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


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.

“Farewell Congressman Holt” becomes “Hello Dr. Holt”

Holt Reception 1

In a reception co-hosted by APS and AAAS, friends, colleagues and a broad swath of the scientific policy community gathered to bid farewell to physicist-turned Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) on Nov. 19. But, in an unexpected turn of events, the farewell also became a celebration; just the day before, AAAS announced that Rep. Holt would be taking the helm of its organization as CEO following the departure of Alan Leshner early next year.

Only the second physicist to be elected to Congress, Holt distinguished himself as a staunch supporter of many causes, but in particular, of science. And the packed room reflected that support. Members of Congress, his colleagues throughout his eight terms in the House, also came by to wish him well, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Science has no better friend… because he has been a relentless, persistent, dissatisfied advocate for science and science funding, and he knows of what he speaks,” Pelosi said. Fellow physicist and member of Congress Bill Foster (D-IL) opined that, with Rep. Holt’s departure from Congress, his workload would no doubt increase, underscoring the need for scientists in Congress: “You can hardly name an issue that does not have a technological edge to it. And there is no substitute to having someone in the cloakroom and say ‘Hey, what’s the deal with this?’”

Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) commented on the increasing politicization of and number of attacks on science in Congress “It amazes me at the contempt that some have for science, and it’s important for us to elect people like Rush to Congress, who will actually speak out and defend the fact that it’s OK to be smart [and] it’s OK to rely on smart people to give you the best guidance on how to proceed on certain things.”

Referring to the floor debate and ultimate passage of the Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 4012) that day, Holt underscored McGovern’s thoughts, noting that “[McGovern] never thought, nor did I think, that we would have to defend the very idea of science on the floor…I figured there would be arguments about misunderstandings of science… but the idea that empirically based, peer-reviewed work is the best path to reliable knowledge, shouldn’t be questioned. But it was even today.”

While Congress will be down a physicist at the end of the year, leaving Rep. Foster to carry the science torch, the science community gets to hang on to Holt. And, given the environment in Congress, he is likely to be even more effective in his new post at AAAS.

NSF sets gold standard for scientific research funding

The National Science Foundation — known as the gold standard for scientific research funding throughout the world – has unfairly come under fire by the House Science Committee. As staffers search for information about so-called frivolous grants (that actually have the potential to positively impact society), NSF has released an 84-page report detailing its merit review process as mandated by the National Science Board.
Grant proposals are evaluated by external experts and NSF program officers on the basis of two main criteria:
1) Intellectual merit
2) Broader impacts of the prosed research
And those grants have led to unimaginable innovations, including Web browsers, barcodes, fiber optics, Internet routers, Web search engines and Doppler Radar.
Among the report’s findings:
• An increasing number of fundable proposals are declined each year that were rated “very good or higher” in the merit review process. These declined proposals represent a rich portfolio of unfunded opportunities; proposals that, if funded, hold the promise of delivering substantial research and education benefit.
• Proposals submitted by and awards made to women have increased since FY 2005, although both are less than 25% of the total.
• The difference in success rates between early career principal investigators and later career principal investigators has declined.

Congress gets excited about Nobel

The Nob5433e88aa1d44.imageel Prize in Physics is making waves off the coast of Santa Barbara.  Rep. Lois Capps (CA-24), whose district includes University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), was delighted to learn that the Nobel Prize was awarded to one of her constituents. Capps released the following statement:

“Add Shuji Nakamura to the distinguished faculty at UCSB who have won the Nobel Prize. I am so proud of Dr. Nakamura for his work, which shows once again that UCSB is a premier university at the cutting edge of groundbreaking research. I congratulate Dr. Nakamura and his counterparts at Nagoya University in Japan, and look forward to seeing where his invention and innovation leads our society.”

Read more about the Nobel Prize in Physics:

U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo: Securing America’s Scientific Future

In APS’ latest edition of Capitol Hill Quarterly, U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo writes in an op-ed how various innovations trace their roots to federally funded scientific research, and why it is crucial that the U.S. make funding science a priority.


DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz addresses attendees of the National Lab Day on the Hill. Photo courtesy of US DOE.

The Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories are the source of numerous scientific breakthroughs, world-renowned experimental facilities and employers of Nobel Laureates. But, when it comes to understanding how these labs contribute to science, security and innovation, many members of Congress and their staff remain in the dark.

To shed some light on what the labs do, Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz fielded a “National Labs” day on Capitol Hill to showcase the exemplary work done at these facilities.

And it seemed to be a success.

The event, which occurred on Sept. 16 in the Senate, included lab exhibits, as well as a brief panel discussion moderated by Moniz. Others in attendance included National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus; former White House Science Adviser Neal Lane; and a number of senators, including some from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has authorizing jurisdiction over the labs’ budgets.

The event took place at a time when many are examining how to make the lab system more efficient and while others in Congress are proposing to cut lab budgets as part of a broader effort to address the national debt. However, as Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin underscored, the labs conduct research that the private sector does not, given the long gestation period until breakthroughs can arise. Simply put, if the federal government does not provide funding for fundamental research, no one will.

To help spread the word about the labs, Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), both of whom have labs in their states, announced the formation of a Senate National Laboratory Caucus, a counterpart to one established in the House more than a year ago.

However, the DOE Lab display, although credited to Secretary Moniz, is hardly the first of its kind. An organization formed by the National User Facility Organization (NUFO) has conducted four such exhibitions on the Hill for members and staff, the most recent one occurred in June of this year. NUFO continues to work with members of Congress and staff to help them develop a deeper appreciation for the role the national laboratory’s research facilities play in developing new technologies, pharmaceuticals, national security technologies and other breakthroughs that help fuel the American innovation ecosystem.

What keeps girls from studying physics and STEM

APS member Rachel Scherr, a senior research scientist at Seattle Pacific University, chronicles her trials and triumphs as a woman in the STEM field and makes the case for robust federal funding of science. Read the op-ed:

America COMPETES 2014: A Much Needed Reauthorization

Guest Blogger: Julia Gonski

rsz_jgonskiThe Senate recently released a draft bill to increase funding for a variety of national scientific organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and NASA, among others. For many researchers, students and educators across the country, this proposal is a breath of fresh air in a field that has been struggling with budgets cuts for years.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives has not been so understanding.

The legislation in question, known as the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014, was released by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 18. In May, the House was considering a bill tackling similar issues, but in a very dissimilar way.

To start, the numbers alone show a disparate perspective. The Senate bill proposes support for the NSF until 2019, culminating in an annual budget of $9.9 billion, whereas the House only offers a budget of $7.27 billion until 2015. Furthermore, the House mandates an additional step in the pre-existing peer review process for NSF grants, requiring NSF officials to certify that the funding is being used in an area of science which has “a substantial current or potential impact… on the State.” The House bill also includes language on misrepresentation of research results, details banning scientists from receiving support, and places ridiculous restrictions on how to cite your work when applying for a federal grant.

In short, the Senate bill treats science and scientists with vision, whereas the House bill treats them as untrustworthy individuals who need government oversight.

As a global power in the twenty-first century, we must recognize that scientific innovation will have substantial impact on the nation.   We now live in a world where words such as ‘quantum’ and ‘nuclear’ can be heard on national news networks, and where several of the most polarizing political issues in the past few years (think climate change, stem cell research, and weapons development) have been scientific in nature. Can we continue down a path that cripples scientists rather than empowers them to as the United States increasingly competes on the international stage?

Since its formal inception in 1950, the NSF has supported national defense; created the first national observatories in the age of Sputnik; and fostered good will in several international collaborations. In more recent decades, the NSF has been a foundation of research in materials and technology, helping to launch the vast American tech industry and cultivate economic benefit. It is the only national organization designed to encompass all fields of science, and it has facilitated great strides in each one.

