Bipartisan NSF Policy Bill Unveiled by Science Committee
On March 26, the House Science Committee introduced a bipartisan bill called the NSF for the Future Act that proposes Congress approximately double the National Science Foundation’s budget over five years, in part to accommodate the creation of a “Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions” that would focus on addressing “societal challenges.” The committee views the new directorate as an alternative to the technology-centric directorate proposed in the Endless Frontier Act championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). In a call with reporters, committee staff members credited Schumer with kickstarting a conversation about the future of NSF but said his bill has unrealistic funding targets and argued it places an outsized focus on both technology-oriented research and the current competitive dynamic between the U.S. and China. The House bill recommends the new directorate’s budget start at $1 billion in fiscal year 2022 and grow to $5 billion over five years. Aside from creating the directorate, the House bill would update policies across NSF’s existing programs, including by requiring grant applicants to assess the potential ethical implications of their research.
Science Committee Republicans Re-up Research Doubling Bill
On March 23, House Science Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) reintroduced his Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, which proposes that Congress double the budgets of certain science agencies over 10 years. Lucas states the two principal motivators for increasing spending are to help the U.S. compete with China in science and technology and to help mitigate climate change. The agencies targeted for budget increases are the Department of Energy Office of Science, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a research office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The bill also includes policy updates for various programs in each agency and incorporates proposals from NIST on ways to improve the federal technology transfer system. A staff member for Lucas told reporters last week that the bill is meant as a statement of Republican priorities for negotiations with committee Democrats on upcoming legislation and noted that portions of it were incorporated in the bipartisan NSF for the Future Act.
Report Proposes Geoengineering Research Effort with ‘Exit Ramps’
The National Academies released a report last week recommending the U.S. spend $100 million to $200 million over five years on exploratory research into methods to curb global warming by altering the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight. The report stresses that such methods, known as solar geoengineering, should not be viewed as a substitute for climate mitigation or adaptation actions and that the research program should focus on “developing policy-relevant knowledge, rather than advancing a path for deployment.” It also states that a robust research governance framework should be implemented that includes “exit ramps” to terminate projects if they are found to pose unacceptable physical, social, geopolitical, or environmental risk. Commenting on the report, National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt tweeted, “Solar geoengineering is a last-ditch, Hail Mary, to counter unacceptable climate warming. No team plans to be down 7 points in the 4th quarter with 10 seconds on the clock and 50 yards to go, but teams practice the Hail Mary just in case.”
Turk Confirmed as Deputy Energy Secretary
David Turk was sworn in as deputy energy secretary on March 25 after being confirmed by the Senate in a nearly unanimous vote Wednesday, with only Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) voting against his confirmation. Turk previously served as DOE’s deputy assistant secretary for international climate and technology during the Obama administration, where he helped develop Mission Innovation, an initiative launched in concert with the Paris agreement that called on participants to multiply their energy R&D funding. Most recently, Turk served as deputy executive director of the International Energy Agency. With Turk and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm now in place, the Biden administration will turn to filling more than 20 other positions at the department requiring Senate confirmation. President Biden has yet to announce any nominees for those positions, including the under secretary for science and energy, a newly reinstated position that will oversee both the Office of Science and the department’s applied energy programs. Consult FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker to stay up to date on the appointment process for key science agency positions.
APS Raises Concerns About Arrest of MIT Professor
On March 17, the presidential line of the American Physical Society sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland noting they are “troubled” by the charges brought against MIT nanoengineering professor Gang Chen, who was arrested in January for allegedly failing to disclose connections to Chinese institutions when applying for a federal grant. They write that Chen’s prosecution, which is among the latest pursued under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative,” raises concerns about “possible broader implications for scientific and academic freedom within the United States.” While acknowledging the government’s concerns related to national security and economic espionage, they state the allegations against Chen “include descriptions of what appear to be normal activities and exchanges that occur within the global scientific community.” The letter also notes that APS members “have expressed concern with what they perceive as scientists, particularly those of Chinese descent, being targeted for federal investigation for seemingly normal academic activities.” It adds, “The appearance of targeting academics who are from or who have collaborated with colleagues in China has racial overtones that deeply affect our community.” Previously, around 200 MIT faculty signed an open letter in defense of Chen. (APS is an AIP Member Society.)
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