Shutdown threatens science

A government shutdown will stop crucial scientific projects and delay new technologies, resulting in the loss of jobs for Americans.  Read Kenneth Rudinger’s column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outlining a few scientific achievements and why a shutdown threatens continued discovery.

Senate Passes Helium Bill: Action by September 30 Deadline Still Not Assured

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On September 19, the Senate took an important step forward in voting to pass a substitute amendment to H.R. 527, its version of a helium bill.  The vote, 97-2, underscored the fact that ensuring a continuous supply of helium from the Federal Reserve is not a partisan issue but an issue of national concern.

The legislative victory is the result of countless meetings, prodding and advocacy carried out not only by the APS, but also the hard work and dedication of a coalition of end users.  The end users, including those in the medical imaging and semiconductor communities, have formed a cohesive advocacy force that can take a lot of credit for the victory in the Senate.

But, it’s not over yet.

Until the House acts on the Senate bill, the clock continues to tick down to Sept. 30, at which time the Bureau of Land Management begins shutting down operations for the helium pipeline.  So, we need to keep the pressure on.  As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”

Cutting Science Funding Starves Future Generations

The United States needs to wake up to the following reality: It is in the process of undermining the foundation of future economic growth, which in no small measure depends on science, education and infrastructure.  Read my column in today’s Roll Call newspaper, outlining how the U.S. is losing its global scientific leadership.

Averting the Helium Cliff

Congress has just six legislative days to approve legislation preventing the shutdown of the federal helium reserve operated in Amarillo, Texas by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

It’s really a no-brainer.

Helium benefits Americans who need MRIs (it is necessary to operate the machines), and the crucial gas plays a major role in the fabrication of semiconductors produced by high-tech manufacturers such as Texas Instruments, Intel, Samsung, Siemens, Qualcomm and General Electric. It is also vital for conducting research in many scientific fields.

If Congress fails to pass legislation averting the reserve shutdown, a loss of helium could hurt jobs and the U.S. economy, delay MRI treatments and cripple scientific research.

Supporters of legislation, including scientific societies, high-tech industries and universities, recently wrote to House and Senate leaders, asking them to approve legislation and send it to the president before Oct. 1.

The smart thing to do is to get the legislation passed before it’s too late.

The following is the letter to House and Senate leaders:

Sept. 9, 2013

The Honorable John A. Boehner, Speaker of the House
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader
The Honorable Mitch McConnell,  Senate Republican Leader
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Speaker Boehner, Leader Pelosi, Leader Reid and Leader McConnell:

The undersigned companies and organizations, representing a broad range of U.S. industry and research entities that contribute to America’s economic and scientific leadership, request that Congress act urgently to approve legislation to secure the helium supply and send this legislation to the President before October 1.

Helium is an essential input into large number of manufacturing processes and a key material for the scientific research community, and a significant number of jobs, economic output, and exports from the United States depend on a continuous supply of helium. Helium is also critical to products and systems that support our national defense and homeland security, and it is needed to operate the thousands of MRI devices that play a key role in our health care system.

Congress must act immediately to avert a shortage of this essential commodity. Under existing law, the Federal Helium Reserve – a federal facility that provides approximately 50 percent of domestic supplies of helium – will no longer be authorized after October 7 to sell to private entities that help drive our economy. The House has overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill (H.R. 527), and the Senate is considering bipartisan legislation (S. 783). It is imperative that Congress act in advance of this deadline.

Science and Defense Suffer Due to Sequestration

As sequestration continues, so does the harmful effect it has on scientific research, which has led to numerous life-saving innovations, including armored vehicles that protect our troops from improvised explosive devices. Robert Freihaut, a former engineer with General Dynamics Land Systems, recently wrote about the important connection between science and America’s defense capability in the Detroit News.

Read the piece.

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After Higgs, physicists offer vision to unravel mysteries of universe

After nine days of intensive discussions at the University of Minnesota, nearly 700 particle physicists from about 100 universities and laboratories concluded nine months of work with a unified framework for unmasking the hidden secrets of matter, energy, space and time during the next two decades.

Read Press Release.

STEM Education has a place in immigration reform

Today, APS was one of 62 organizations that signed on to a letter urging the House to make support for STEM education a part of immigration reform.  You can read the letter here.

