Senate echoes House support for DOE science
The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Energy & Water Development spending bill, approved in late May on a 30-1 vote, continues congressional pushback against the sharp Department of Energy (DOE) research and development (R&D) decreases recommended by the White House, with Senate report language referring to several of these cuts or eliminations as “short-sighted.”
Basic research programs fare particularly well in the bill, as they did in the House version adopted in mid-May. The Office of Science, DOE’s basic research arm, would receive $6.7 billion in Fiscal Year 2019, a 6.2% or $390 million increase above FY 2018. The figure is $1.3 billion above the White House request and would represent an all-time funding high if ultimately adopted. Most programs would receive at least moderate increases.
The biggest winner is the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program with a 21% increase above FY 2018. This includes a 13.5% increase for the Exascale Computing Project, as well as sizable increases for the Leadership Computing Facilities at the Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories and for the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. These figures are similar to those in the House bill, but even more generous.
The High Energy Physics (HEP) program is also a winner in the Senate bill, but mostly due to a major increase for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (which grew out of the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment). Funding for the project would rise to $145 million, compared with $95 million in FY 2018. The House appropriators had provided $175 million. Even so, HEP research funding would increase by 4.2%.
Nuclear Physics research, operations, and maintenance would be increased by 8.2% or $48.2 million above FY 2018, and $110 million above the White House request. This includes a 15% increase for the Stable Isotope Production Facility. The Gamma-Ray Energy Tracking Array project would receive $6.6 million, matching the House figure.
Basic Energy Sciences user facilities would receive varying increases, as would construction or upgrade projects for the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge, the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley, and others. The Senate bill would provide continuing funding, as requested, for the energy storage and artificial photosynthesis innovation hubs and the Energy Frontier Research Centers. Again, these figures are similar to, but more generous than, those in the House bill.
Biological and Environmental Research funding includes increases of around 4% for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and for the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement facility serving multiple laboratories. The Senate bill also includes $10 million for establishing a national microbiome database, which was encouraged in the House bill as well.
The exception to these increases is the Fusion Energy Sciences program. Whereas the international fusion project ITER would be held flat at $122 million in the Senate bill, domestic research activities would be reduced by $107 million or 26% below FY 2018 levels.
Compared with how it treats DOE’s basic science activities, the Senate approach to the department’s technology R&D programs is much more targeted. Overall funding for fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy R&D, as well as for energy efficiency R&D, would be held generally flat, though there would be a few notable increases (and some decreases). This contrasts with the House approach, which was more favorable to fossil and nuclear energy, though appropriators in both chambers clearly resisted White House-proposed cuts.
As in the House, the Senate committee rejected the administration’s effort to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Indeed, the Senate appropriators, unlike those in the House, would grant it a funding increase. It would receive $375 million in the Senate bill, a 6.1% increase to an all-time high.
Many programs and projects within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would remain flat or see limited change in the Senate bill, though wind energy R&D would be reduced by 13%. Senate appropriators adopted sizable increases for materials research for vehicles, for solar manufacturing innovation programs, and for R&D for residential and commercial building efficiency. The Critical Materials Hub and the Energy-Water Desalination Hub were both protected from elimination. Senate appropriators also protected DOE’s four manufacturing innovation institutes from termination and directed DOE to move forward in establishing the fifth and sixth institutes.
On the Fossil Energy front, the Senate bill includes very modest increases for most advanced coal and carbon capture R&D programs. It does, however, include an 18% increase to $55 million total for carbon storage infrastructure, including continuation of the CarbonSAFE program and the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership program. The Senate bill also includes $30 million for a design study of two commercial-scale carbon capture projects, but leaves out funding for a pair of transformational coal technology pilots. This funding was initiated in last year’s omnibus bill and would be continued in this year’s House bill.
Although the Office of Nuclear Energy would receive flat funding in the House bill, the Senate bill would give its R&D programs a $57 million increase, though offset by a decrease for the Idaho National Laboratory’s operations and infrastructure. The Senate bill includes a sizable 27% increase above FY 2018 levels for reactor concepts research, development, and demonstration, as well as a modest increase for fuel cycle R&D programs. Appropriators also protected the nuclear modeling and simulation innovation hub from elimination.
House advances defense spending, constrains environmental research
The House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2019 Interior and Environment spending bill on June 6. Under the bill, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget for science and technology would decrease by 8.9% rather than by the 40% called for by the administration.
Meanwhile, the US Geological Survey escaped the administration’s proposed 25% cut, instead seeing a 1.6% overall increase in the House bill. The committee rejected the administration’s proposal to downsize the survey’s Climate Science Centers and instead provided full funding for all eight existing centers. The appropriators would also continue to support the earthquake and volcano early warning systems, which were slated for elimination by the administration.
On June 8, the House adopted a so-called minibus—a package combining three separate FY 2019 spending measures on energy, veterans and military construction, and legislative affairs—on a rather partisan 235-179 vote. Republicans opted for the minibus strategy as an attempt to accelerate appropriations progress, which is supposed to be completed by October 1. The bill almost universally rejects the toughest provisions of the administration’s FY 2019 budget proposal. Elsewhere in the House bill, Veterans Affairs medical and prosthetic research would receive a 1.4% increase in FY 2019.
In a separate bill adopted in a closed subcommittee meeting on June 7, the House approved the FY 2019 Defense appropriations bill. According to the subcommittee’s summary, the bill would increase Department of Defense research, development, testing, and evaluation funding by roughly 3%, to $91.2 billion, in FY 2019.
