APS President Testifies on DHS S&T; Recommends Changes

Aronson Prez Pic

(Credit: aps.org)

APS President Sam Aronson testified today before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on the lack of transparency with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, as well as its failure to seek advice from academia or non-governmental actors regarding research activities.

Aronson spoke before the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies. Titled “Examining DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s Engagement with Academia and Industry,” the hearing included witnesses from the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council and the Security Industry Association (SIA).

Subcommittee Chairman John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, and Subcommittee Chairman and Ranking Member Cedric Richmond, D-La, asked questions pertaining to the work of the directorate. In addition, subcommittee members Curt Clawson, R-Fla, and James Langevin, D-RI, questioned witnesses on the topic.

Aronson DHS S&T

(Credit: Chris Schepis)

Here are key highlights from Aronson’s testimony:

  • The S&T Advisory Committee should be expanded to embrace a broader and more balanced membership, reflective of DHS’s diverse scientific and technological needs.
  • An expanded Advisory Committee should play a more proactive role in providing outside advice to the Under Secretary for Science and Technology.
  • The Under Secretary should make greater use of the Advisory Committee, actively seeking advice, commissioning studies and requesting assistance with long-term planning from people who are not part of his or her inner circle.
  • The Advisory Committee should conduct its work in a more transparent manner, with meetings open to the public, to the extent feasible, and unclassified documents posted on the DHS website on a timely basis so that the public and members of Congress can easily access them.
  • The charter of the Advisory Committee should be sharpened to provide a more detailed description of its scope and expected outcomes

Read Aronson’s full testimony:

“Chairman Ratcliffe, Ranking Member Richmond and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and its interactions with the scientific community.

I am a nuclear physicist and currently serve as president of the American Physical Society, representing more than 50,000 physicists in universities, industry and national laboratories. From 2006 until 2012, I was director of Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), where I now direct the RIKEN BNL Research Center.

As Brookhaven’s director, I oversaw the operation of a multipurpose research institution with world-class facilities and an outstanding staff possessing broad scientific and technological expertise, spanning the life sciences, the physical sciences and engineering. Brookhaven’s portfolio extends from discovery-driven research, such as studies of the birth of the universe, to applied research, such as exploration of energy technologies and problems relevant to national and homeland security.

Although I personally have had somewhat limited direct experience with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I have known many scientists who have attempted to engage with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. And their experiences have been mixed, at best. Unlike other federal agencies that have research missions, DHS to the outside world suffers from a lack of transparency and a culture that that does not encourage input from our nation’s outstanding science and technology community. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Like other federal agencies with science and technology mandates, DHS has an advisory committee that is intended to help the department develop and manage its S&T portfolio. But, from all appearances, it is quite dysfunctional. Other agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, with which I am very familiar, use their committees to solicit ideas, connect with the science and technology community and develop programming that help the agencies accomplish their missions. The advisory committees are broadly based scientifically, meet frequently in open sessions, provide opportunities for public commentary and make their recommendations widely known.

By contrast, the DHS S&T Advisory Committee comprises only six members drawn from a narrow, parochial community. It meets infrequently, almost always in closed session, and does not make its recommendations easily accessible to interested parties. By allowing the committee to operate in such a fashion, DHS is missing an opportunity to engage the best scientific and technical minds to help the department achieve its goals.

The department’s core missions are daunting: preventing terrorism and enhancing security; securing and managing our borders; enforcing and administering our immigration laws; safeguarding and securing cyberspace; and ensuring resilience to disasters. Each one of them requires the best science and technology the nation can muster. Collectively, they require scientific contributions from a multiplicity of disciplines. The present composition and operation of the S&T Advisory Committee is shortchanging the department and needlessly placing Americans at future risk.

What should be done?

First, the S&T Advisory Committee should be expanded to embrace a broader and more balanced membership, reflective of DHS’s diverse scientific and technological needs.

Second, an expanded Advisory Committee should play a more proactive role in providing outside advice to the Under Secretary for Science and Technology.

Third, the Under Secretary should make greater use of the Advisory Committee, actively seeking advice, commissioning studies and requesting assistance with long-term planning from people who are not part of his or her inner circle.

Fourth, the Advisory Committee should conduct its work in a more transparent manner, with meetings open to the public, to the extent feasible, and unclassified documents posted on the DHS website on a timely basis so that the public and members of Congress can easily access them.

Finally, the charter of the Advisory Committee should be sharpened to provide a more detailed description of its scope and expected outcomes.

In transforming the Advisory Committee, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate should take a cue from other federal agencies that depend on research and development in fulfilling their missions. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the Department of Defense provide two good examples.

The DOE Office of Science relies on six committees – comprising 15 to 24 members each – that follow procedures established by the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, with each committee representing a balance of viewpoints and diversity of backgrounds. The Department of Defense relies principally on one advisory committee, the Defense Science Board (DSB) with 32 external members chosen on the basis of their preeminence in the fields of science and technology relevant to the DOD mission.

