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The Week of September 25
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 25
On Wednesday morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a hearing on four of President Trump’s nominations. Among them are Walter Copan, the nominee for director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and former Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, the nominee for assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. FYI spoke with Copan about his interest in the position and his initial vision for NIST shortly after he was nominated on Sept. 12. Gallaudet, who has a doctorate in oceanography, retired from the Navy on Aug. 31, after a 28-year military career culminating in his most recent assignments as head of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command and oceanographer of the Navy. Neither nomination is expected to be controversial. Unusually, Gallaudet’s nomination is advancing before a selection for the more senior NOAA administrator position has been made.
Agency Workforce Reduction Plans Due by End of September
The White House Office of Management and Budget is requiring all federal agencies to submit “agency reform plans,” which must include long-term workforce reductions, by the end of September. OMB will work with agencies to finalize the plans and use them to formulate a comprehensive government-wide reform plan as a part of the president's fiscal year 2019 budget request to be published next February. A White House directive dated April 12 outlined the purpose of the plans, calling on “the head of each agency to identify how she/he proposes to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of her/his respective agencies.” As a part of the plans, agencies will develop an “analytical framework” that will propose the elimination of duplicative and non-essential programs and activities, restructuring and merging of other programs, and other efforts to “improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness and workforce management.”
On Thursday, the House Science Committee is holding what is likely to be a friendly and celebratory subcommittee hearing on the recent total solar eclipse. The objectives are “to review what scientific knowledge was gained from studying the eclipse, how U.S. telescopes and other scientific instruments were used to capture the eclipse, lessons learned from engaging the public and students in grades K–12 in STEM education and activities surrounding the event, and future preparations for eclipses in 2019 and 2024.” The witnesses will be: Jim Ulvestad, acting head of the National Science Foundation’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate; Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy; Matthew Penn, an astronomer at the National Solar Observatory; and Michelle Nichols-Yehling, director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium.
On Wednesday evening, a number of scientific societies and universities associations will hold the sixth-annual Golden Goose Award ceremony 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 in order to convey the value of basic research and of allowing scientists to pursue independent research interests. The name of the awards alludes to the Golden Fleece Awards, a monthly compilation of federally funded projects considered wasteful by William Proxmire, a Democratic senator for Wisconsin from 1957 to 1988. More recently, a number of congressmen, such as former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), have similarly released so-called “wastebooks” documenting what they regard as questionable federal programs and projects, often criticising individual research grants. FYI’s summary of last year’s event is available here.
On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will consider President Trump’s nomination of Bruce Walker for head of the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability and Steven Winberg for head of the Office of Fossil Energy. Walker has over 25 years of experience in the electric utility industry, and is the founder of Modern Energy Insights, Inc., which conducts electric infrastructure risk evaluation. He has also served on DOE’s Electricity and Mega-Watt Scale Integration Lab Advisory Committees. Winberg is a senior program manager at the Battelle Memorial Institute, and is the former vice president for R&D at CONSOL Energy, Inc. He is also the ex-board chairman of FutureGen Industrial Alliance, Inc., a long-time supporter of carbon capture and sequestration technologies.
Astronomy, High Energy Physics, Advanced Computing Committees Meeting
This week will be a busy one for science advisory committee meetings. The Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee is holding a two-day meeting in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday and Wednesday. The interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee is holding its own two-day meeting on Wednesday and Thursday at the new National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. And on Tuesday, the interagency High Energy Physics Advisory Panel is holding a three-hour teleconference. The agendas for all three meetings are available at the respective links above.
UK Signs Broad S&T Cooperation Agreement With US
On Sept. 20, the U.S. and the U.K. governments signed what they describe as the “first-ever umbrella agreement” between the countries focused on science and technology. The text of the agreement is not yet available, although the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy described its contours in a blog post:
Scientific and policy areas that this bilateral agreement aims to cover include basic science, early-stage R&D, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, promising new public–private partnership models, and the role that science and technological advancement play in economic prosperity. The agreement sets forth principles for scientific collaboration on a wide variety of subjects, including the sharing of professional expertise, materials and equipment, the handling of jointly-developed intellectual property, and encouraging open data to ensure that collaborative research benefits the governments of both countries, and the private sector to drive job growth and economic prosperity.
As the first major initiative under the agreement, the U.K. has pledged $88 million toward construction of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility / Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE) project. Described by the Department of Energy as the “first-ever large-scale international science facility hosted by the U.S,” Fermilab broke ground on the project this July. The OSTP post says that other joint initiatives are being considered, including “development of MRI and PET standards, quantum technologies, and collaborations on autonomous transportation technologies.”