In order to maintain this momentum, America must continue to provide opportunities in science to its younger generations. The statistics are ubiquitous and disheartening. According to a 2012 study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students consistently rank below average in mathematics performance, ranking 27th out of 34 countries. Furthermore, only 50 percent of students report that they are interested in studying math, indicating a lack of public awareness and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. If science is dominating the global dynamic, we need to put more effort into keeping up.

NSF has a variety of programs designed to tackle this issue, providing assistance to students and educators in all levels of schooling, while organizations like NASA frequently conduct outreach events designed to generate public enthusiasm. While both the Senate and the House encourage the perpetuation of such programs, only the Senate bill authorizes the NSF and the Department of Education to fund states wishing to create secondary schools devoted specifically to STEM education.

It is likely that this disagreement within Congress won’t be resolved before the November election, but it is a resolution that will have a significant impact on the future of science in America for years to come. If the nation wants to sustain economic and industrial achievement, while staying competitive in the global marketplace, the importance of science funding cannot be overlooked.


Just before leaving town for the August recess, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced S. 2757, a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act. Rockefeller, along with Committee colleagues Richard Durbin (D-IL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Christopher Coons (D-DE) and Edward Markey (D-MA) supported the bill.

In contrast to previous reauthorizations, this bill was introduced without any Republican co-sponsors. Rockefeller, who is slated to retire at the end of this year, has stated his intent to get COMPETES reauthorized before his departure. However, given the number of high-priority bills that await consideration on the Senate floor, including FY15 appropriations bills, the fact that Congress will only be in session for 12 legislative days before adjourning for the Nov. 4 mid-term elections, and that a lame duck session after the elections has not been determined yet, it is unlikely that S. 2757 will be addressed by the end of the session.

Even if the bill were to be considered before the end of the session, S. 2757 differs considerably, and in some cases dramatically, from the House Science Committee’s reauthorization bill, which means reconciling the two is also unlikely.

S. 2757 authorizes spending for NIST and NSF for fiscal years 2015 through 2019: For NIST, the bill’s FY 2015 authorization of $912.7 million is higher than the Administration’s request of $900.0 million. The authorization levels would increase by approximately 6.7 percent in subsequent years under the bill. NIST’s current budget is $850.0 million, which is an increase of 10.9 percent from the previous year.

The bill also authorizes $7,649.3 million for the NSF for FY 2015; by contrast, the Administration’s request was $7,255.0 million. NSF’s authorizations would also increase approximately 6.7 percent in subsequent years. NSF’s current budget is $7,171.9 million, which is up 4.3 percent from the previous year.

In addition to the authorizations, the bill also addresses the development of a science and technology workforce in STEM education provisions for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NSF.

Importantly, the Senate bill addresses head-on a number of policy matters that have been under scrutiny by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee majority, including the importance of social, behavioral and economic sciences, federal scientific advisory bodies in determining the R&D priorities of federal agencies, and the NSF merit review process. With regard to NSF merit review, the Senate bill states that “as evidenced by the Foundation’s contributions to scientific advancement, economic development, human health, and national security, its peer review and merit review processes have successfully identified and funded scientifically and societally-relevant research and must be preserved.” The bill also emphasizes the importance of participation in scientific and technical conferences,

S. 2757 also addresses the recommendations of a recently released National Science Board Task Force report on administrative burdens in federally sponsored research. Chaired by former APS President Artie Bienenstock, the task force recommended a number of measures to ease the administrative burdens of applying for NSF grants. Specifically, the bill proposes that the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy convene a subcommittee on research productivity under the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council, consistent with the intent to increase the productivity of federally sponsored research efforts. The subcommittee is directed to “develop and propose for adoption by the Federal science agencies, recommendations for reducing the costs and administrative burdens associated with competing for, completing, and reporting on Federal research grants.”


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