The Week of September 27, 2021

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

The Week of September 27, 2021

The Week Ahead

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From left: Maria Zuber, Frances Arnold, and Eric Lander together co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

From left: Maria Zuber, Frances Arnold, and Eric Lander together co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

(Image credit – The White House)

PCAST Holding First Meeting Under Biden

The 30-member President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is holding its first meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, with discussion on the first day focusing on strategies to improve U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. Sessions include a panel discussion on models for S&T-based economic development with three innovation policy scholars and another with the National Science Foundation director, the Defense Department’s director for basic research, and the deputy secretary of commerce. The second day of the meeting will focus on pandemic preparedness. The council is co-chaired by Presidential Science Advisor Eric Lander, Caltech bioengineer Frances Arnold, and MIT planetary geophysicist Maria Zuber. Biden announced the other members last week, several of whom held high-level positions in the Obama administration, including former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathy Sullivan, and former Agriculture Department chief scientist Cathie Woteki.

High-Stakes Votes Ahead for Spending Bills as Shutdown Looms

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced over the weekend that the House will vote Thursday on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure funding bill, which contains tens of billions of dollars for applied energy R&D and demonstration initiatives out of a total of roughly a half-trillion dollars in new spending. However, some progressive Democrats have pledged to withhold support for the measure until the House and Senate reach an agreement over the partisan spending legislation that Democrats are preparing in parallel. House Democrats merged their version of that legislation into a single $3.5 trillion package over the weekend, but their Senate counterparts have yet to release any counterpart bills and Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have said they will not support a bill with that level of spending.

Meanwhile, many federal programs will be forced to cease operations on Friday at the start of fiscal year 2022 unless Congress passes a stopgap spending measure. Although it is routine for Congress to use such measures before finalizing its annual appropriations legislation, the situation is complicated this year by a simultaneous need to raise the federal debt limit, which is expected to be reached as soon as mid-October. The House passed stopgap legislation last week that would raise the debt limit and fund the government through Dec. 3, but Republicans are threatening a filibuster in the Senate, arguing Democrats should unilaterally raise the limit through the same process they want to use for their partisan spending bill. Senate Republicans released their own version of the stopgap that excludes the debt limit measure. Notably, both the House and Senate stopgaps include supplemental disaster response and recovery funds for several science agencies.

NASA and USGS Launch Ninth Satellite in 50-Year Landsat Program

Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch on Monday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. After it is commissioned in orbit, NASA will hand the mission over to the U.S. Geological Survey, which operates the Landsat program. Landsat satellites have been making continuous observations of the Earth’s surface for nearly 50 years and produce freely available medium-resolution imagery and data that are used for purposes such as managing natural resources, agricultural planning, and monitoring changes in land use. Landsat 9 cost NASA about $840 million to develop, roughly $50 million less than its originally planned budget. The satellite will operate in tandem with Landsat 8, which launched in 2013, and it will replace Landsat 7, which launched in 1999 and has now nearly exhausted its fuel supply. NASA is currently developing a technology demonstration mission that aims to robotically refuel Landsat 7, though it is not scheduled to launch before mid-decade. Accompanying Landsat 9 on its launch are four CubeSats that will conduct scientific observations and demonstrate new technologies. 

In Case You Missed It

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President Biden addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.

President Biden addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.

(Image credit – The White House)

Biden Pushes Principles for International Technology Development

Addressing the United Nations last week, President Biden outlined a vision for steering technology development in a way that upholds democratic values. He said the world is entering “an era of new technologies and possibilities that have the potential to release and reshape every aspect of human existence, and it’s up to all of us to determine whether these technologies are a force to empower people or to deepen repression.” He later added that “we’ll work together with our democratic partners to ensure that new advances in areas from biotechnology, to quantum computing, 5G, artificial intelligence, and more are used to lift people up, to solve problems, and advance human freedom — not to suppress dissent or target minority communities.” Biden also pointed to climate change mitigation and pandemic response as areas in need of urgent coordination and proposed creating a “Global Health Threats Council” to identify emerging pandemics.

Following the meeting, Biden hosted a summit with leaders of the “Quad” countries — the U.S., U.K., India, and Australia — at which they agreed to principles regarding “technology design, development, governance, and use.” The principles include commitments to uphold shared values and facilitate the sharing of research personnel and data, “while protecting research security.” The countries also committed to launch several technology-focused initiatives, including a privately funded pilot fellowship program that will pay for 25 students from each of the Quad countries to attend graduate school in STEM fields at U.S. universities. Additional actions described in a fact sheet on the summit outcome include new efforts in technical standards coordination, supply chain security, clean hydrogen technology development and deployment, sharing of Earth observation data, and monitoring of “trends in critical and emerging technologies, starting with advanced biotechnologies.”

