A Periodic Federal Science Update

Congressional Leaders Continue to Negotiate on Defense and Nondefense Spending levels for FY 2018 with the Current Stop-gap Funding Measure Set to Expire on January 19 - Negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders will continue after parties outlined starkly different budget priorities yesterday, signaling that a final fiscal 2018 spending deal may not be imminent on Capitol Hill. An hour long bipartisan meeting this week did not yield any clear breakthroughs on an impasse that is now into its fourth month. The session, hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short.

Both parties and the White House are aiming for a deal on overall discretionary spending levels for the next two years before current federal funding runs out on Jan. 19 and agencies face their latest threat of a shutdown. Absent an agreement, Congress would have to pass another stopgap funding measure – a CR. Even with something in hand, a brief continuing resolution may be necessary to give appropriators time to write a final fiscal 2018 omnibus.

After the meeting, participants emphasized the need for funding the military and border security and warned Democrats against seeking to include immigration policy riders.  Republicans want a boost in defense spending and to hold the line on domestic funding. Democrats continue to insist military and non-defense accounts should be treated with "parity."  Democrats also said that the budget deal must focus on additional of issues beyond funding levels, including providing a fix for coal miners' benefits teetering on financial insolvency and delivering disaster aid for areas hit by hurricanes and wildfires.  Democrats will also press for protections for young undocumented immigrants (DACA), extending a childrens' health program and addressing the opioid crisis.

NAS Releases Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space --   NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) should implement a coordinated approach for their space-based environmental observations to further advance Earth science and applications for the next decade, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This approach should be based on key scientific questions in areas such as reducing climate uncertainty, improving weather and air quality forecasts, predicting geological hazards, and understanding sea-level rise. The report also recommends building a robust, resilient, and balanced U.S. program of Earth observations from space that will enable the agencies to strategically advance the science and applications with constrained resources.  This is the second National Academies decadal survey for Earth science and applications from space.

Building on the first decadal survey, which was published in 2007, it identifies top science priorities, observational needs, and opportunities for U.S. space-based Earth observations in the coming decade. Over the last decade, the report says space-based Earth observations – which provide a global perspective of Earth – have transformed our scientific understanding of the planet, revealing it to be an integrated system of dynamic interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and human society. These observations also play a critical role in national security. For example, understanding sea-level rise and impacts of ocean warming associated with climate change is important for naval operations.

The committee developed a set of 35 key questions on Earth science and applications spanning the full range of Earth system science. The questions comprehensively address areas in which advances in Earth science and information capabilities are most needed to improve knowledge about the complex Earth system and allow the development of numerous applications that enable a sustainable and thriving society. Some of the top priority questions identified by the committee are:

·      How can environmental predictions of weather and air quality be extended to seamlessly forecast Earth system conditions at lead times of one week to two months?

·      How do anthropogenic changes in climate, land use, water use, and water storage interact and modify the water and energy cycles, and what are the short- and long-term consequences?

·      What processes determine the long-term variations and trends in air pollution and their subsequent long-term recurring and cumulative impacts on human health, agriculture, and ecosystems?

·      What are the structure, function, and biodiversity of Earth’s ecosystems, and how and why are they changing in time and space?

·      How much will sea levels rise over the next decade, and what will be the role of ice sheets and ocean heat storage?

·      How can large-scale geological hazards be accurately forecast in a socially relevant time frame?

To address these questions, the committee recommended implementing an innovative observing program that builds on the existing and planned instruments and satellites of the U.S. and the international community. The proposed program reflects new needs associated with eight priority observations, including aerosols, clouds and precipitation, Earth’s bulk mass movements, global land and vegetation characteristics, deformation and changes within the Earth’s surface, and three others to be selected competitively from among seven candidates. Each of these are to be measured through a space-based instrument or suite of instruments, and together are intended to ensure effective exploration of the highest priorities among the survey’s 35 key science and applications questions. Investments in Earth observation capabilities have failed to keep pace with the increasing information needs of businesses and individuals and the overall value of this information to the nation, the report says. Although budget constraints will remain a practical concern during the next decade in terms of progress with new space-based observational capabilities, the committee recommended innovative methods for achieving progress within those constraints.

Research priorities and objectives in this report were developed by a primary steering committee based on input from five interdisciplinary study panels. The panels and committee also received over 300 written white papers from the research community in response to two separate requests for input. In addition, the survey had continual engagement with the community via town halls that were held during annual meetings of a number of professional societies, as well as via webinars, newsletters, and briefings. The study was funded by the NASA, NOAA, and USGS.

Administration’s National Security Strategy Emphasizes Innovation in Selected Areas -- On Dec. 18, President Trump released his National Security Strategy, a document that sets a broad framework for the nation’s military, diplomatic, economic, immigration, and homeland security policy. The document highlights scientific research and technological innovation and specifically identifies a number of priority areas for R&D that federal science agencies are likely to consider as they manage their research portfolios. These include advanced computing, data science, artificial intelligence, autonomous technology, encryption, gene editing, novel materials, and nanotechnology. The strategy identifies nuclear technology, next-generation nuclear reactors, improved batteries, carbon capture technology, and opportunities at the energy–water nexus as means of preserving the nation’s “technological edge” in energy. The strategy also considers the need for training, attracting, and retaining innovators and inventors and for protecting intellectual property.

Confirmation Process for NOAA Nominees -- With the end of the first session of the 115th Congress, the Administration will now have to resubmit the nominations of many of the individuals that had been nominated last year but had not yet reached the Senate floor for a final confirmation vote.  Such is the case for Mr. Barry Myers who has nominated to be the NOAA Administrator.  Mr. Myers’ nomination was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on a party line vote of 15 to 14.  All indications point to the Administration re-submitting Mr. Myers’ nomination.  The committee will not have to hold another hearing but it will need to vote again on his nomination in order for his nomination to reach the Senate floor.  The nomination of Dr. Neil Jacobs to be an Assistant Secretary of Commerce at NOAA also did not reach the Senate floor last year but his nomination was widely supported.  As a result it was held over in the Senate which means the Administration will not have to re-submit Dr. Jacobs’ nomination in order for the Senate to take up that nomination.

Air Force Science and Technology Study – The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is soliciting universities and other entities to conduct Technical Forecasting Studies and/or Organizational and Processes Studies to develop recommendations regarding how the Air Force should prepared today for national security requirements in the year 2030 and beyond. These studies need to identify focus areas in basic and applied research for the Air Force to pursue and also identify effective business practices and organizational structures to manage early state research including exploitation of rapidly developing science and technology.  More information on this funding opportunity is available here.