The Week Ahead
Senate to Vote on Budget Deal, Setting Stage for September
Before leaving for its August recess, the Senate plans to vote this week on budget legislation that raises caps on discretionary spending and suspends the federal debt limit for two years. The House passed the bill last week by a vote of 284 to 149, with most of the opposition coming from Republicans, though President Trump urged his party to vote for the measure. For fiscal year 2020, the legislation will enable non-defense spending to increase by 4% to $622 billion and defense spending to increase 3% to $677 billion. However, Congress and the White House still must reach an agreement on how to apportion the money across federal programs. Senate appropriators have said they plan to advance their proposals in September prior to the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, though Congress will likely have to temporarily extend current funding levels to buy time for a final agreement. Congress is expected to bundle its spending legislation into multi-bill “minibuses,” which can have significant implications for science agencies. Last year, the Department of Energy was included in a minibus that was enacted early, resulting in an on-time appropriation for the first time in two decades, while other agencies endured a lengthy shutdown before their appropriations were finalized four-and-a-half months into the fiscal year.
Workshop to Look to Future of Nanotechnology ‘Ecosystem’
A workshop for stakeholders in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is taking place Thursday and Friday to explore ideas for the field’s next 15 years. Participants will address the needs of the nanotechnology “ecosystem,” touching on applications in energy, aerospace, and electronics, among other areas. On the workshop’s second day, representatives from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, will discuss mechanisms for supporting the field. The last time NNI came up for review three years ago, a National Academies panel urged it to help provide “focus,” particularly in moving applications toward commercialization. This week, the latest National Academies review panel will also be holding its third meeting, which will include presentations from three federal agencies as well as discussions related to research, commercialization, and hazards identification.
Former State Department Climate Analyst Speaking Out
In his first public appearance since his resignation, former State Department analyst Rod Schoonover will discuss climate change at the World Resources Institute on Tuesday. The conversation will focus on preparations for the security implications of climate change and other climate science efforts within the federal government. Schoonover testified to Congress last month on the intersection between national security and climate change, but the White House questioned his presentation of climate science and blocked his written testimony.
Climate Forums to Chart Research Frontiers
The second National Drought Forum convenes this week in Washington, D.C., with a focus on the development of early warning systems and increasing drought resilience. A panel of congressional staff members will discuss relevant legislative efforts, including the recently enacted reauthorization of the National Integrated Drought Information System. Separately, the National Academies committee that advises the U.S. Global Change Research Program is meeting this week to discuss research needs related to coastal and urban systems as well as “emerging/frontier cross-cutting areas” that the program should consider in the future.
In Case You Missed It
APS Leaders Weigh in on Research Security
The four members of the American Physical Society’s presidential line published an overview last week of steps the society is taking to keep new research security initiatives in balance with the benefits of international collaboration. They report that APS has been in communication with various agencies, including the FBI, which they note has produced a report offering “compelling anecdotal evidence” of cases involving China that have “impacted industry, classified research, and applied research.” However, they note the report provides no evidence of “threats relating to unclassified basic research in academia,” and they argue it presents a misleading estimate of the costs of malign activities. They also report APS has been working with the National Academies and Congress to establish a forum for discussing security issues and is working to “sustain a dialogue” with physicists in China. The authors further express concern about declining applications from international students to U.S. doctoral programs, and observe that APS organized a campaign that “led directly” to the introduction of the Keep STEM Talent Act, which aims to make it easier for students to remain in the U.S. after graduation. They report there is a parallel effort to introduce a House resolution affirming the importance of international students and scientists to U.S. research so as to combat perceptions among some government staff members that “banning foreign students” is a viable way forward. (APS is an AIP Member Society.)
FBI Chief Elaborates on Academic Outreach Campaign
Responding to queries from six Republican senators at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray offered new details on the bureau’s efforts to raise awareness in the academic sector about the means the Chinese government uses to acquire strategically important technologies. Describing the FBI’s concerns about China’s talent recruitment programs, Wray said that, particularly at the graduate level at major universities, the programs have “created a pipeline … of key intellectual property, sometimes that has dual-use potential, flowing back to China for the advancement of its various strategic plans.” While such programs are not inherently illegal, he said, there are many cases where they “become violations of U.S. law or at the very least violate non-competes and things like that,” amounting to the misappropriation of taxpayer-funded research. Speaking broadly, he added that the bureau is “not requiring universities to do anything,” but is encouraging them to be more careful about safeguarding intellectual property and “more aware of who it is they are inviting over.” Though he did not address growing fears the government is discriminating against people of Chinese descent, Wray stressed that his remarks about China are “not about the Chinese people as a whole and it’s certainly not about Chinese Americans in this country.”