House Passes NDAA as Senate Queues Up Its Version

The House passed its version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act on Sept. 23 on a vote of 316 to 113. The final bill includes amendments to create a government-wide prohibition on federal grantees participating in “malign foreign talent recruitment programs” and a requirement that all grantees undergo research security training. Another adopted amendment would require a National Academies study that would recommend whether the federal government should set up an independent, nonprofit entity dedicated to research security. The House also approved an amendment to create a special visa pathway for technical experts in fields relevant to national defense on a mostly party-line vote of 225 to 187, with some Republicans opposing the measure on the grounds Chinese nationals would be eligible. Meanwhile last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee filed its counterpart version of the NDAA ahead of an as-yet unscheduled floor debate, making the full text publicly available for the first time since the committee approved the bill in July. After the Senate has amended and passed its version on the floor, a conference committee will convene to reconcile the two versions into a final bill. The final bill could also incorporate legislation to update policy for intelligence agencies. The House Intelligence Committee is considering such legislation in closed session on Thursday.

NASA Splits Oversight of Human Exploration Programs

On Sept. 21, NASA announced it is splitting its human exploration programs into two new directorates. Kathy Lueders, who has managed the full human exploration portfolio for the last year, will now head up a Space Operations Mission Directorate that will oversee crewed launches, the International Space Station, the commercialization of low-Earth orbit, and eventually astronaut missions on and around the Moon. Former NASA official Jim Free is returning to the agency to lead an Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate that will oversee the development of new spacecraft for conveying astronauts to the Moon and eventually Mars. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the split was motivated by the growing complexity of the agency’s human exploration ambitions. The reorganization does not affect the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which supports both human exploration and science programs. NASA previously proposed subsuming that directorate within its human exploration portfolio as part of the Trump administration’s push to accelerate the return of humans to the Moon, but Congress opposed that reorganization.

Biden Names Nominee for Long-Vacant EPA Science Post

President Biden announced on Sept. 22 that he is nominating Chris Frey to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The office has been without a Senate-confirmed head for nearly a decade after the Senate repeatedly declined to vote on President Obama’s nominee to replace Paul Anastas, the last person to hold the role, and President Trump did not name a nominee at all. Since the beginning of the Biden administration, Frey has been serving in the office as deputy assistant administrator for science policy, a job that does not require Senate confirmation. He previously chaired EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and was dismissed as a member of one of the committee’s review panels in 2018 amid a reorganization by the Trump administration that drew widespread protest. At that time, Frey convened other dismissed members as an independent group to convey the views the panel would have submitted in its official capacity. Frey holds a doctorate in engineering and public policy and is currently on leave from his job as a professor at North Carolina State University, where he specializes in human exposure to air pollution and environmental assessments of technologies. Recently, some congressional Republicans drew attention to another affiliation he holds with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, arguing it poses a conflict of interest in the context of U.S.–China relations.

DOE to Stick With LBNF/DUNE Plans Despite Cost Growth

Science magazine reported last week that recent reviews of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment have placed its cost to the Department of Energy at around $3 billion. Although the amount exceeds a threshold that triggers a reevaluation of the flagship project’s basic design, DOE indicated to Science that it will accept the higher price tag and reaffirm the project’s envisioned scope. DOE elaborated to FYI that an official cost estimate is still under development and that the project will adhere to its original construction plan, which is to initially install two detector modules at its underground site in South Dakota while excavating enough room for a later upgrade to four. DOE had been considering reducing the project’s initial scope to include only one detector module, but a recent commitment from CERN to provide a major component for a second module has helped to keep the two-module plan on track. The large scale of LBNF/DUNE’s underground detectors is elemental to U.S. efforts to cement the nation’s place as a global leader in experimental neutrino physics, which physicists regard as one of the most promising areas for pressing beyond current knowledge of fundamental physical laws.

NOAA Head Rick Spinrad Appears Before House Science Committee

Last week, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Rick Spinrad testified before the House Science Committee, marking his first appearance on Capitol Hill since his confirmation to the role in June. Spinrad fielded questions on ways to strengthen scientific integrity measures, increase the diversity of NOAA’s workforce, and enhance the use of commercially collected weather data, among other topics. Asked by Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) on lessons learned from the Hurricane Dorian scandal, Spinrad noted he was among the former agency officials who submitted a formal scientific integrity complaint over the matter, and said that since rejoining NOAA he has made sure that political appointees there have completed scientific integrity training. Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) expressed concern about NOAA’s commitment to its commercial weather data purchasing program, which was authorized through the 2017 Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act. Spinrad replied that he supports the program but offered a “cautionary note,” stating the agency must ensure the data meets certain standards and that the arrangement is sustainable. Lucas also pressed Spinrad about NOAA’s steps to implement the commercial data purchase pilot program for space weather called for in the 2020 PROSWIFT Act.

