The Week of September 13, 2021

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

The Week of September 13, 2021

The Week Ahead

capitol-october.jpg

The capitol building in fall.

Image credit – Architect of the Capitol

R&D Initiatives in Balance Amid High-Stakes Negotiations in Congress

The Senate returns this week following its summer recess, with the clock ticking on Democrats’ efforts to pass a partisan multiyear spending package using Congress’ budget reconciliation process. After three weeks in session, the House is already deep into assembling legislative elements for the package, aiming to complete it ahead of the chamber’s Sept. 27 target for voting on the bipartisan $550 billion infrastructure package the Senate passed a month ago. Some House Democrats have said they will not vote for the bipartisan package unless the partisan package proceeds along with it. On the Senate side, though, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has called for a “strategic pause” on the partisan effort, citing its potential implications for the economy. Even still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) insisted last week that things are moving “full speed ahead.”

Democrats must achieve virtual unanimity in order to proceed with reconciliation and there remain considerable differences within the party concerning the size and contents of the package. In particular, Manchin is suggesting he will not accept a total of more than $1.5 trillion, while others say they are committed to $3.5 trillion, including Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Such disagreements have potential implications for the package’s research-related funding, which constitutes a thin slice of the total but would still be a major windfall for science agencies. Adhering to $3.5 trillion in total spending, the House package includes tens of billions of dollars for science and research-related infrastructure. No legislation has been put forward yet in the Senate, but Manchin himself has said he is interested in providing the Department of Energy with $35 billion for research infrastructure beyond the $17 billion recommended for DOE technology R&D in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. While a compromise could result in less research funding, or none at all, the entire package could fail if differences cannot be resolved. That could also jeopardize the bipartisan infrastructure package, which includes about $25 billion for energy technology demonstration projects championed by Manchin.

House Continuing to Assemble Reconciliation Package

Several House committees are meeting on Monday and Tuesday to advance their pieces of the reconciliation bill, which include billions for R&D and research infrastructure programs on top of the $45 billion the Science Committee apportioned last week: 

  • The Ways and Means Committee’s legislation would create a new tax credit that would provide $2.5 billion over five years to help finance research infrastructure projects at public universities. The legislation would also delay by five years a requirement that businesses amortize their R&D expenses over five years rather than deduct them in the year they occur. Critics of the requirement, which is due to take effect at the end of this year, argue it will reduce incentives for companies to conduct R&D in the U.S.
  • The Energy and Commerce Committee’s legislation includes $16 billion for pandemic preparedness initiatives, $3 billion for the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, and $10 billion for a new manufacturing supply-chain resiliency program at the Commerce Department. 
  • The Financial Services Committee’s legislation includes $1 billion for contributions to state-run venture capital funds that support development of “advanced manufacturing technology” and clean manufacturing processes, among other activities.
  • The Agriculture Committee’s legislation includes $3.65 billion for agricultural research facilities and hundreds of millions of dollars for climate-related research, including $380 million for the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority pilot program established in 2018.
  • The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s legislation includes $788 million for the U.S. Coast Guard to acquire a fourth heavy icebreaker that is equipped with laboratory and berthing facilities for polar scientists.

A group of scientific societies (including AIP) has requested that the Judiciary Committee use its component of the package to expand visa availability for international students who have received a graduate degree in a STEM field from a U.S. institution, but the committee’s draft legislation does not incorporate the proposal.

Think Tank Hosting Innovation Competitiveness Summit

Beginning Monday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies is hosting a four-day summit on strategies to increase U.S. economic competitiveness, with a focus on efforts to expand regional innovation hubs, strengthen intellectual property rights, and increase efficiency in commercializing innovations. The summit was organized by Walter Copan and Andrei Iancu, who respectively led the National Institute of Standards and Technology and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office during the Trump administration. On Thursday, Copan is moderating a discussion on “key technology focus areas” with representatives from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and National Institutes of Health, as well as MIT President Rafael Reif and Michael Kratsios, who was the Trump administration’s U.S. chief technology officer.