Democrats Press OSTP Director on Climate, Scientific Integrity
Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, made his first appearance before House appropriators at a hearing on July 24. Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee for OSTP, asked about Droegemeier’s views and the White House’s stance on climate change. Droegemeier replied that rising global temperatures are “predominantly” due to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and suggested more research should be dedicated to understanding “how those effects at the global scale translate down to local and regional effects.” He also confirmed that the National Security Council has not established a panel to scrutinize climate assessments. Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) asked Droegemeier if he is concerned about reports of political interference in science and the conclusions of a recent Government Accountability Office study documenting the uneven implementation of scientific integrity policies across agencies. Droegemeier said the new interagency Joint Committee on Research Environments is a potential mechanism for addressing the concerns after agencies have had “a few months” to respond to the GAO report. Asked by Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) whether the Department of Agriculture’s decision to not publicize research on climate change impacts amounts to political interference, Droegemeier said he was not familiar with the case.
Weather Service Director Details Hurricane Forecast Improvement Goals
Testifying at a House Science Committee field hearing in Houston on July 22, National Weather Service (NWS) Director Louis Uccellini charted the history of improvements to hurricane forecasting and outlined new initiatives directed by the Weather Research and Forecasting Act, which became law in April 2017. He noted that the average two-day forecast location error for Atlantic hurricanes dropped from around 300 miles in the 1960s to about 85 miles in the 2010s, and that the five day forecast is now better than the 1.5 day forecast was in the 1970s. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which houses NWS, has met its five year goal of reducing hurricane forecast track and intensity errors by 20% and now seeks to reduce these errors by a further 50% over the next 10 years. Despite the “significant strides” made to improve hurricane forecast accuracy, he said NOAA must focus more on understanding how people react to forecast information, identifying this as “one of the biggest” research gaps.
Partisan Rift on House Energy R&D Legislation Continues
The House Science Committee voted along party lines on July 24 to advance bills that would set policy for the Department of Energy’s solar, wind, and fossil energy programs. Committee Republicans sustained their earlier objection to the bills’ recommended spending increases, while offering failed amendments calling for smaller increases. Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) did however successfully attach a bipartisan measure to the fossil energy bill that would support work on natural gas carbon capture technologies. Separately, Lucas and six other Republicans introduced a bill last week that would set policy for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and recommend that its annual funding increase from its current level of $366 million to $500 million by fiscal year 2024. Last year, Lucas and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who is now committee chair, sponsored bipartisan legislation for ARPA–E that did not include funding recommendations. At a hearing earlier this year, committee members considered the potential of increasing the agency’s budget to its originally envisioned level of $1 billion, or even more.
House Panel Crafting ‘Deep Decarbonization Strategy’
On July 23, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) announced that the committee will hold a series of hearings to inform legislation for implementing a “deep decarbonization strategy” that would result in the U.S. economy producing net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In a memo released before the first hearing of the series, the committee identified a need for “aggressive investment” in low-carbon technologies to achieve that goal, citing an Obama administration report that sketched a “mid-century strategy” for decarbonizing the economy.
Bipartisan Innovation Bill Takes Aim at Industrial Emissions
Last week, lawmakers introduced a new bipartisan bill called the Clean Industrial Technology Act in the House and Senate that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sectors. Among other provisions, it would direct the Department of Energy to establish an Industrial Emissions Reduction Technology Development Program aimed at developing low- and zero-emissions technologies in sectors such as aviation, shipping, and cement production, in which carbon-reducing R&D has lagged other sectors such as electricity generation. At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last week on the role of energy innovation in U.S. economic competitiveness, Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) noted he is cosponsoring the bill as part of the committee’s ongoing work on clean energy innovation.
Science Committee Makes Case for Sustainable Chemistry Initiative
The House Science Committee held a hearing last week to survey support for the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act. Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) argued the time for the federal government to formalize its support for the field is overdue, noting it has been over 20 years since the “12 design principles of green chemistry” were developed, and over 10 years since she first sponsored legislation to spur green chemistry. Johnson said she is “concerned about steps this administration has taken to reverse the little progress we have made,” pointing to a 2018 executive order that rescinded a requirement that agencies purchase certain products with sustainable chemicals, and said she believes the National Science Foundation can do more to integrate sustainability principles into its chemistry research and education programs. Witnesses endorsed the concept of establishing a national initiative and called for the adoption of a definition for “sustainable chemistry,” which they said is broader than the well-established concept of green chemistry. Other recommendations included requiring all chemists to be trained in green chemistry and teaching sustainability principles in earlier stages of science education.
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