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The Week of September 10
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 September 10
Congress on Verge of Passing DOE Research, Nuclear Innovation Bills
The House is scheduled to vote on the “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act” late this week. The bipartisan bill provides comprehensive authorization for the DOE Office of Science’s six program offices and directs the department to restart its low dose radiation research program. The House already passed the bill last year, but the Senate stripped out a component called the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” before approving the rest of the bill this July. The Senate had already passed a standalone version of the nuclear energy legislation in March, and the House will consider it this week as well. The bill directs DOE to complete construction of a fast neutron reactor by the end of 2025, contingent on the department’s determination of a mission need for the facility, and to create a Nuclear Reactor Innovation Center, among other provisions. If the House passes the bills as expected, they will head to President Trump for his signature.
National Quantum Initiative Bill Also Set for House Vote
The House is also scheduled to vote late this week on the “National Quantum Initiative Act,” which would launch a 10-year effort to bolster federal quantum information science (QIS) programs through the creation of new research centers and coordination mechanisms. The bipartisan bill directs the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Institute of Standards and Technology to together spend $1.275 billion on QIS R&D during the first half of the initiative. A different version of the bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Finalized DOE Spending Legislation Expected
Congress is expected to release the final version of a three-bill spending package that includes funding for the Department of Energy early this week and it may see floor action by week’s end. Appropriations committee leaders said last week that only a few details remained to be resolved. The DOE Office of Science will likely fare well in the final agreement, as the House and Senate versions of the bill specified budget increases of 5 and 6 percent for the office, respectively. Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) praised Congress’s recent prioritization of the office in a statement last week, saying, “I'm very encouraged that Congress is on track for the fourth consecutive year to provide record funding for the Office of Science and funding that will help keep the United States first in the world in supercomputing.” (UPDATE: The finalized spending bill was released on Monday. FYI's summary of the agreement is available here.)
House Appropriators to Probe Webb Telescope Cost Cap Breach
The House appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget is holding a hearing on Thursday to discuss the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which an independent review recently determined will breach its congressionally mandated $8 billion cap on development costs by $800 million. Congress now needs to reauthorize the mission, which it can do through the annual appropriations process. Subcommittee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) has already indicated he supports seeing the mission through, but it remains unclear how much, if any, funding Congress will provide to limit the need to divert resources from other missions. Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and Tom Young, who chaired the review board, are scheduled to testify. The House Science Committee held its own oversight hearing on JWST in July at which committee members focused heavily on the need for improved contractor oversight. (UPDATE: The hearing has been postponed.)
Planetary Science Panel to Address NASA Lunar Campaign
The National Academies Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science will meet this Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, the committee will hear several presentations on proposed commercial lunar activities. NASA’s recently announced campaign to build a sustained presence on the Moon envisions coupling government efforts with private ventures and interweaving scientific research with exploration. The committee is currently developing a report responding to these plans. On Thursday, Lunar and Planetary Institute Director Louise Prockter will brief the committee on the recent midterm review she co-chaired of the decadal survey for planetary science. The meeting will be webcast.
A recently formed federal advisory committee dedicated to STEM education is convening its inaugural meeting on Wednesday. Created by the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, the STEM Education Advisory Panel’s primary duty is to advise the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), an interagency coordination body that is responsible for developing five-year strategic plans for federal STEM education programs. CoSTEM is due to release the latest five-year plan this fall. The advisory panel will meet in closed session for most of the day to discuss an “internal government draft report” and will identify priority areas for the upcoming year in open session.
Golden Goose Awards to Celebrate Silly Sounding Research
A number of scientific societies and universities associations will host the seventh-annual Golden Goose Awards ceremony on Thursday at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The event honors obscure or odd-sounding federally funded research that led to significant breakthroughs or outcomes. The awards aim to convey the value of allowing scientists to pursue fundamental research interests without interference. The event will be webcast.
Science Diplomats to Discuss ‘Mega-Science’
Representatives of several major physics research facilities will discuss the increasing need for international cooperation in science at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s fourth annual science diplomacy conference this Friday. Among them, Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer will discuss the Department of Energy’s flagship neutrino experiment under construction in Illinois and South Dakota, and Caltech physicist Barry Barish will discuss the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Barish shared the 2017 Nobel Prize for his management of the project as work on it ramped up. Also speaking are Conny Arvis, director of the State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation; Charlotte Warakaulle, director of international relations at CERN; and Saul Gonzalez Martirena, who manages NSF’s experimental particle physics program.
