“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: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/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 SHOWS OFF ITS LABS; SENS. RISCH AND DURBIN ANNOUNCE NATIONAL LAB CAUCUS

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: http://bit.ly/1oPEKXx

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.

SENATE COMPETES REAUTHORIZATION BILL INTRODUCED BEFORE AUGUST RECESS

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.”

Energy critical elements and, well, gravel

neodymium“Critical doesn’t simply mean important,” stated Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ-12th) in his opening remarks during the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources’ July 23 hearing titled “American Metals and Mineral Security: An examination of the domestic critical minerals supply and demand chain.”

So what does “critical” mean when discussing minerals legislation on Capitol Hill? Put simply, it depends on whom you ask. And its definition is impacting the fate of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

H.R. 1022 introduced by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA-15th) uses the term “energy critical element,” or ECE, coined by the American Physical Society (APS) and the Materials Research Society (MRS) in their 2011 joint report: “Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies.” ECEs are defined in the APS-MRS report and H.R. 1022 as elements that are essential to developing next-generation energy technologies and have a high risk of supply disruption; a shortage of ECEs could significantly hinder the large-scale deployment of otherwise game-changing energy technologies.

Swalwell’s bill aims to bolster the domestic supply of ECEs using a multi-pronged approach. The bill authorizes a research and development program focused on exploration, reuse, and recycling of ECEs and establishes an effort to collect, catalogue and disseminate information on ECEs across the supply chain.

Unfortunately, the definition of critical in Swalwell’s legislation – which only encompasses a small number of elements – appears to be too narrow for the more than 140 House Republicans who voted against the bill when it came to the floor July 22.

If H.R. 761 (Amodei, R-NV-2nd) is any indication, the House majority party prefers a much broader definition of critical. H.R. 761 passed the House in September 2013 with “strategic and critical minerals” broadly defined to include any minerals that are necessary for national defense, national security, the Nation’s energy infrastructure and the Nation’s economic security or to support domestic manufacturing, agriculture, housing, etc.

The contrast between the definitions is stark, and Rep. Holt shared his thoughts on the broad meaning of “critical minerals” in H.R. 761 during the July 23 hearing. Holt opined, “…It’s a meaningless definition. It ignores the other part of what makes a mineral truly critical. As the National Academy of Sciences has pointed out, a mineral is critical when it performs an essential function for which there is no substitute, and when there is a high probability of its supply being restricted…”

Holt continued, “Just to say a mineral is critical because it is important makes it impossible to tell the difference between neodymium and gravel. Neodymium is a rare-earth metal essential for wind turbines and hybrid vehicles, and we are hugely-dependent on China for that mineral as it stands now. Gravel is, well, gravel.”

With Swalwell’s bill failing to pass the House and H.R. 761 stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate, there is no clear path forward for legislation impacting the vast majority of critical minerals, regardless of how they are defined.

That said, one energy critical element, helium, continues to be an interest of many people. While the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 extends the lifetime of the Federal Helium Reserve until potentially 2021, many academic users currently struggle to procure reliable and affordable liquid helium, and there is no program planned for federal users once the reserve shuts down. In an effort to help current academic users, APS is partnering with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to create a pilot program aimed at improving liquid helium purchasing for academics. And Congress may already be looking to the future; Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-CO-5th) and Doc Hastings (R-WA-4th) recently introduced a discussion draft titled “American Helium Security Act of 2014” that, in addition to easing the permitting process, would also establish a royalty in-kind helium program to help mitigate the closing of the Federal Helium Reserve.

The APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) will continue to advocate for the policy recommendations put forth in the APS-MRS report on energy critical elements, which are centered on information, research and recycling. Additionally, OPA is administering the liquid helium purchasing pilot program with DLA and will continue working with Congress and the Administration on the issue.

Readers interested in learning more about the liquid helium purchasing program should contact Mark Elsesser (elsesser@aps.org) for more information.

House Passes Four Science Bills

The House of Representatives passed four bills on July 14 that originated in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Given that all four bills have bipartisan co-sponsorship, the action could temporarily quell the atmosphere of divisiveness that has recently characterized the committee’s work. The bills address administrative burdens for scientific investigators, STEM education, the impact of windstorms and international science and technology cooperation.

The first bill, titled Research and Development Efficiency Act (H.R. 5056), adopts the recommendations of a National Science Board Task Force on Administrative Burdens chaired by former APS President Artie Bienenstock. It was formed to solicit information from principal investigators (PIs) and to make recommendations. And based on that feedback, the legislation is expected to reduce the administrative burden on academic investigators. A Task Force report released on March 10, 2014, found that there is a substantial lack of consistency and standardization among agencies in all aspects of grants management, and that existing regulations are ineffective, create unnecessary work, or are inappropriately applied to research settings.

The report called for four principal recommendations:

  • agencies should focus on the science – that is, the peer review process and post-award oversight on merit and achievement;
  • there is a need to eliminate or modify ineffective regulations;
  • requirements should be harmonized and streamlined among various agencies; and
  • effective practices for university compliance with regulations should be promulgated. H.R. 5056 implements those recommendation and establishes a high level, interagency, inter-sector committee led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to review federal regulations affecting research universities. That bill passed in the House by voice vote.

The second bill, titled International Science and Technology Cooperation Act of 2014 (H.R. 5029), directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish a body under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to identify and coordinate international science and technology cooperation that can strengthen the domestic science and technology enterprise and support United States foreign policy goals. That bill passed by a vote of 346-41.

The third bill, titled STEM Education Act (H.R. 5031), broadens the definition of STEM subject areas to include related fields such as computer science, expands NSF’s informal STEM education activities and makes changes to eligibility requirements for the NSF’s Noyce Fellowship program to include applicants who do not currently have master’s degrees. Computer science is typically associated with STEM fields, though by codifying it, the competition for grants from NSF’s Education and Human Resources directorate will be amplified as a greater number of subject areas are eligible to apply, even as funding remains stagnant. H.R. 5031 passed by voice vote.

The fourth bill is titled National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act of 2014 (H.R. 1786) and reauthorizes the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program. The National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program was created in 2004 and must be reauthorized every three years.  The bill provides $21M in annual funding for the program which is focused on windstorm research and mitigation efforts.  H.R. 1786 passed by a voice vote.

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