The new fiscal year begins on Tuesday, and unlike last year Congress has been unable to pass any new spending legislation beforehand. Instead, President Trump signed a stopgap funding measure on Sept. 27 that will keep the government running through Nov. 21 at fiscal year 2019 spending levels. Agencies may not initiate major new projects until Congress appropriates funds specifically for them, and they generally curtail spending until their new program budgets are finalized and made available. Congressional negotiations over spending could drag on if they remain hung up on issues such as President Trump’s border wall project, which led to an extended government shutdown last year. The impeachment inquiry underway in the House could also complicate progress. However, the House and Senate are already working toward a deal on how to allocate spending among the 12 bills that fund the government. An agreement on that issue would pave the way for negotiations over individual agencies and programs and will help answer questions such as how much of the Senate’s proposed spending surge for the Department of Energy will actually be enacted.
Sept. 30 is the last day federal agencies have to comply with an executive order that President Trump signed in June requiring them to reduce by “at least one-third” the number of advisory committees they have created under the Federal Advisory Committee Act that are not required by statute or presidential directive. Agencies that support science often use these panels to maintain dialogue with the scientific community and to obtain input on agency performance and plans. Agency leaders have given little public indication of what committees they have chosen to eliminate or whether they sought waivers from the White House, as the order permits. The order exempts panels that review the merit of applications for government funding or contracts as well as those that provide “scientific expertise” related to the “safety or efficacy of products to be marketed to American consumers.” In addition, it does not apply to agencies classified as “independent regulatory agencies,” such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or to agencies that have created less than three such committees.
Leaders of a strategic planning effort for the Department of Energy Office of Fusion Energy Sciences are providing a progress update Wednesday at a meeting of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC). Last year, DOE charged the committee with recommending investment priorities for the next decade under varying scenarios of budget growth. The first phase of its work is still underway, as the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics holds a series of topical workshops to gather information on community priorities. The phase will culminate in a community-wide gathering in January modeled on the “Snowmass” meetings that U.S. particle physicists have held when developing their own long-term strategic plans. In the second phase, a subcommittee of FESAC will produce a report with final recommendations. As of last December, the target completion date was December 2020.
The Department of Energy is showcasing applications of artificial intelligence in science and technology at its latest InnovationXLab Summit in Chicago this Wednesday and Thursday. Speakers include U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios and senior leaders at the Department of Energy, with DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar participating in a session on “deep science commercialization through regional partnerships.” Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Bill Foster (D-IL) will discuss current congressional efforts to promote AI research, including Lipinski’s legislative proposal to create a national AI initiative. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who is advocating for a national AI strategy, will speak on AI as a “national security imperative.” DOE has been ramping up its efforts in AI and created a new office this month to coordinate those efforts across the department.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved spending proposals last week for multiple federal science agencies. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate would receive flat funding compared to fiscal year 2019 under the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, while NASA overall would get a $1.3 billion boost that partially supports the agency’s accelerated lunar exploration program. The bill would also provide modest budget increases for research programs at the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget would fall slightly overall, though its research arm would see a slight increase in funding. The committee also approved a spending bill that would adopt the administration’s proposed reorganization of mission areas at the U.S. Geological Survey while rejecting proposed budget cuts. Details on program-level proposals for these agencies are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
The Government Accountability Office’s proposal to expand its science and technology assessment capabilities has received backing from the Senate Appropriations Committee, which advanced legislation last week that would increase the congressional support agency’s budget by $50 million to $639 million. The committee report on the bill explains the additional resources would go towards “work in evolving science and technology issues, cybersecurity threats, and rising healthcare costs.” It also states that GAO has offered a sound plan for expanding its newly formed Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team. The report does not adopt the House’s proposal to restore funding to the long-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, though it makes note of a forthcoming study mandated by Congress last year, which will assess whether establishing an entity dedicated to technology assessment would be warranted or duplicative.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed an amended version of the Better Energy Storage Technology Act by voice vote last week. Introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in May, the bill would provide direction for energy storage research, development, and demonstration efforts at the Department of Energy. The amended version retains several of the original provisions requiring DOE to carry out five grid-scale demonstration projects by 2023 and develop a 10-year strategic plan for energy storage RD&D. In addition, new provisions adapted from four other energy storage bills would direct DOE to establish a program to support the demonstration and commercial viability of long-duration energy storage technologies and establish an energy storage materials recycling prize competition. Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) introduced a companion bill in May that has been referred to the House Science Committee for consideration.
