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The Week Ahead
Lawmakers Look to Present and Future of Weather Forecasting
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on Thursday to hear from a panel of researchers about the current state of atmospheric and weather forecasting research. At another hearing later in the day, the House Science Committee will look ahead to the future of the U.S. weather forecasting enterprise. The witnesses for that hearing include the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Neil Jacobs, and National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini. Both events are apt to focus on implementation of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 and the amendments made to it through the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2018. Ongoing issues that could also be discussed include the robustness of the soon-to-be-updated U.S. weather model, the increasing use of commercial weather data, and the competition between weather observation and telecommunications over radio frequency bandwidth. Jacobs has said he expects an interagency report on the spectrum issue will be completed this Wednesday.
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DOE, DOD Spending Panels to Release FY20 Proposals
The House Appropriations Committee is continuing to release its spending bills for fiscal year 2020, with three subcommittees scheduled to consider their proposals on Wednesday: the Energy-Water Subcommittee, which oversees spending on the Department of Energy; the Defense Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over Defense Department R&D programs; and the Interior-Environment Subcommittee, which handles the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey, among other agencies. The full committee has already approved spending increases for each of these subcommittees, though final funding amounts will ultimately hinge on negotiations with the Senate.
National Science Board to Honor Awardees
The spring meeting of the National Science Foundation’s governing board will feature presentations from the latest recipients of their top honors. Among them are former NSF Director Walter Massey, who received the Vannevar Bush Award for his leadership in science policy, and plant biologist Barbara Schaal, who received the Public Service Award for her work to improve the public understanding of science. NSF is also honoring the Event Horizon Telescope team that recently imaged a black hole with the agency’s first-ever Diamond Achievement Award, which recognizes the “highest possible level of achievement or contributions made by private citizens or organizations to NSF’s mission.” Other items on the meeting agenda include discussion of a draft report from the board’s Skilled Technical Workforce Task Force and a presentation on the Trump administration’s strategic plan for STEM education. In closed session, NSF Director France Córdova will deliver remarks on “science and security,” and the board will take votes related to funding for supercomputing facilities and the Green Bank Observatory.
Black Hole Hearing to Commend Event Horizon Telescope Team
The House Science Committee will welcome members of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration at a Thursday hearing on “the black hole seen round the world.” Using a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes, more than 200 researchers participated in the project, which successfully produced the first-ever image of a black hole. The committee will hear from National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, and three members of the project: Shepherd Doeleman, director of the collaboration; Colin Lonsdale, director of the MIT Haystack Observatory; and Katherine Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow who gained widespread media attention following the image’s release.
Science Committee Examining Wind and Solar Technology
On Wednesday, the House Science Committee is holding a subcommittee hearing on next-generation solar and wind technologies. Peter Green, the deputy director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will testify. Rounding out the witness panel are the presidents of the Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association and the director of policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a free market-oriented think tank. The hearing complements bills the committee is preparing to introduce supporting R&D and demonstration projects in these areas. According to a committee staff member, the legislation is part of a broader effort that will span the Department of Energy’s science and applied R&D activities.
Critical Minerals and Carbon Capture Bills Under Consideration
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold two hearings this week to review legislation related to mineral resources and carbon capture technologies. On Tuesday, the committee will discuss the American Mineral Security Act, which proposes annual assessments and funding levels for R&D related to the development, recycling, and replacement of critical minerals; and the Rare Earth Element Advanced Coal Technologies (REEACT) Act, which directs the Department of Energy to research methods for separating rare elements from coal and its byproducts. On Thursday, the committee will hear testimony on the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology (EFFECT) Act, which aims to bolster DOE’s R&D programs for fossil energy and carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
USGS Budget Request up for Review in House
Members of the House Natural Resources Committee will review the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request for the U.S. Geological Survey at a hearing on Thursday. Under the proposal, the agency’s budget would drop 15 percent to $984 million and several science mission areas would be restructured. The administration is also seeking to relocate a portion of USGS headquarters staff from Virginia to Colorado as part of a broader restructuring of the Interior Department. Committee Democrats have been skeptical of the overall departmental reorganization and have criticized the proposed cuts to climate research programs.
Innovation Benchmarks Report Set for Release
The Task Force on American Innovation (TFAI), an advocacy coalition representing companies, universities, and scientific societies, is holding a congressional briefing on Tuesday for its new report on innovation benchmarks. The report compares U.S. investments in research, STEM education, and workforce development relative to those of other nations and finds the U.S. is “losing ground to its competitors and is in danger of ceding its leadership role in strategic sectors and technologies.” A panel of industry and university leaders will discuss the problems identified in the report and potential pathways forward. (AIP is a member of TFAI.)
In Case You Missed It
US Stresses Strategic Competition at Arctic Council, Sidelines Climate Change
At last week’s meeting of the Arctic Council, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that the U.S. increasingly views the region as an area of strategic competition, saying Arctic nations no longer have the “luxury of focusing almost exclusively on scientific collaboration, on cultural matters, on environmental research.” He raised particular concerns about China’s growing presence in the Arctic, citing a recent Pentagon report that noted China could use civilian research activities as a way to strengthen its military presence in the region. Pompeo’s remarks clashed with the council’s mandate, which explicitly excludes military security. In another controversial move, the U.S. delegation reportedly refused to sign onto a joint statement that referenced climate change. Instead, the council released a short statement reaffirming their commitment to “sustainable development and to the protection of the Arctic environment,” among other principles. Finland, the current chair of the council, issued a separate statement indicating that “a majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic.”