NASA defends some programs, rethinks others
On May 23, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), James Bridenstine, testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the president’s FY 2019 budget request for the agency. Notably, Bridenstine said NASA was reconsidering two Earth Science missions slated for elimination by the administration: specifically, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder; and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite. Bridenstine voiced support for climate change research and reassured appropriators that NASA would closely evaluate the priorities of the recent decadal survey for Earth Science. When questioned about the delays and possible cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope, Bridenstine noted that any financial effects of those delays should be minimal in 2019 and that he was committed to completing and launching the telescope even if it exceeds the $8 billion cost cap set by Congress. He warned that NASA should avoid similar problems with the next astrophysics flagship mission, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, and should shift focus from flagship-class missions to smaller spacecraft in the future.
On May 16, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness held a hearing on the “Future of the International Space Station.” According to a news report in The Hill, “The administration has proposed ending funding for the space station in seven years, by 2025.” However, according to a NASA official, “the station is viable until at least 2028.”
Resource Prospector, the only moon rover currently in development at NASA, has been canceled, despite President Trump’s December 2017 directive to the agency to return humans to the moon. NASA provided no reason for the cancellation, but said that it is soliciting input to develop a series of progressively larger lunar landers to eventually culminate in a crewed mission, and NASA’s administrator said that instruments that were being developed for Resource Prospector will be used in the agency’s “expanded lunar surface campaign.” The canceled rover would have surveyed one of the moon’s poles in search of volatile compounds such as hydrogen, oxygen, and water that could be mined to support future human explorers; would have been the first mission to mine another world; and was seen as a stepping-stone toward long-term crewed missions beyond Earth.
Fretting about Chinese technology theft
In early June, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration held a hearing to discuss US visa policies regarding nonimmigrant Chinese graduate students coming to the United States to study science and engineering. The impetus behind the hearing was concern that China is exploiting US universities in order to obtain sensitive information. At the hearing, which included witnesses from the FBI, intelligence offices, and the Departments of Homeland Security and State, speakers confirmed that the administration would issue a new policy, effective June 11, to put a one-year time limit on visas issued to Chinese graduate students studying in specific fields such as robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing. Furthermore, targeted students would be subject to undefined “screening measures” before being issued a visa. A group of higher-education associations also submitted a joint statement to the subcommittee highlighting concerns regarding any new visa policies.
On June 8, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing to address Chinese market distortions stemming from intellectual property theft, patent infringement, and forced technology transfer, among other practices. At the hearing, Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School, argued that the United States must double down on basic research funding to stay ahead, and he urged the president to revive the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “We need a channel for more ideas and advice on how to secure our lead in science and technology, which ultimately drives our economic leadership,” Shih noted in written testimony. Graham Webster, a senior fellow at Yale Law School, warned against dubious national security justifications for limiting US-China scientific collaboration, arguing that the United States should remain an attractive place to study and conduct research.
EPA advisory board votes to review Pruitt actions
In late May, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board voted to conduct reviews of five of administrator Scott Pruitt’s biggest deregulatory moves as well as his science “transparency” proposal. The decision by the influential board, to which Pruitt appointed several energy industry and state Republican officials last year, is highly unusual and came after the EPA declined to answer in any detail the initial questions from board members about how the agency ensured that its proposals to undo Obama-era environmental rules were based on sound science.
Administration orders utilities to buy coal and nuclear power
In May, President Trump pressed for a quick regulatory bailout for struggling coal power plants in a move that would buoy the mining industry. The White House called on the head of DOE, Rick Perry, to take immediate steps to keep both coal and nuclear power plants running, backing Perry’s claim that plant closures threaten national security. An administration strategy to do that, laid out in a memo to the National Security Council, circulated widely among industry groups, but it was not clear that intervention could survive the inevitable political and legal challenges.
FDA files injunctions against stem cell companies
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked federal courts in Florida and California to issue injunctions against two stem cell therapy companies, following reports of patients being blinded by their treatment. If granted, the companies will have to stop operating. The FDA previously issued warnings to the two companies, but they were ignored. In a statement announcing the injunction requests, the FDA said the clinics are “exploiting patients desperate for cures” and, instead, in some cases “causing them serious and permanent harm.” Hundreds of stem cell clinics are operating in the United States, none of them with FDA-approved procedures, even though many researchers have urged the agency to take stronger action against them. The cofounder of one of the companies being sued says that the FDA has no authority over the clinics because the treatments they provide do not involve drugs, but rather use stem cells from patients’ own bodies, and that patients have a right to harness these cells. He has vowed to fight the injunction requests all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
NIH opens enrollment in All of Us
On May 6, the National Institutes of Health launched enrollment in the All of Us Research Program, an enormous precision medicine initiative that has been in planning stages for years. The aim of this ambitious program is to promote individual prevention and treatment for people of all backgrounds. The program is especially trying to connect with populations that have been historically underrepresented in biomedical research. The NIH has already enrolled 25,000 individuals, with about three-quarters coming from these target groups, and is trying to enroll at least one million participants for a yearlong beta test. Participants are asked to provide an array of information about their health and lifestyles, including data from online surveys and electronic health records. NIH has ongoing privacy efforts to make people feel comfortable sharing their health information, and it says that data from the program will be available only for research purposes.
NIH changes course on industry opioids partnership
In April, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, announced that NIH would not accept funds from pharmaceutical firms for opioid research. For nearly a year, Collins had touted an opioid research partnership, with industry and the taxpayers each contributing half for an initiative to conduct research on substance abuse and pain treatment. Collins took this action upon the advice of an NIH advisory panel. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on health, agreed with Collins’s decision, saying that accepting money from industry would be too “dangerous.” In the recent spending agreement, NIH was allocated $500 million for opioid research alone, although Collins said that this was not a factor in his decision, which stemmed from the advisory committee only.