A DHS S&T Advisory Committee more robustly constituted would help the directorate maintain continuity in its programming, better capture the expertise of the nation’s research community and instill greater confidence in its work.

Thank you. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.”

A new tax policy could help more companies invest in long-term research

In his latest Roll Call column, APS Director of Public Affairs Michael S. Lubell writes about how a new tax policy could lead to more companies investing in long-term research.

Bridging the Innovation Valley of Death

Is Wall Street’s influence in corporate boardrooms killing America’s innovation future? There’s a good case to be made that it is, and that it’s getting worse. But Congress can do something about it when it rewrites the tax code.

Just a few weeks ago, the Senate Finance Committee released more than 1,400 policy recommendations it had received. There’s one more it should consider: changing the rules on capital gains and stock options. Here’s why.

In the heady days following the end of World War II as the baby boomers were just emerging on the scene, American exceptionalism was at its zenith. AT&T, Chrysler, Ford, DuPont, GE, GM, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, RCA, Texas Instruments, Westinghouse, Xerox — the list is far too long to enumerate — were not only iconic corporate names, they were also powerhouses of research and development. The transistor, the laser, power steering, xerography, color TV, large-scale integrated circuits, high-speed computers and Teflon all trace their origin to industrial R&D of that era.

Read entire column

APS President responds to America COMPETES Reauthorization Act

APS President Sam Aronson responded to the recently introduced America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 with a letter to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee leaders, Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson, outlining the serious concerns APS has with the bill.

Press releases from both the Republicans and Democrats are available. The bill is set to be marked-up by the full committee at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, April 22, and will be live streamed.

Alabama students speak out about science funding

A group of students at University of Alabama-Birmingham recently made a video about the importance of federal science funding and how it is affecting their state. In the video, the students discuss the groundbreaking and interesting research they do, from understanding bone development in children to improving the understanding of industrial catalysis processes. Watch the video below and then tweet and share it with your friends!

The President’s FY16 budget request for DOE R&D: what you need to know

APS Director of Public Affairs Michael S. Lubell and Policy Analyst Mark Elsesser discuss the President’s FY16 budget request for the Department of Energy’s R&D programs, providing both a policy context and in-depth review of the numbers, as part of AAAS’s annual presidential budget report.

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“Star Trek” Consultant, Science Producer Communicate Value of Science during APS March Meeting

In an effort to continue a dialogue with APS membership about the critical need to communicate why scientific research is valuable to the lives of Americans, the APS Office of Public Affairs invited two television producers to discuss how popular science-based film can help underscore that message.

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In a session titled “Science Film: An Aperture into Science Advocacy,” Andre Bormanis, best known as the science consultant on the “Star Trek” series and Brandon Fibbs, a TV producer who most recently worked on the updated “Cosmos” series with Neil deGrasse Tyson, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio. Joint Quantum Institute Director of Communications Phil Schewe moderated the session discussion, and APS Vice President Laura Greene provided opening remarks.

The presenters’ key message: Storytelling can help scientists make the connection between breakthroughs in the lab and innovations that benefit the public.

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Scientists, said Fibbs, can advocate for their research by using examples in popular films. He underscored his point by showing selected clips from “Jobs,” “The Story of Louis Pasteur” and “The Imitation Game.” He stated that the public assumes many innovations come from the private sector, but they are actually products of federally funded scientific research. He added that if research disappears, the innovations that depend on the research will similarly disappear. He concluded by telling the audience that the public tends to form its opinions about science from popular films.

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Bormanis similarly provided examples from his own experience regarding how a well-crafted story can go a long way in making scientific research relevant to non-scientists. He urged the audience to find a connection – it can be humor or pragmatism, but it needs to be accessible to communicate science to non-scientists. He also used examples from the new “Cosmos” series to underscore his point, including the depiction of the story of astronomers William and Caroline Herschel and a personal story about how a German U-boat lens found its way into a telescope he purchased.

APS applauds President’s support of R&D in SOTU

APS commends President Obama for calling attention in his State of the Union Address to the importance of science, specifically for declaring that, “21st century business will rely on American science, technology, research and development.”

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Can a research bank help with science funding shortfalls?

In my recent Roll Call column, I write about a research bank that could shore up science funding shortfalls.

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Innovation in Action: The JWST

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PHOTO Credits:  Brian Mosley, CRA

APS and a coalition of science policy advocates recently took a trip to NASA Goddard to examine the progress of the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as well as other federally funded activities at the site.

As most people are aware, the JWST is intended to be the successor to the Hubble telescope; it is slated to launch in late 2018 and will embark on a five-year mission to find the first stars and trace the evolution of galaxies from their beginning to their current formation. It is, according to the 2001 decadal survey of the National Research Council, the top-priority new initiative for astronomy and physics — a telescope that will operate at 100 times the sensitivity of the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Picture above: David F. Mitchell, MAVEN Project Manager + Deputy Director, Flight Projects

The visit to the JWST was meaningful on a number of levels, not the least of which was to allow science policy advocates to see the fruits of their labors. OPA, along with our counterparts in organizations such as the American Institute for Physics, the American Astronomical Society and others in the science advocacy community, have worked hard to ensure that the JWST project continues to receive funding for a successful completion.

