Author Archives: Michael J. Ford, Ahmed Abdulla, M. Granger Morgan

From the Hill


by

“From the Hill” is adapted from the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress, ­published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

Trump Budget Proposal: Gloomy, but Just a Proposal

A funny thing happened on the way to the White House 2019 fiscal year budget, which the Trump administration released on February 12, 2018: Congress adopted a sweeping deal to substantially increase the budget’s spending caps. The administration had originally planned a repeat performance of last year’s budget, according to documents posted to the White House Office of Management and Budget website. This would have included a cut of more than 20% for basic science, with massive reductions to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), among other agencies. The administration also again planned on targeting environmental science programs, applied technology research within the Department of Energy (DOE), and other such programs.

But with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 on February 8, Congress demonstrated (not for the first time) an unwillingness to move the budget in the direction preferred by the administration. Congress added $68 billion to the nondefense discretionary cap in FY 2019, whereas the administration had intended to cut nondefense spending by $65 billion, according to its official documents.

This left a gap of $132 billion between what the law called for and what the White House was planning to request. In response to events, the White House made a last-minute decision to add $75 billion back into its budget. From a science and technology perspective, those changes primarily directed spending back into the budgets for a few big basic science agencies: NIH, NSF, and the DOE’s Office of Science, allowing them to stay closer to flat.

As a result, the budgets for those agencies look far different in this year’s request than last year’s request. (See the chart for a side-by-side comparison of the administration’s FY 2019 and FY 2018 proposals.) Note that the NIH increase is accounted for by additional funding in the area of opioids and the (unlikely) consolidation of NIH with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research; many individual NIH institutes would see funding reductions under the administration’s plan.

Below are estimates of major features of the administration proposal. It must be noted that the administration has not produced a fully detailed budget, so the figures cited are drawn from a variety of sources.

Department of Defense. Defense science & technology funding would receive a small 2.3% increase over FY 2017, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency budget would get a larger 19.1% boost spread across several areas including electronics, information and computer technology, aerospace programs, and biodefense.

National Science Foundation. The total budget would be just slightly below FY 2017 enacted level, with the introduction of a new “10 Big Ideas” initiative but with a reduction in the number of new research grant awards.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The administration focuses the agency’s investments on space exploration and planetary science, but terminates several earth science missions as well as development of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

Department of Energy. The budget request keeps the Office of Science at FY 2017 levels with advanced computing the priority and again recommends elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and reductions in other technology areas.

National Institutes of Health. Most individual NIH institutes would see roughly 2%-3% decreases below FY 2017 levels, though the NIH total would rise with opioids-related funding and the consolidation of multiple other federal agencies within NIH.

Details on many agencies are still emerging and may not be fully available for some time. On the other hand, as the chart illustrates, several research and development (R&D) areas outside the basic research realm would again be targeted for steep cuts, and many of these are copies of proposals from last year’s budget. Examples include:

  • Elimination of climate research within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Support for only three of the eight Climate Science Centers within the US Geological Survey
  • Termination of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Termination of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant College Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve system

Congress appears to be on the verge of rebuffing many of these proposals for FY 2018, though final decisions on appropriations are yet to be determined.

Although the FY 2019 budget is ultimately a bit friendlier for many research programs, the White House could actually have gone further. Following the February 8 budget deal, the cap for FY 2019 stands at $597 billion—but the White House is recommending that Congress spend only $540 billion. That means the administration could have chipped in some extra funding to either roll back some of the reductions shown in the chart or increase investment in apparent priorities such as high-performance computing, cybersecurity, agricultural biotechnology, or other fields. Instead, the White House apparently decided that it would rather see that funding go uncommitted and unspent.

Of course, Congress may have no such qualms spending the money it has given itself. But before it can address FY 2019 spending, it must first finalize FY 2018 spending. Those negotiations may provide some clues into what Congress will do regarding FY 2019.

American Innovation and Competitiveness Act hearing

On January 30, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation convened a hearing on implementation of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), passed in the final days of the Obama administration. The AICA was the bipartisan compromise bill that emerged from dueling attempts at reauthorizing the landmark America COMPETES Act, which set ambitious budget-doubling goals for NSF and NIST, among other things; by contrast, the AICA authorizes 4% funding increases at both agencies. This funding level was scrutinized by the committee, which noted that China is now the world’s second-largest R&D funder, according to newly released data in NSF’s Science & Engineering Indicators report.

