A Periodic Federal Science Update

Contentious Hearing for Nominee for NASA Administrator – On November 1, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing that included the review of the Administration’s nomination of Rep. Jim Bredenstine (R-OK) to be the next Administrator of NASA.  Concerns were expressed by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and others about his credentials and viewpoints about climate change, sexual harassment and other issues that could affect how he runs the agency and its personnel.  On the subject of climate change and the role of NASA in the earth sciences, Rep. Bridenstine tried to assure the committee that he accepts that humans are a cause of climate change, but would not go as far as to say that it is the primary cause.  He went on to say that NASA is the only agency in the world that can do the kind of science needed to address such issues. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) challenged Rep. Bridenstine on a provision of the American Space Renaissance Act that he introduced last year that appeared to eliminate earth science from NASA’s statutory goals. Rep. Bridenstine insisted that was not his intent.  In response to several questions about whether he would ensure scientific integrity at NASA and that NASA earth scientists could speak freely without fear of punishment, he assured the committee that no one would be punished for expressing their views on that topic.  

This hearing also served as the nomination for Dr. Neil Jacobs to be NOAA’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction.  A hearing for Mr. Barry Myers to be the NOAA Administrator is likely to take place after Thanksgiving.  More information on this hearing can be found here and here.

New NIGMS Funding Opportunity: Collaborative Program Grants for Multidisciplinary Teams-- The National Institute for General Medical Science has released a new funding opportunity announcement (FOA) to support multidisciplinary, collaborative team research in scientific areas within the mission of NIGMS. The Collaborative Program Grant for Multidisciplinary Teams (RM1) seeks to support highly integrated, interdisciplinary teams working toward a common scientific goal. This program replaces NIGMS Program Project Grants (P01) and most of NIGMS’ P50 centers programs (with the exception of the Structural Biology of HIV/AIDS centers). The first receipt date for the new program is January 25, 2018.  RM1 applications should have a unified scientific goal within the NIGMS mission that requires a team with diverse perspectives and expertise in a variety of intellectual or technical areas. NIGMS looks to support projects that are challenging, ambitious, and innovative, with the potential to produce lasting advances in their fields. Unlike many larger programs, NIGMS Collaborative Program Grants require one integrated research plan and a separate management plan that addresses shared leadership, responsibility for decision making and resource allocation, and opportunities for professional development and credit. Optionally, the team can expand to support early stage investigators (ESIs) in pilot projects that enrich program objectives and help the ESIs obtain independent funding. More information about this program can be found here.

NSF Info Brief Shows Rise of Developing Country Output While Developed Countries Dominate Highly Cited Publications -- Publication output in peer-reviewed science and engineering (S&E) journals, books, and conference proceedings serves as an indicator of scientific research activity. New data show that S&E publication output has continued to grow, reaching 2.3 million globally in 2014, with the United States and China being the two largest producers in 2014 (19% and 17% of the world total). When counted together the European Union countries produced more S&E publications than the United States or China. Globally, S&E publications output grew at an average annual rate of 6% between 2004 and 2014, the most recent 10 years for which data are available. The growth rate varied substantially across world regions. For example, in Iran, China, and India, growth rates were 22%, 14%, and 14%, respectively, compared with 3% in the United States.  Download a copy of this NSF InfoBrief here.

EPA Administrator Announces New Policy for Serving on EPA Advisory Committees -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a new directive this week designed to ensure that any advisors serving on an EPA Federal Advisory Committee (FAC) are independent and free from any real, apparent, or potential interference with their ability to objectively serve as a committee member.  The directive explains that: members shall be independent from EPA, which shall include a requirement that no member of any of EPA’s federal advisory committees be currently in receipt of EPA grants, either as principal investigator or co-investigator, or in a position that otherwise would reap substantial direct benefit from an EPA grant. This principle would not apply to state, tribal or local government agency recipients of EPA grants. An accompanying memorandum issued by EPA Administrator Pruitt explains the directives to improve the independence and integrity of EPA’s FACs in ways that advance the Agency’s mission.  The directive focuses on the importance of the following areas pertaining to EPA FACs:  Strengthen Member Independence:  Members shall be independent from EPA, which shall include a requirement that no member of an EPA federal advisory committee be currently in receipt of EPA grants, either as principal investigator or co-investigator, or in a position that otherwise would reap substantial direct benefit from an EPA grant. This principle shall not apply to state, tribal or local government agency recipients of EPA grants; Increase State, Tribal and Local Government Participation:  In the spirit of cooperative federalism and recognition of the unique experience of state, tribal and local government officials, committee balance should reflect prominent participation from state, tribal and local governments. Such participation should be appropriate for the committee’s purpose and function; Enhance Geographic Diversity:  Given the range of environmental and public health considerations across the country, membership should be balanced with individuals from different states and EPA regions. Emphasis should be given to individuals from historically unrepresented or underrepresented states and regions; and Promote Fresh Perspectives:  To encourage and promote the inclusion of new candidates with fresh perspectives and to avoid prolonged and continuous service, membership should be rotated regularly.

American Association for the Advancement of Science Issues Statement Critical of New EPA Advisory Committee Policy – Dr. Rush Holt, Chief Executive Officer of the AAAS issued the following statement in response to the new EPA policy on membership on EPA science advisory boards:  "The American Association for the Advancement of Science denounces the EPA administrator’s decision to disallow qualified scientific experts from providing evidence-based information as members of its science adviser boards….Federal agencies should recognize and enable input of scientific and technical information that represents the best available evidence. The government must ensure that its science advisers possess the requisite scientific, medical and technical expertise to inform agency policies. At the same time, the government must facilitate transparency and protect against conflict of interest. Federal agencies from NIH to EPA have policies on scientific integrity and financial conflict of interest, allowing agencies to balance transparency and access to expertise. Leading scientific experts who are conducting environmental science research should not be prohibited from participating on EPA science adviser boards and committees if they have met the appropriate financial conflict of interest policy…”  

Read the complete AAAS statement here.

GAO Report on Costs of Climate Change Questioned by House Science Committee Chairman – In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released the results of a study requested by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that was to review the potential economic effects of climate change and risks to the federal government.  GAO found that methods used to estimate the potential economic effects of climate change in the United States—using linked climate science and economics models—are based on developing research. The methods and the studies that use them produce imprecise results because of modeling and other limitations but can convey insight into potential climate damages across sectors in the United States. The two available national-scale studies that examine the economic effects of climate change across U.S. sectors suggested that potential economic effects could be significant and unevenly distributed across sectors and regions. For example, for 2020 through 2039, one study estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion in annual coastal property damages from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms. Also, under this study, the Southeast likely faces greater effects than other regions because of coastal property damages.  

On October 31, 2017, Chairman Lamar Smith of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, sent a letter to GAO questioning the use of a report by the Rhodium Group as one of its sources of information for the GAO report.  Chairman Smith’s letter says, “Given that the report utilizes questionable sources and appears to ignore a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific studies, the Committee has concerns about the integrity of the GAO study process as well as its impartiality.”  The Committee has asked GAO to provide information on GAO’s decision making process related to the use of the Rhodium Group study by November 14.