APS Events to Examine Nuclear Arms Control, Immigration Policy 

The American Physical Society is hosting two policy-focused webinars this week. On Monday, the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, a recently launched advocacy project, is holding a panel discussion on the “global nuclear arms race” featuring Naval War College professor Lyle Goldstein, Pavel Podvig of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, and University of Maryland policy professor and physicist Steve Fetter. On Friday, APS is holding a panel discussion on federal immigration policy that will “describe how attitudes in the United States towards students and scientists of Chinese ethnic origin are changing, describe the human toll of this change in attitude and policy, and discuss how the scientific community can best support international students and scientists.” Among the panelists are former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and three scientists who were born abroad and now work in the U.S. (APS is an AIP Member Society and AIP is co-sponsoring the Friday event.) 

In Case You Missed It

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Cover art from the Solar Futures Report depicting an abstract sunburst

Image credit – DOE

DOE Charts Pathway to ‘Ubiquitous’ Solar Technology

Last week, the Department of Energy released a 300-page report called the Solar Futures Study, outlining plausible growth scenarios in solar energy and policies for achieving them. The study is a follow-up to a 2016 report on progress toward achieving the “Sunshot” technology-development goals DOE set during the Obama administration. The new report concludes that, assuming current policies remain unchanged, solar capacity will increase by nearly a factor of seven by 2050 and that overall carbon emissions from the electric grid will decline by over 60% from their 2005 levels. Under more focused policies, the report suggests solar power could satisfy about 40% of electricity demand by 2035 and that the grid would be 95% decarbonized in that same timeframe. The report notes that R&D in solar power and related technologies will be important to achieving those goals, highlighting the need for further improvements in efficiency, cost, and operational flexibility. It also points to the potential of “novel configurations” for solar technology in agricultural settings, on bodies of water, and throughout the built environment, stating, “In our vision of the solar future, solar technology is ubiquitous.” Earlier this year, DOE set a new goal of driving down the cost of utility-scale solar power from 4.6 cents to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2030.

Judge Acquits Nanotechnologist in DOJ China Initiative Case

On Sept. 9, U.S. district judge Thomas Varlan acquitted nanotechnologist Anming Hu on the charges of wire fraud and making false statements. Department of Justice prosecutors had alleged that Hu concealed his employment by the Beijing University of Technology (BJUT), allowing him to secure a subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which is forbidden by law from partnering with Chinese entities without congressional approval. A jury failed to reach a verdict on the matter in June, leading prosecutors to seek a second trial. However, Varlan concluded in his opinion on the case that the charges could not be sustained even if all factual and legal interpretations were decided in DOJ’s favor. He wrote that Hu did not “defraud” NASA because he did not deprive the agency of anything of value and that he had no demonstrable intent to defraud, which is a legal requirement for guilt. On the latter question, Varlan reasoned that even though Hu had not formally disclosed his BJUT position to his primary employer, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, there was no clear guidance suggesting he was required to do so and no indication he hid the connection to secure NASA funding. According to a contract presented to the court by DOJ, Hu was entitled to compensation from BJUT of up to about $4,700 per month, depending on his actual working time, and that he was to work at least two months per year. Last year, the University of Tennessee dismissed Hu, who is a Canadian citizen, after he was unable to renew his immigration status due to his arrest by DOJ. Hu’s case is one of a number DOJ has brought against researchers that hinge on nondisclosure of connections to Chinese institutions and it is the first to reach a verdict where the defendant did not agree to plead guilty.

Commerce Official Defends Pace on Technology Export Controls

At a hearing last week by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, the head of the Commerce Department’s export control arm, Jeremy Pelter, rebuffed charges that it has been slow to implement new controls on “emerging and foundational technologies” pursuant to a 2018 law. In his testimony, Pelter said there have been “misunderstandings” about the approach the department has taken and explained that the law requires it to take into account whether the technologies are already available in other countries. He continued, “It is possible that the imposition of [unilateral] controls could hinder the development of such technologies in the United States and impact the ability for U.S. researchers to cooperate with partners in allied countries. Thus, when there is clear foreign availability, we believe that imposing new controls on emerging technologies posing national security concerns is most effective when implemented through the multilateral process.” He added that for foundational technologies, “the issue of foreign availability is the same, and likely even more pronounced.” To illustrate the drawbacks of a unilateral approach, he cited a 2014 study by the department that documents how controls placed on the U.S. satellite industry in 1999 helped spur other nations to develop their own satellite manufacturing capabilities. 

DOD Announces Two New HBCU Research Centers

The Department of Defense announced it is awarding a combined total of $15 million over five years to establish two new research centers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: 

  • The Center for Advanced Electro-Photonics with 2D Materials at Morgan State University, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, will explore the potential of certain 2D materials to support soldier technologies, such as wearable photovoltaics. 
  • The Center for Biotechnology at North Carolina A&T State University, in partnership with the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, will support R&D focused on the “detection and monitoring of chemical and biological threat agents using an integrated micro-engineered organ equivalent system.” 

