1. The policy takes advantage of a provision of the Bayh-Dole Act that permits agencies to restrict the patent rights of federal funding recipients in service of the act’s broader goals. DOE has imposed such conditions on some awards in the past, such as those made through the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, but now expects the requirement to apply to “most” funding opportunities across its science and energy programs. However, the department has outlined a waiver procedure to accommodate situations such as the “present lack of domestic manufacturing capacity and other business considerations.” In August, a coalition of universities and other stakeholders sent a letter to DOE seeking clarification on the scope and justification for the policy, expressing concern that it “may make licensing and securing critical investment in inventions made with DOE funding more difficult.”
On Oct. 4, the Department of Energy announced the new membership of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, which has been dormant since the end of the Trump administration. The 18-member board will be chaired by Stanford University engineer Arun Majumdar, who was the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and later served as vice chair of the board during the Obama administration. The board’s new vice chair will be Madelyn Creedon, who served as deputy director of the National Nuclear Security Administration under President Obama. Other board members include physicist and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson and Caltech aerospace engineer John Dabiri, who was recently appointed to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The board also includes representatives from labor unions, environmental organizations, utility companies, and manufacturers. Members are appointed to two-year terms, which can be renewed.
At the first meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under the Biden administration last week, it heard from experts on global challenges to U.S. science and technology leadership and lessons learned from the pandemic response. Kicking off the meeting, Presidential Science Adviser Eric Lander said PCAST will structure its work around the five questions Biden posed to him following his appointment. The questions concern what lessons the pandemic holds for public health, how science and technology can address climate change, how the U.S. can ensure it is a world leader in technology, how the benefits of science and technology can be broadly shared among Americans, and how to ensure the “long-term health” of science and technology in the U.S. Lander said that for its initial meetings, PCAST will be in “listening mode” and would later “begin to think about how we as a group can bite off pieces” of the questions. PCAST’s next meeting is on Oct. 18 and 19 and will focus on “combatting and adapting to climate change, including ongoing work within individual federal agencies, implications for national security, and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.”
NASA reported last week that its flagship Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope has passed its critical design review, marking the end of design work on the project as construction moves ahead at full stride. Work on the telescope has been significantly disrupted by the pandemic. Accordingly, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz stated last week that its back-end target date for launch has been pushed back seven months to mid-2027, and that its baseline cost has been increased by an “appropriate” amount. This spring, a report on pandemic impacts across NASA projects indicated that the agency expected the cost of the telescope to increase by $400 million. The baseline development cost was set at $3.2 billion just as the pandemic spread to the U.S. in March 2020, with an additional $334 million allotted to building a coronagraph that will be included on the telescope as a technology demonstration.
Speaking at an advisory committee meeting last week, NASA official Eric Smith affirmed that the agency’s flagship James Webb Space Telescope is en route by sea to its launch site in French Guiana and is on track to meet its Dec. 18 launch date. Smith also said that a historical review of the career of the telescope’s namesake, former NASA Administrator James Webb, has not produced evidence that “warrants” a change in its name. NASA initiated the review after a petition circulated demanding a name change in light of evidence that, as a high-ranking State Department official in the Truman administration, Webb was aware of efforts to drive out gay and lesbian employees, and that as NASA administrator in the 1960s he bore ultimate responsibility for similar events there. However, the author of a major book on the persecution of gay and lesbian people in the federal government told Nature this summer that he does not regard Webb as deeply involved in such persecution, and NASA’s acting chief historian told Nature last week that the review had not turned up new information. He said that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson made the final decision on the renaming and that the investigation is now closed. Then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe chose to name the telescope after Webb in 2002, citing his role in making a place for science at NASA during the Apollo era.
The House Intelligence Committee approved legislation last week that would permit the Department of Defense to establish a pilot program to “identify risks associated with individuals who are performing unclassified research funded by DOD who would not otherwise undergo federal personnel vetting.” DOD formally requested such an authority earlier this year, and the text of the House provision closely matches the department’s suggested language, except it excludes a reference to risks specifically linked to “foreign influence and foreign preference.” DOD has indicated the proposed pilot program would be used to “identify the barriers, value, and costs associated with vetting the population of personnel participating in DOD funded research,” as well as to determine the feasibility of establishing a permanent program that could be expanded to encompass other agencies. Congress has previously instructed DOD to collect additional information on its grantees but reported the effort “presented policy challenges relating to privacy and civil liberties, and sharing of data between federal agencies.” The pilot program provision is included in a broader bill that would update policy across U.S. intelligence agencies. The bill also includes provisions focused on pandemic preparedness, wildfire monitoring with DOD satellites, and reporting of unidentified aerial phenomena.
The Senate confirmed environmental lawyer Monica Medina to lead the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Science Affairs on a 61-to-36 vote on Sept. 28. Medina was nominated in April but was among a number of State Department nominees whose confirmations have been delayed by procedural roadblocks set up by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Prior to her confirmation, Medina was the publisher of Our Daily Planet, a sustainability newsletter, and she previously served in senior positions in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the Clinton and Obama administrations. At her confirmation hearing in July, she said that her top priorities for the bureau include biodiversity loss, ocean regulation, and space exploration and commercialization. To keep up to date on the status of positions across the government, consult FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker.
The National Science Foundation announced last week that Yale University astronomy professor Debra Fischer will take the helm of the agency’s Astronomical Sciences Division on Oct. 12. Fischer’s research career has focused on the detection of extrasolar planets and she recently co-chaired a team that developed the concept for the Large UltraViolet Optical InfraRed Observatory (LUVOIR), the most ambitious of the four prospective flagship space telescope concepts under consideration by the forthcoming astronomy decadal survey. A Yale press release states her priorities include increasing diversity in science and taking steps to mitigate climate change, noting she co-founded the advocacy group Astronomers for Planet Earth. The Astronomical Sciences Division currently has an annual budget of around $280 million and oversees a fleet of ground-based telescopes. It has been led on an acting basis by Chris Smith since May 2021 following the departure of the division’s previous head, Ralph Gaume.
On Sept. 27, the National Science Foundation announced ten awards totalling $127 million from its Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure-1 program, which funds equipment and construction projects costing up to $20 million as well as smaller-scale design studies. Several of the awards are for projects in the physical sciences, including:
Separately last week, NSF awarded $75 million to establish five new Harnessing the Data Revolution Institutes. One will focus on the application of AI algorithms in high energy physics, multi-messenger astrophysics, and systems neuroscience.
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Several scientific societies are now accepting applications for their 2022-2023 Congressional Science Fellowships programs, including the American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, Optica, American Geophysical Union, American Geosciences Institute, Geological Society of America, and American Chemical Society, among others. Fellows will spend a year working for a congressional office or committee in Washington, D.C., gaining experience in the policymaking process. Application deadlines vary by society.
The Presidential Management Fellowship program is accepting applications for its latest cohort. The program places U.S. citizens with graduate degrees, including those in STEM fields, in federal agencies. Submissions are due Oct. 12
Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally, an organization that aims to “empower people with STEM backgrounds to be active civic participants,” is seeking volunteers for its web and workshop teams. As part of the web team, volunteers will be expected to contribute 10 to 15 hours per month for an initial six month commitment. As part of the workshop team, volunteers will be expected to contribute 5 to 10 hours of virtual work per month over a 12 month commitment period.