Annual Defense Policy Bill Heads to Conference
The Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act on Sept. 18 on a vote of 344 to 81. The legislation now heads to conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators will reconcile differences and decide which proposals can find support in both chambers and from the president. The Senate bill contains the lion’s share of provisions shaping policy relating to DOD’s laboratories, while the House bill proposes a program to halve the multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog at National Nuclear Security Administration labs and other facilities over five years. Other topics on the table include the creation of a new Space Corps military service branch, the creation of a new program for demonstrating and prototyping directed energy weapons, the implementation of a design competition for a new nuclear warhead, and preparations to implement a space-based missile defense system. FYI’s full overview of the bills’ provisions is available here.
Air Force Announces Sweeping S&T Strategy Review
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced on Sept. 18 that the Air Force is initiating a year-long review of its research policy and strategy. The Air Force Research Laboratory will lead the review in parallel with a separate effort by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. The review will focus on priorities in basic and applied research, the Air Force’s partnerships with universities and other non-federal entities, and how its innovation strategies compare with those employed by “some of the world’s most innovative organizations.” Before Wilson joined the Air Force Department in May, she was president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and served as a Republican member of Congress for New Mexico from 1998 to 2009. In an interview with DefenseNews in June, she indicated that early-stage research would be one of her priorities as secretary, saying, “It’s a fairly small part of the Air Force budget, but it’s the part of the budget that has the potential to lead to very big things 20 years down the line.”
National Academies Continues Study of Open Science
The National Academies committee examining how to move toward an open science enterprise met on Sept. 18 for a public symposium to hear from a range of stakeholders. Many of the speakers touched on the challenges and opportunities of enabling reproducible research, including infrastructure, privacy protection, and incentives. The committee also heard how federal agencies are implementing open science practices, including at the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Howard Ratner, executive director of the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States (CHORUS), spoke about how CHORUS leverages technology to facilitate public access to research data from federal agencies. Several speakers stressed the importance of including all stakeholders in moving toward open science, emphasizing that the challenges do not have a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Presentations from the meeting are posted here.
On Sept. 18, Richard Green became the director of the National Science Foundation’s Astronomical Sciences (AST) Division. Immediately prior to joining NSF, Green was director of the University of Arizona/United Kingdom Infrared Telescope Observatory. Green received a doctorate in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1977 and has worked as an astronomer at several facilities, including the Kitt Peak, Steward, and National Optical Astronomy Observatories. He has taken over the division director role from Ralph Gaume, who has been in the position in an acting capacity since the former director, Jim Ulvestad, became acting director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. Green joins NSF at a challenging time for the AST Division, which is grappling with how to reduce support for several large facilities in order to free up resources for new telescopes under construction. Compounding the challenges the division faces, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico suffered significant damage from Hurricane Maria.
Physical sciences societies are among the chorus of scientific and university organizations that have responded to President Trump’s announcement on Sept. 5 that he is rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. American Astronomical Society President Christine Jones sent a letter to congressional leaders on Sept. 21 urging Congress to enact legislation that implements a bipartisan and permanent solution for individuals protected by DACA. And American Physical Society President Laura Greene sent a letter to APS members on Sept. 6 reaffirming the society’s commitment to promoting a diverse and inclusive STEM workforce “as we engage in new national discussions on broad immigration policy, as well as specific issues such as Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals.” DACA has allowed close to 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation. The AAS letter notes that among those given legal status by DACA are students and early career scholars in the astronomical sciences and other STEM disciplines, adding that “the only prerequisites for participating in the long American tradition of innovation and discovery, from the Moon to the far reaches of the universe, should be a thirst for knowledge and willingness to work hard.”
Governors Take Lead on Climate at UN General Assembly
Earlier this month, representatives from countries around the world convened in New York for the 72nd annual session of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss topics of global importance, including climate change. Democratic state governors, including Gov. Jerry Brown of California, were a prominent presence this year at high-level side events on climate, working to assure other countries that U.S. states and businesses will remain committed to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement even without federal government implementation. On Sept. 20, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina announced that his state is joining 13 other states and Puerto Rico in the bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition that is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
UN Events Spotlight US Concerns with Iran Nuclear Deal
On Sept. 19, President Trump used his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly as a platform to promote his “America First” position, denounce the North Korean regime, and emphasize his disdain of the current nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran. During his speech, Trump called the Iran deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” The agreement was also a focus of the U.S. delegation’s statement at a conference last week in Vienna convened by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who headed the U.S. delegation, told the IAEA General Conference, “The United States will not accept a weakly enforced or inadequately monitored deal,” and that it “strongly encourages the IAEA to exercise its full authorities” to ensure Iran fully complies with its commitments. If the president decides not to recertify Iran’s program next month, it will be up to Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions that were lifted in 2016 as part of the agreement.
A British press self-regulatory body has formally reprimanded The Mail on Sunday for making unsubstantiated and misleading allegations in an article this February about a scientific paper in which National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists concluded a supposed pause in global warming in the 2000s had not occurred. The tabloid article purported to reveal that data used in the paper was manipulated, and the day after its publication, the House Science Committee’s Republican majority republished its entire text on the committee website. On Sept. 18, the House Science Committee minority issued a press release criticizing the majority’s actions relating to the NOAA study.