The congressionally mandated Exoplanet Science Strategy released by the National Academies on Sept. 5 stresses there is significant room to build on recent discoveries, both in understanding the development of planetary systems and searching for signatures of extraterrestrial life. It recommends NASA pursue a “large strategic direct imaging mission capable of measuring the reflected-light spectra of temperate terrestrial planets orbiting Sun-like stars.” Of the four mission concepts being prepared for the next astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, the committee notes either the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR) or Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) would fit the bill. The strategy also recommends the National Science Foundation fund construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.
Physicist Will Happer Joins National Security Council Staff
CNN reported on Sept. 4 that Princeton University physicist Will Happer has joined the White House staff as the National Security Council’s senior director for emerging technologies. Although his exact responsibilities remain unclear, responding to rapid changes in defense technology has become a priority for the Defense Department. An expert in the physics of atoms, Happer was director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Research (since renamed the Office of Science) in the George H. W. Bush administration. He has been a decades-long member of JASON, an elite study group specializing in defense technology, and from 2004 to 2007 served on the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee. President Trump previously considered him for the role of director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Happer has attracted significant attention for his criticism of the scientific consensus on climate change, including his assertion that the benefits of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide will likely outweigh the harms.
OSTP, NASA Nominees Clear Senate Committee
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the nominations of Kelvin Droegemeier to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and James Morhard to be deputy administrator of NASA by voice votes at a Sept. 5 meeting. The nominations now await a final confirmation vote by the full Senate. At the meeting, Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) said he was “encouraged” by remarks Morhard made in private to the committee that clarify his views on the magnitude of human contributions to climate change, a subject he was pressed on at his confirmation hearing.
Nuclear Energy R&D Bill Introduced in Senate
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are the lead sponsors of a newly introduced bill titled the “Nuclear Energy Leadership Act.” The bipartisan legislation aims to boost the competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear energy industry in view of significant investments in the field by nations such as China and Russia. It includes provisions directing the Department of Energy to:
- develop a 10-year strategic plan for nuclear energy;
- set R&D goals to help align U.S. government and private sector efforts;
- conduct at least four advanced reactor demonstration projects over the next 10 years;
- construct a versatile fast neutron reactor user facility by the end of 2025;
- develop a domestic supply of high-assay low-enriched uranium to support advanced reactor development and national security applications; and
- establish a University Nuclear Leadership Program to bolster the U.S. nuclear energy workforce.
NSF Employment of Rotating Scientists Examined in GAO Report
The Government Accountability Office released a report last week containing a trove of data on the National Science Foundation’s use of “rotators” — outside scientists and engineers employed for fixed terms to bring fresh perspectives to the agency. GAO found that rotators have consistently comprised about 15 percent of NSF’s overall workforce in recent years, though the number in executive positions increased from 18 percent to 33 percent between 2008 and 2017. The report also details preliminary results of steps NSF has taken to reduce the cost of the program, such as a pilot requirement that rotators’ home institutions pay 10 percent of their salaries. The cost of rotators has come under scrutiny in recent years in part because NSF is permitted to pay them far more than federal employees in order to recruit top talent.
Former Energy Secretary Sam Bodman Dies
Samuel Bodman, the first secretary of energy with a professional science or engineering background, died on Sept. 7. Bodman earned a doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT in 1965 and was a faculty member there until 1970. However, he spent the bulk of his career as a corporate executive, serving as president of Fidelity Investments and later as chairman and chief executive of Cabot Corporation, a chemical manufacturing company. In the George W. Bush administration, he was deputy secretary in the Commerce and Treasury Departments before leading the Department of Energy from 2005 to 2009. At DOE, Bodman was responsible for implementing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the America COMPETES Act of 2007. He oversaw U.S. entry into the ITER nuclear fusion project, as well as efforts to jumpstart a renaissance in the nuclear power and vastly expand research in the physical sciences that ultimately fell short of their goals.