Our efforts were particularly important after a several members of Congress expressed concern about the project’s management, leading House Appropriations Committee Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Frank Wolf (R-Va.) to zero out its funding in 2011. OPA and others pressed Wolf on the importance of funding JWST, and along with needed management changes, that’s exactly what happened.

The telescope, more importantly, is a marvel of modern engineering and innovation. In fact, engineers and scientists at NASA had to invent a lot of the technology used in the JWST because it simply didn’t exist. Four patents have been issued as a result of the innovations driven by JWST construction.

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Pictured above: JWST clean room

For example, NASA created the Scanning Shack-Hartmann Sensor to accurately measure the shape of Webb’s mirrors during manufacturing; however, the sensor is now being used for measurement of human eyes and diagnosis of ocular diseases. It may even lead to improved surgery, allowing eye doctors to obtain detailed information about the shape of a patient’s eye in seconds rather than hours.

Another innovation prompted by the JWST was high-speed optical sensors. The project’s engineers needed to find a way to test mirrors and composite structures at extremely cold temperatures, the same at which they will operate in space. But, according to NASA, “with desired precisions of nanometers, vibration is a constant problem.” This led a Tucson, Ariz., company to develop several new types of high-speed test devices that utilize pulsed lasers that negate the effects of vibration. Not only did 4D technology help solve an important technical challenge for JWST, but its innovation created jobs and nearly $30 million in revenue from a vast array of applications within the astronomy, aerospace, semiconductor and medical industries. And to those who claim that private industry could have created these innovations less expensively, one can easily counter that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Had JWST not needed these technologies, private industry likely would not have had the impetus to invent them. In addition, their experimental nature would likely have been deemed too risky to ensure a payoff for stockholders.

Another Anti-Science Salvo Passes the House

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The U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills on Nov. 18 and 19 that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtains and uses scientific data and advice. Calling passage of the two bills “an insidious attack on the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect the health of Americans and the environment,” House Science, Space and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) decried passage of H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act, and H.R. 1422, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013.

Each bill passed the House in a largely party line vote.

H.R. 4012 would prohibit the EPA from issuing regulations “based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible. The legislation states that the EPA’s rules must reflect information that is available “in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” In reality, this means that the EPA cannot use “real world” medical research, much of which is based on patient data such as hospital admissions. Patient data cannot be made public, regardless of how critical a role they play in creating effective regulation.

In addition, the new rules promulgated in the bill would be expensive for the EPA to implement, effectively increasing the cost of each scientific study used by the agency for informing regulations. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the regulations would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 for each scientific study used by the agency. Given existing budget constraints, the legislation would effectively cut the number of studies the EPA could use by half, thus limiting new rules the EPA could impose.

A July 31 letter to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy signed by 43 scientific societies and research universities, including APS, conveyed their concerns about the bill: “The research community is concerned about how some of the key terms in the bill could be interpreted or misinterpreted, especially terms such as ‘materials,’ ‘data,’ and ‘reproducible.’”

H.R. 1422, passed by a 229-191 vote, would change the process of selecting members of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and the terms of office. Specifically, it would forbid experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their work because it is perceived by the author of the bill as a conflict of interest. It would also make it more difficult for scientists who have applied for EPA grants to join the board. It would, however, make it easier for scientists with financial ties to corporations to serve on the SAB.

During debate on H.R. 1422 on the House floor, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Stewart, “I get it, you don’t like science. And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”

Based on other bills being drafted by the House Science Committee, including the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (H.R. 4186), which assails the National Science Foundation’s peer review process, the passage of H.R. 1422 and H.R. 4012 indicates that the House Science Committee Majority will continue to target scientific research under the guise of transparency. In fact, departing Congressman Steve Stockman (R-TX) last week introduced H.R. 5718, entitled “The Stockman Effect Act” a bill to “study the effect of the Earth’s magnetic field on the weather.” The notion originates with Rep. Stockman himself, which he purports would call into question climate science. He is a legislator playing a scientist, but does not have any science credentials.

In the Senate, the retirement of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is not likely to spell the end of the silly-sounding science crusade given the ascendance of a Republican-led Senate next year.

The unhelpful legislative activity on science underscores the crucial need for scientists to become better at communicating the benefits of their research to the non-scientific public. Unfortunately, the days when scientific research was universally viewed as an unimpeachable public good are long gone; this recent activity requires scientists to respond to these latest challenges.

The APS Office of Public Affairs provides ample opportunity to facilitate members’ efforts to reach out to the public and to their members of Congress to help stem the anti-science tide. APS members can: visit their member offices in Washington, DC or in their home states or districts; they can become district advocates in targeted Congressional districts whose members play a role in decisions on science funding or in the setting of science policy at the federal level; and they can write OpEds in local or national newspapers or on-line publications. But no matter the instrument, scientists can no longer limit themselves to work in the lab; they must take action to ensure that anti-science rhetoric does not become enshrined in law.

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