The House is currently considering the SKILLS Act, an immigration reform bill.  APS has no position on immigration reform, and the letter does not state any position on the specifics of the SKILLS Act; however, a clause for funding STEM education programs from H1-B visa fees was stripped from the SKILLS Act, and in the letter APS is supportive of reintroducing the clause.  APS recognizes that redirected fees from H1-B visas are a substantial boost to STEM education in the U.S.

The Senate bill already contains the clause stripped from the House version of the bill.

Commerce/Justice/Science Appropriations Update

The House and Senate Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies recently passed their respective appropriations bills, but they have yet to receive floor votes.  Even if the bills are passed by each chamber, they are so far apart that conferencing them seem unlikely at this time.

Request in Billions of Dollars

 

President’s Request

Senate

House

NSF

7.60

7.42

7.00

R&RA

6.20

6.01

5.68

MREFC

0.21

0.21

0.18

EHR

0.88

0.88

0.82

NIST Core

0.75

0.76

0.66

NIST STRS

0.69

0.70

0.61

NIST CRF

0.06

0.06

0.05

NASA Science

5.02

5.15

4.78

OSTP

5.66

5.66

5.45

The sharp contrast in appropriated amounts begins with the House and Senate budget committees. House appropriators are working under a total discretionary spending cap of $966B, with $414B for non-defense discretionary.  The Senate appropriators are working under a total discretionary spending cap of $1,058B, $91B more than the House.  Moreover, the $91B is entirely located in non-defense discretionary where Senate appropriators are working with $506B. 

For the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Senate appropriates a similar amount to President Obama’s budget request, though it is lower in Research & Related Activities (R&RA).  The Senate would provide $7.42B to NSF, $6.01B for (R&RA), $210M for Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC), and $880M for Education and Human Resources (EHR).  The Senate appropriations are a significant increase over the sequestered funding NSF received this year.  Additionally, the Senate appropriations bill includes language praising NSF for its “merit-reviewed, competitive process,” noting that companies such as Google got their start with an NSF grant. 

The House opted to stick more closely with the FY13 sequestered funding that NSF received.  Overall, the House bill would provide $7.00B to NSF, $5.68B for R&RA, $182M for MREFC, and $825M for EHR.  Of note is the fact that the House appropriations bill admonishes NSF and instructs NSF to “improve its ability to articulate the value and scientific merit of its research grants and explain the peer review process that results in research funding decisions.”  Such a statement from House appropriators speaks to a growing concern among House Republicans that the NSF is not appropriately stewarding taxpayer dollars, and that Congress may need to step in with greater oversight.  One example of increased oversight: House Science Committee Chair, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), recently sent a letter to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett requesting confidential information on five grants NSF chose to fund. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) appropriations did not contain language as ideologically divided as NSF, but still there are significant differences in funding.  The House bill would appropriate $609M for Scientific and Technical Research Services (STRS) and $55M for Construction of Research Facilities (CRF).  The Senate bill would appropriate $703M for STRS and $60M for CRF.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would receive similarly scaled funding from the House and Senate bills.  The House bill would appropriate $5.45B for OSTP and the Senate would appropriate $5.66B.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Office of Science is, again, similarly scaled in funding between the House and Senate.  The House bill would appropriate $4.78B for NASA Science and the Senate would appropriate $5.15B. 

What is worrisome is that science has long been a bastion for bipartisan effort.  A decade ago, Republicans and Democrats joined together to pass America COMPETES in a bipartisan effort.  These days, however, the bipartisan landscape is shifting toward partisanship. And the ideological divides mean that not only is another Continuing Resolution likely, but also that mission agencies must focus on winning political battles rather than overcoming scientific hurdles. 

 

Why Social Science Research Matters

Roll Call Commentary

By Michael S. Lubell
July 24, 2013

Social, behavioral and economic science research has become the punching bag for many conservatives. In February, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told an American Enterprise Institute audience, “Funds currently spent by the government on social science . . . would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.”

Cantor’s declaration echoed a call from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to defund the National Science Foundation’s SBE research programs. The senator finally won his two-year battle in March, when his colleagues adopted an amendment to the 2013 continuing resolution prohibiting the NSF from supporting political science research projects not certified as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Following on the heels of Coburn’s success, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, targeted five SBE grants for congressional scrutiny, with an implicit warning that the NSF directorate was out of favor with many of his colleagues.

The drive to eliminate SBE funding, which is likely to resurface when the NSF appropriations bill hits the House floor this month, is puzzling because lawmakers rely on the products of such research every time they run for office. They spend heavily on public polling that is based on social-science research. They use jobs data and gross domestic product forecasts that are based on economic research. And they base their messaging on the products of behavioral research.

