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The Week of September 24
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 24
(Image credit – Justin H. S. Breaux / Argonne National Laboratory)
White House Convening Quantum Science Summit
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is hosting a summit on Monday to discuss how the U.S. can maintain leadership in quantum information science (QIS) and its technological applications, such as quantum computing. According to an OSTP spokesperson, at the event the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on QIS will issue a “National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science” that identifies policy opportunities to advance the field and paves the way toward a National Strategic Plan. Federal science officials and agency leaders will facilitate breakout sessions with representatives from academia and industry on topics such as developing infrastructure for quantum R&D and fostering a qualified workforce for a burgeoning quantum industry. Participants from federal agencies include Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Walter Copan, and Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. This is the third “summit” hosted by OSTP this year, with the previous two focusing on artificial intelligence and STEM education.
Quantum Activity Jumps to New Level in Senate
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday to explore the Department of Energy’s support for quantum information science (QIS). DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar will testify, as will Irfan Siddiqi of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Supratik Guha of Argonne National Laboratory, and Todd Holmdahl, the vice president for quantum computing research at Microsoft. The hearing will inform the committee’s contributions to the legislative effort to establish a multi-agency national quantum initiative. The House already passed similar legislation on Sept. 13.
DOD and NIH Funding Bill Lands in House, Reignites Shutdown Threat
The House is scheduled to take up a finalized fiscal year 2019 spending package this week that covers the National Institutes of Health and Departments of Defense and Education. The Senate already passed the package on Sept. 18 on a vote of 93 to 7. The legislation includes spending increases of 7 to 8 percent across DOD science and technology accounts and a 5 percent increase for NIH. It also includes a stopgap measure to extend other government agencies’ current appropriations from their expiration on Oct. 1 until Dec. 7. However, on Twitter last week, President Trump called the legislation “ridiculous,” complaining it does not fund his proposed border wall. “REPUBLICANS MUST FINALLY GET TOUGH!” he exhorted. Trump has backed down from previous threats to precipitate a government shutdown over the border wall, and at a Sept. 21 campaign rally he hinted he might do so again. The legislation, in any case, has enough support in Congress to override a veto if Republicans are willing to defy Trump on the matter.
NIST Policy, STEM Apprenticeship Bills Set for House Vote
The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the “National Institute of Standards and Technology Reauthorization Act,” which would provide policy direction and authorize fiscal year 2019 spending levels for NIST. There will also be a vote on the “Innovation in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act,” which would direct the National Science Foundation to use existing funds to support new work-based learning activities.
Science Committee Exploring Future of Nuclear Technology
On Thursday, the House Science Committee’s Energy Subcommittee is holding a hearing to discuss the future of nuclear energy. Edward McGinnis, the top official at the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and John Wagner, head of the Nuclear Science and Technology Directorate at Idaho National Laboratory, will testify. They will be joined by Harlan Bowers, the president of X-energy, a company working toward commercializing an advanced nuclear reactor design, and John Parsons, an MIT economist and co-chair of a recent report on the outlook for nuclear energy in a “carbon-constrained world.” Congress has just passed a bipartisan Science Committee bill that aims to promote advanced reactors, including through construction of a multibillion-dollar fast-neutron reactor user facility that would facilitate their development. Another House bill still pending aims to ease the regulatory approval process for advanced reactor designs.
Senate and House Committees Taking Broad Look at NASA
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will appear at a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday to discuss U.S. leadership in space. The third in a series of hearings billed as preceding the introduction of a broad NASA policy bill, this one is to address the “challenges NASA faces in undertaking human and robotic exploratory missions, its research in aeronautics and space technology, and how the agency’s current and planned initiatives will affect its future missions and goals.” The House Science Committee, which has advanced its own NASA policy bill, will hold a separate hearing on Wednesday to discuss the past, present, and future of NASA’s human space exploration activities. William Gerstenmaier, the head of the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, will testify alongside the directors of the Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, and Marshall Space Flight Center.