NSF Urged to Broaden ‘Use-Inspired’ Earth System Science 

The National Academies released a report last week that suggests steps the National Science Foundation should take to implement a “systems approach” across its Earth science portfolio. The study committee was tasked by the agency last year to consider ways to integrate work across all major components of the Earth system, including the interactions between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and human activities over different timescales. It was also asked to advise on the research infrastructure, computational capabilities, and workforce development needs to support the vision. Among the report’s six high-level recommendations are that NSF place “increased emphasis on use-inspired and convergence research” and integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations “in all aspects of next-generation Earth systems science, including the determination of research priorities, evaluation of research activities, and development of the workforce.” It also suggests NSF expand support for computational resources and associated workforce training efforts.

Former Science Committee Chair Sherry Boehlert Dies

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Official portrait of Rep. Boehlert as House Science Committee chair, painted by Laurel Stern Boeck.

Official portrait of Rep. Boehlert as House Science Committee chair, painted by Laurel Stern Boeck.

(Image credit – Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) died on Sept. 20 at the age of 84. He served in the House from 1983 to 2007 and chaired the House Science Committee from 2001 until his retirement. An environmentalist and self-described moderate Republican in the mold of fellow New Yorker Nelson Rockefeller, Boehlert sometimes found himself at odds with his party. Asked by the New York Times in 2006 about his most important accomplishments, he cited legislation enacted in 1990 to mitigate acid rain and his resistance to efforts by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) to weaken environmental regulations. A strong proponent of taking action on climate change, he encouraged his party to embrace climate science and blasted apparent attempts to intimidate researchers such as James Hansen and Michael Mann.

Boehlert also had an abiding interest in science and technology policy more broadly and advocated for stronger funding, though not unconditionally. On the Science Committee, he became a leading opponent of the Superconducting Super Collider, complaining in 1991, “The project will swallow up the nation’s already limited science budget, forcing a round of ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’s’ scientific discipline.” Later, as committee chair, he defended the International Space Station against scalebacks despite its ballooning costs, arguing it was important for the project to meet its goals. Other priorities during that time included pushing with limited success for a steep increase in the National Science Foundation budget, overseeing NASA’s response to the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and integrating science policy into the response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. More generally, he was widely credited with invigorating the committee’s work and encouraging bipartisan cooperation. In a statement on Boehlert’s death, current Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) remarked, “We served on opposite sides of the aisle, but I had no better partner in advancing legislation to strengthen the U.S. scientific enterprise and applying science to solve societal challenges.”

Events this week

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

Thursday, September 30

 
National Academies: Committee on Radio Frequencies fall meeting (continues Friday)
 
Closed to the public
 
9:00 am - 4:00 pm
 
10:00 am, Intelligence Committee (304 Capitol Visitors Center)
Closed to the public
 
10:00 am, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (216 Hart Office Building)
 
12:00 - 1:00 pm
 
12:00 - 2:00 pm
 
2:00 - 4:45 pm
 
2:00 - 3:00 pm 
 
3:30 - 4:30 pm

Friday, October 1

 
8:00 - 9:30 am
 
10:00 - 11:00 am
 
3:00 - 4:15 pm

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

Opportunities

STEM Civic Engagement Microgrant Application Open

Research!America is accepting applications for its Civic Engagement Microgrant Program, which provides up to $4,000 for graduate student and postdoc-led groups in STEM fields to “design projects that create dialogue with public officials, local community leaders, and the public around issues of common concern.” The program aims to “provide opportunities for grantees to develop skills in communication and program planning, along with an understanding of policy and government in order to have an impact in their local areas.” Applications are due Oct. 4. 

Mirzayan S&T Policy Fellowship Sets New Deadline Due to Pandemic

The National Academies has extended the deadline for the 2022 Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program to Oct. 29 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fellowship will now run from March 7 to May 27, 2022. Fellows work within the National Academies, learning about the role of science in federal policymaking and gaining hands-on experience working for one of its study committees or boards. Interested individuals who have earned a graduate degree in a STEM-related field within the last five years are encouraged to apply.

Research-to-Policy Collaboration Hiring Postdoc

The Research-to-Policy Collaboration is hiring a postdoctoral scholar to help implement a non-partisan model for building trust between researchers and policymakers. The position begins as soon as late 2021 and requires applicants to be within commuting distance to Washington, D.C. 

Geological Societies Hiring for DEI Roles

The Geological Society of America is accepting applications for a diversity, equity, and inclusion associate director. Applicants should have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in an Earth science discipline or science education. Separately, the American Geophysical Union is seeking a manager for a postdoctoral research fellows program that will provide DEI training. Applicants should have a doctoral degree and one to three years of relevant experience.

 

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.

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

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