In short, they are heavily invested in the very research they are slamming. And from that perspective, their attacks reflect badly on the high offices they hold.

With polls showing voters’ trust in government at a historic low, it is politically seductive to ferret out programs whose worth the public may not understand or whose outcomes may not fit neatly into party ideology. Targeting them for a quick journey to oblivion might allow incumbents to score points in the next election, but such attacks make for terrible public policy.

And that brings me to the troubling nature of the attacks. First a caveat: Decades ago, I chose physics over economics because I was uncomfortable with a soft science that was better able to analyze the past than predict the future.

I still harbor that prejudice. But years of work in both physics and politics wore away my sharp-edged bias, as I came to appreciate the vital nexus between scientific research and science policy. Eliminating SBE research would undermine that linkage.

Here’s why: Today, the federal government spends more than $65 billion a year on scientific research that industry can’t or won’t perform. Such support in years past spawned the Internet and e-commerce, the laser-enabled technologies that account for more than a third of the GDP, the guts of the iPad, reliable and efficient cars, our modern military machine and the medical diagnostic and treatment procedures we have come to take for granted.

Science can lay claim to the discoveries that underpin those applications, but policy informed by SBE research — from regulatory practices to taxation and trade — helped provide a level playing field on which American industry could thrive and from which the American consumer could reliably benefit.

Understanding complex systems, the essence of SBE research, is extraordinarily difficult but also enormously significant. Predicting how our military adversaries are likely to behave is as important as developing the next generation of weaponry. Forecasting how people living in tornado alleys are likely to respond to storm warnings is as important as improving the science of forecasting the weather. And projecting how the public is likely to use the health care system is as important as creating lifesaving drugs and treatments.

Despite such obvious benefits, critics of SBE programs have asserted that they provide few societal returns and are rife with examples of frivolous research. But there might be a more insidious reason for such opposition: a conviction that SBE research outcomes will not conform to conservative ideology.

Such reflexive behavior would not be unique: There are examples of office holders in both parties who cherry pick scientific results to validate their policies. Some Democrats who believe global warming is a serious threat have asserted that Superstorm Sandy was evidence of climate change, even though there is no credible scientific proof for such a claim. Some Republicans who believe the earth is only 9,000 years old have stridently rejected the entire body of astrophysics that quite conclusively shows the earth’s age to be about 4.5 billion years.

Science can and should inform policymaking, but it must never be the “tool” of policymakers. Elected officials who don’t make such a distinction don’t understand the essential nature of science. And their ignorance can harm us all.

Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.

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Helium Bills Inch Forward, Passage Not Assured

Efforts by Congress to improve the supply of helium to users, including the scientific community, is inching toward a conclusion after more than a year of intensive efforts by APS and other end users.  Without new legislation, the authority of the Bureau of Land Management to continue to sell helium ends when its debt is repaid on Oct.  7.  To prevent the consequential market disruptions and highly damaging effects on R&D, two congressional committees of jurisdiction — the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — have drafted legislation that must be passed and signed into law before the October deadline.

The House of Representatives recently passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527), which would establish an auction mechanism to permit the sell-off of the federal helium reserve, except for 3 billion cubic feet to be held back for federal use. The bill was approved by the House on April 26.  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved its version of the bill, The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 (S. 783), on June 18. The bills differ on a number of key points, including the pace at which the helium would be auctioned off.  The Senate bill slows the auction process down to allow for a longer transition to a market-based system.

Two critical steps remain until the bill reaches President Obama’s desk.

First, the Senate must consider S. 783 on the floor and vote on it either during the very few legislative days remaining before the August recess or when Congress reconvenes in September when it is likely to be consumed with avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year and addressing the debt ceiling. Despite op-eds and news articles that have warned of the looming problem, many members Congress do not appreciate the urgency of the helium legislation. Should that sentiment persist through the Oct. 7 deadline, there is a risk that more than 50 percent of the nation’s helium supply will be unavailable after that date.

The second crucial step is a House-Senate conference to resolve any differences.  The pace at which the auction of the helium occurs could become a stumbling block.

APS continues to participate in a small coalition of helium end users in the high-tech industry that has been working with Senate and House staff to ensure user concerns are adequately addressed in the proposed legislation.  APS has also been working to strengthen provisions related to the “In-Kind” program that benefits the research community.

APS-Related Helium Resources

Turner/Chan OpEd

Chan Letter

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