The awards expand on other center awards that DOD has recently made to other HBCUs in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum sensing, and aerospace R&D. Aside from fostering R&D in key areas, the center awards aim to build diversity within the STEM workforce pipeline by providing training opportunities for underrepresented students and pathways to career-building opportunities such as internships at defense labs. The centers are part of a broader, congressionally backed effort at DOD to expand support for HBCUs and other Minority Serving Institutions. Last week, the National Academies released an interim report from a study that is assessing that effort. A final version is expected to be completed next spring.

New Set of NSF Centers Focuses on Earth Science

The National Science Foundation announced last week that it has issued six new grant awards through its Science and Technology Centers Program, which supports large-scale, interdisciplinary research groups. Each of the centers will receive $25 million over five years, with five of the six focusing on topics related to Earth science and sustainability: 

The sixth award will fund the Center for Integration of Modern Optoelectronic Materials on Demand (IMOD) led by the University of Washington, which will develop semiconductor materials and scalable manufacturing processes. The Science and Technology Centers Program last issued center awards in 2016.

Events this week

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

Monday, September 13

 
NOAA: “Leveraging AI in Environmental Sciences” (continues through Friday)
 
NSPN: HBCU Science Policy Tour (continues through Friday)
 
CSIS: “U.S. Innovation Competitiveness Summit” (continues through Thursday)
 
 
Research!America: National Health Research Forum (continues through Wednesday)
 
Explore Mars: Humans to Mars Summit 2021 (continues through Wednesday)
 
 
New America: “Future Security Forum 2021: Day One” (continues Tuesday)
 
8:00 am, Agriculture Committee
 
10:00 am, Judiciary Committee
 
11:00 am, Energy and Commerce Committee (2123 Rayburn Office Building)
 
12:00 pm, Financial Services Committee
 
1:00 - 4:00 pm
 
2:00 - 3:00 pm
 
2:00 - 3:30 pm
 
3:00 - 4:00 pm

Wednesday, September 15

 
National Academies: “U.S. Army Synthetic Biology Roundtable 3: Industry” (continues Thursday)
 
9:30 am, Environment and Public Works Committee (406 Dirksen Office Building)
 
11:00 am - 12:00 pm
 
12:00 - 1:30 pm
 
12:00 - 3:30 pm
 
Issues in Science and Technology: “How Do You Make a Policy Idea Go Viral?”
2:00 - 3:00 pm
 
2:30 pm, Foreign Relations Committee
 
3:00 - 4:00 pm

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

Opportunities

NSF Seeking Input on Future of EPSCoR Program

The National Science Foundation is seeking public comment on the effectiveness of its EPSCoR program, which sets aside funds for states and territories that have historically received a lesser share of agency funding. In particular, the agency’s newly formed Committee on the Future of NSF EPSCoR is seeking examples of how the program’s grants have resulted in “sustained improvements to research competitiveness for individuals, teams, institutions, or jurisdictions” and what new strategies the program could employ to achieve its goals. Comments are due Oct. 11.

New Climate Security Roundtable Seeking Members

The National Academies is accepting nominations for its newly established Climate Security Roundtable, a congressionally chartered panel that will advise intelligence agencies on ways climate change could affect U.S. national security interests. The roundtable will consist of 15 to 35 members with expertise in Earth system science, social and behavioral sciences, data science and information science, or human dimensions of climate variability and change. All nominees must be able to obtain a top secret security clearance. Nominations are due Sept. 30.

NSF Hiring Geospace Section Head

The National Science Foundation is accepting applications for head of its Geospace Sciences Section, who will oversee programs in aeronomy, magnetospheric physics, and space weather. The section head will report to the director of NSF’s Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division, providing guidance on research priorities and program development. Applications are due Sept. 29.

New National AI Advisory Committee Seeking Members

The Department of Commerce is seeking candidates to serve on a newly established committee that will advise the president and federal agencies on a range of issues related to artificial intelligence. Congress mandated the committee’s creation through the National AI Initiative Act of 2020. Nominations will be accepted on a rolling basis.

 

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.

Around the web

News and views currently in circulation. Links do not imply endorsement.

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