NASA Science Mission Directorate chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced on Sept. 23 that the agency has approved a mission to detect and characterize large asteroids and other objects that might present a threat to Earth. Called the Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveillance Mission, it is similar to the NEOCam space-based telescope concept designed by a group at the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory. However, NEOCam failed to gain traction in competitions with scientifically focused mission proposals and this summer a National Academies study recommended NASA evaluate prospective NEO missions separately. In line with that recommendation, NASA selected the mission outside its ordinary competition process and will manage it directly rather than through a principal investigator. Zurbuchen said he expects it to cost between $500 million and $600 million to develop, with a launch date no earlier than fiscal year 2025. He also said it should accomplish the NEO detection goals set out in the 2005 George E. Brown, Jr. Near Earth Object Survey Act by the mid-2030s, about 15 years earlier than would otherwise be possible.
The National Science Foundation announced last week that it will support the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia for another five years, ending a long period of uncertainty over whether the agency would move to withdraw from the radioastronomy facility. NSF has sought to divest from older observatories to prevent newer ones from squeezing the budget for astronomy research grants, but the agency concluded it could continue to support Green Bank after the Naval Research Laboratory stepped forward as a new funding partner. During a media teleconference, an NSF official stated the total contract value is $45.6 million, of which NSF will provide $37 million with NRL responsible for the remainder. Karen O’Neil, the observatory's site director, noted she expects Green Bank will also continue to receive funds from other partnerships such as the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, a philanthropically funded effort to detect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. She said Green Bank’s current annual operating budget is about $12 million to $14 million per year.
The inspector general for the National Institutes of Health released a trio of reports last week that assess the agency’s procedures for reviewing financial conflicts of interests, vetting peer reviewers, and ensuring grantees disclose sources of research support. The reports offer a range of recommendations to address shortcomings in each area, with a particular eye toward guarding against undue foreign influence on research. For instance, finding that NIH “gives little attention to foreign affiliation” when vetting peer reviewers, the inspector general encourages NIH to “develop a risk-based approach for identifying peer reviewer nominees who warrant extra scrutiny.” NIH generally concurred with the reports’ recommendations. Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who has previously called for NIH to bolster its vetting procedures, issued a statement calling the findings “alarming” and urging the issues they identify be addressed “immediately and aggressively.”
On Sept. 24, the National Science Foundation announced a broad “repositioning” of its social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) portfolio, which includes the redesignation of its Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) program as “Science of Science: Discovery, Communication, and Impact.” The reworked program is to support research that “can increase the productivity of scientific workflows, our nation's capacity to communicate it accurately and effectively, and the value of that work to society.” NSF created the SciSIP program in 2007 in response to then-White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger’s complaint that policy deliberations relating to scientific research often lacked a strong evidentiary basis. Another significant change is that the “Law and Social Sciences” program, which funded social scientific studies of legal systems, is now called “Law and Science” to describe a broadened scope that includes studies of the intersections of the law with science, engineering, and STEM education. (Disclosure: AIP has a grant application pending with the SciSIP program for a project related to the resources on FYI’s website.)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report last week on the state of the science concerning climate change’s impacts on the ocean and cryosphere. Among its conclusions, the report found the rate of sea level rise has accelerated and could reach reach between 30 and 60 cm by 2100 even if global warming is held well below 2 degrees Celsius. It also revises upward the projected contribution of mass loss from the Antarctic ice sheet under a high emissions scenario. House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) released a statement calling the report’s conclusions “dire,” and drew on several of its findings during a committee hearing last week on the impacts of climate change on extreme weather. Democratic lawmakers also introduced a bicameral resolution calling for immediate action in response to the report. Several other organizations also issued major reports related to climate change last week:
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Registration is now open for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy. The five-day workshop offers a “crash course” in how S&T policy works and is based on the training AAAS provides to its S&T policy fellows. Space is limited to 30 to 35 participants and the registration deadline is Oct. 20.
Applications for the 2020 cohort of the Presidential Management Fellowship program will be accepted from Oct. 3 to 17. The program places U.S. citizens with graduate degrees in federal agencies and includes a track for STEM positions.
The Society for Science at User Research Facilities is holding its annual meeting on Nov. 12 and 13 in College Park, Maryland. Among the topics of discussion are new “outreach activities to raise awareness of the user facility model and educate stakeholders about the broad impact of science performed at user facilities.” The society was incorporated in 2016 and works to share best practices among professional communities that rely on user facilities to perform research.