Technosignatures Workshop to Consider NASA’s Potential Role
NASA is hosting a workshop this week on “technosignatures” at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. The term refers to efforts to find evidence, such as radio transmissions, indicating the existence of other civilizations beyond the solar system. The workshop’s aim is to survey the state of the field and what role NASA can play in supporting it. The House’s fiscal year 2019 spending proposal for NASA includes $10 million for it to “partner with the private sector and philanthropic organizations” in the search for technosignatures. It remains uncertain if the provision will be included in finalized legislation. With limited exceptions, NASA has not traditionally funded the search for technosignatures, which has been primarily sustained through privately funded organizations such as the SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen initiative.
(Image credit - WHOI)
WHOI Reels in Ocean Observatories Initiative Contract
The National Science Foundation announced last week it has awarded a $220 million, five-year contract for the operation of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) to a coalition of research institutions led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The coalition will take over the contract from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in October. Launched in 2009, OOI operates a network of over 500 instruments and sensors across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that gather a range of oceanographic data made freely available online. NSF decided to recompete the contract in 2016 to reduce costs, based on recommendations made in the 2015 National Academies ocean sciences decadal survey. The Consortium for Ocean Leadership did not compete for the new contract.
Trump Signs DOE Funding Increase into Law
During a visit to Las Vegas on Sept. 21, President Trump signed into law a three-bill fiscal year 2019 spending package that includes funding for the Department of Energy. The law delivers a 5 percent budget increase for the Office of Science, a 4 percent increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as increases for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and many of the department’s applied energy R&D programs. The new levels will take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. It has been 19 years since DOE’s new budget last arrived on time.
NSF, NIH Announce Measures to Address Sexual Harassment
Last week, the National Science Foundation released a new policy requiring grantee organizations to report any findings of harassment, including sexual harassment and assault, committed by any recipients of grant funding. Institutions will also have to report if individuals are placed on administrative leave due to allegations of harassment. Based on this information, NSF may “initiate the substitution or removal of the PI or any co-PI, reduce the award funding amount, or where neither of those previous options is available or adequate, to suspend or terminate the award.” Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health launched a new anti-sexual harassment website detailing the agency’s policies and initiatives to address misconduct. The action has received mixed reactions from the scientific community. In a statement following the release of NSF’s updated policy, NIH Director Francis Collins explained that legal constraints “currently prevent NIH from immediate implementation” of a policy similar to NSF’s. He also noted a formal rulemaking process would be required to determine if NIH can implement similar reporting requirements.
Science Committee Recommends Revoking Funding for Harassers
Coinciding with NSF’s harassment policy update, the House Science Committee sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Sept. 19 outlining four recommendations for GAO to consider as it develops a report on science agencies’ handling of sexual harassment claims. After summarizing the committee’s recent oversight activities on the subject, the letter recommends improving reporting structures and clarifying the ability of federal agencies to replace principal investigators based on allegations or findings of sexual misconduct. “No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or a student under their charge,” said Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) in a statement on the letter.
Call Goes Out for Astrophysics Decadal Survey White Papers
The National Academies Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics announced last week it is inviting members of the community to submit white papers in preparation for the launch of the Astro2020 decadal survey process early next year. The committee is seeking papers on a number of thematic areas including the formation of planetary systems and stars, galaxy evolution, and multi-messenger astronomy. Papers should identify potential scientific opportunities and key advances in observation and theory required to realize them in the coming decade and beyond. Submissions are due Jan. 18.
Charles Verdon Confirmed as NNSA Defense Programs Chief
On Sept. 18, the Senate confirmed by voice vote Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Charles Verdon to be the National Nuclear Security Administration’s deputy administrator for defense programs. In the position, Verdon will be responsible for the maintenance of the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads, including the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which uses science-based methods of verifying warheads’ integrity. Verdon previously served as head of the weapons program at Livermore. He replaces Philip Calbos, who has been serving in the position in an acting capacity.
Congressional Research Service Posts Reports Online
Following a provision in the fiscal year 2018 appropriations law, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has begun publicly posting a library of its reports, many of which pertain to science and technology policy. CRS will continue to add past reports and will also release new ones as they are published. Until now, CRS produced reports solely for members of Congress and those documents became publicly available only if those members chose to release them. Several online repositories have collected released reports for public reference, including one maintained by the Federation of American Scientists, a research and advocacy organization focused on nuclear arms control and related topics.