NSF Updates Science Committee on Research Security Efforts
At a hearing last week on the National Science Foundation’s budget request, several House Science Committee members asked how the agency is protecting the integrity of its research system against potential exploitation by foreign nations. Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chair Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) noted that the NSF inspector general’s latest performance plan identifies foreign talent recruitment programs as an area of concern. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) expressed particular concern about actions by China, citing a recent speech by FBI Director Christopher Wray that singled out the country as having “pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations.” While noting the agency has not identified any instances of research espionage to date, NSF Director France Córdova described steps it is taking to address security concerns. These include improving financial disclosure forms, requiring NSF’s rotating program managers to be U.S. citizens or in the process of applying for citizenship, and commissioning a “risk assessment on research protection” from the JASON advisory group. Both Córdova and National Science Board Chair Diane Souvaine stressed the importance of balancing security concerns against the benefits the U.S. has long enjoyed from international collaboration in science and attracting talent from abroad.
Trump Picks Computer Scientist for Open NSB Slot
On May 10, President Trump announced his intent to appoint computer scientist Daniel Reed to the final vacant seat on the 24-member National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation. Reed received a doctorate in computer science from Purdue University in 1983 and has dedicated much of his career to developing high-performance computing systems. He currently is senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah and has served on a number of federal advisory panels, including the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the George W. Bush administration. Appointees to the NSB do not require Senate confirmation and serve six-year terms. Trump appointed five new members to the board in November 2018.
STEM Diversity Bill Reintroduced with Bipartisan Backing
At a hearing last week focused on broadening participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields, House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) announced she has reintroduced the STEM Opportunities Act. The bill is similar to previous versions she has sponsored, again requiring science agencies to report demographic data about their grantees and directing the White House to disseminate best practices for broadening participation in STEM, among other provisions. For the first time, however, the bill has gained bipartisan backing, with Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) signing on as cosponsor. Witnesses representing the academic and private sectors expressed support for the legislation at the hearing and offered ideas for further actions.
Wait Continues for Supplemental NASA Budget Request
For more than a month, lawmakers have been seeking clarity on how NASA plans to meet its new goal of landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024 and what additional resources it will need. At a May 8 hearing, Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human exploration program, told members of the House Science Committee it would still be “maybe a week or two weeks” before the Trump administration submits a supplemental budget request that was originally expected in mid-April. In her opening statement at the hearing, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said, “I hope that when NASA delivers [its] plan and revised budget to Congress, it will also provide a compelling rationale for the proposed crash program that justifies the additional resources that will be required to meet the president’s arbitrary deadline.” Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) sounded a more optimistic note, but also pointed to NASA’s history of dashed plans and said the administration “must provide a realistic funding proposal.”
NASA IG Assesses Heliophysics Portfolio
Last week, NASA’s inspector general released an assessment of the Heliophysics Division’s progress on meeting objectives set in recent decadal surveys and the National Space Weather Action Plan. While the assessment commends the division for mostly operating missions within budget, it observes that three missions have missed their launch dates and incurred a combined $41 million in cost growth. It also reports NASA has yet to complete roughly half the tasks assigned to it by the space weather action plan and that about a third of the 2013 heliophysics decadal survey’s recommendations remain unaddressed due to “budgetary concerns, technological availabilities, and complexity issues.” The report warns such delays “could hinder the federal government’s efforts to predict and respond to space weather events and limit NASA’s ability to develop future heliophysics missions.”
Study Dissects Reproducibility and Replication in Science
On May 7, the National Academies released a study on reproducibility and replicability in science, which Congress called for through legislation enacted in 2017. The study committee focused on providing clear explanations of the concepts of reproducibility and replicability as well as the roles they play in developing scientific knowledge. Its recommendations concern how scientists, journals, and funding agencies can better inculcate them in scientific work, including by increasing the transparency of research and encouraging the responsible use of statistics. However, the committee also stresses that reliability in science is achieved through the synthesis of evidence from multiple studies. Accordingly, it recommends that the significance of a result, such as its relevance for policy decisions, be taken into account when deciding whether to expend resources on replication. The report also casts doubt on the idea that media reports of widespread failures of reproduction and replication in certain fields have had a negative impact on the public’s trust in science generally.
Nuclear Security Labs Undertaking Hiring Surge
Due to an increasing workload and an impending wave of retirements, the National Nuclear Security Administration is seeking to onboard thousands of employees in the near term. NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty highlighted the staffing challenges facing the agency at a hearing last week, noting that more than 40 percent of the workforce will be eligible for retirement over the next five years at a time when the agency is facing its heaviest workload in decades. She noted that, this year alone, both Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories are each seeking to hire 1,000 people and Lawrence Livermore National Lab is seeking to hire 500 people. To meet this demand, she said, NNSA has experimented with new recruiting fairs and partnered with universities to establish training programs for specific occupations, such as radiological technicians. Gordon-Hagerty also noted NNSA is bumping up against the statutory cap on its headquarters staff and asked Congress to consider raising the limit this year.
DOE Leaders Visit Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Senior officials from the Department of Energy, its national laboratories, and industry gathered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory last week for the department’s third InnovationXLab summit, which showcased state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing capabilities. During his visit, Energy Secretary Rick Perry formally announced DOE is partnering with Cray to build the Frontier exascale supercomputer at the lab, awarding the company a contract worth more than $600 million. The world-leading facility is expected to be complete in 2021. Perry also participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the lab’s $95 million Translational Research Capability facility, which will support research in computing, materials science, and quantum information science.