Noting tightening budgets and intensifying global competition, the committee discussed measures that NSF and NIST are taking to meet performance targets outlined in the AICA legislation. NSF Director France Córdova updated the committee on several foundation priorities, including increasing transparency and accountability of the merit-review process, strengthening management of multiuser facilities, and broadening STEM education and the I-Corps program. She also highlighted a foundation policy being renewed aimed at streamlining and reducing regulatory burdens for researchers. NIST Director Walter Copan discussed continuing efforts in cybersecurity research set forth in the institute’s Cybersecurity Framework and plans to increase laboratory work in the areas of bioeconomy, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things. He also expressed satisfaction with the AICA-mandated cost-share and re-competition guidelines for Manufacturing Extension Partnership Centers. Overall, Copan stressed that NIST could be doing more to facilitate technology transfer, his specialty. In lieu of giving formal testimony to the committee, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy provided a letter outlining the administration’s response to the AICA.

HHS Secretary Azar backs gun violence research

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he is encouraging federally funded research on gun violence, despite an amendment that Congress attached to a spending bill in 1996 that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” Following passage of that amendment—which the National Rifle Association supported—Congress lowered the CDC’s budget by the exact amount it had been spending on such research, a move that has had a chilling effect on gun violence research for the past two decades. In 2016, more than 100 medical societies signed a letter asking Congress to lift the amendment, and following the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Obama signed an executive order directing NIH to fund research into gun violence, though that program has since ended. Azar told the committee, “We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention.”

USGS officials resign over confidential data request

Two senior US Geological Survey officials have resigned following a request by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that they provide him with data on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The officials who stepped down said the request violated the survey’s scientific integrity policy that sensitive and potentially commercially valuable information was not to be shared prior to its public release. A spokesperson for the Interior Department said its Solicitor’s Office had determined that the secretary has the right to review data, draft reports, or other information that he deems necessary. The officials who resigned are Murray Hitzman, associate director for energy and minerals, and Larry Meinert, acting deputy associate director for energy and minerals. Meinert said that he was already planning to retire but that this incident spurred him to retire now. He added that he had no reason to believe that either Zinke or any of his deputies planned to use the information for personal gain.

Senate fails to pass immigration bill

The Senate failed to reach consensus on immigration reform, including legislation to set a path to citizenship for individuals covered under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A bipartisan measure proposed by Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Angus King (I-ME) that included language to provide legal status to individuals covered under DACA and funding for a border wall failed to reach the requisite 60 votes to pass that chamber without a filibuster. A counterproposal sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that reflected the president’s position would have included DACA protections and funding for a wall, but also included more controversial policies such as the elimination of the diversity lottery visa and chain migration policies. The Grassley proposal also failed to pass the Senate, leaving the future of DACA recipients in limbo. Both the House and Senate claim they will continue to consider immigration legislation, but time is running out. Meanwhile, a second district court moved to block the termination of the DACA program, which was set to expire in early March.

Higher education groups express concern over Prosper Act

More than 35 higher education organizations, including the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education, sent a letter to the leaders of the US House of Representatives expressing concerns about the PROSPER Act. The act is a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and would make changes to loan repayment, scholarship, and other financial aid programs. The higher education groups warned that the legislation could “undermine the ability of students to afford and attend college.”

EPA’s Pruitt recaps first year

On January 30, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testified for more than two hours before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works—his first appearance before the committee since his confirmation hearing in January 2017. Committee Republicans praised the dramatic changes in policy at the agency under Pruitt’s leadership, while Democrats zeroed in on ethics issues under Pruitt’s tenure at an agency that in the past year has been accused of discrediting the role of science and intimidating career employees who appear not to agree with the Trump administration’s agenda. During questioning, Pruitt explained his policy for prohibiting EPA-funded scientists from serving on EPA advisory boards and councils as necessary to keep up the “independence of the review with respect to the integrity of that process,” and he evaded questioning from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on why three EPA scientists were instructed not to present their climate research at a conference on the Narragansett Bay in the fall. At the end of the hearing, Pruitt stated that his proposed red team/blue team exercise on climate change is still “under consideration” and that public reports that the White House has asked the agency not to move forward with the exercise are “untrue.” The New York Times reported on March 8 that there would be no such public debate.

Federal agencies develop toxicity testing road map

Sixteen federal agencies have partnered to develop a strategic road map for testing the safety of drugs and chemicals, saying the plan aims to “provide more human-relevant toxicology data while reducing the use of animals.” The road map was developed by the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods, which focuses on the development of toxicological testing methods that replace, reduce, or refine the use of animals, and it was published by the National Toxicology Program, part of NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Trump endorses right-to-try bill

In the State of the Union address, President Trump expressed his support for a so-called right-to-try bill, which passed the Senate in August 2017 but stalled in the House. The bill would allow terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs if they have exhausted all other options. In 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that there is no constitutional right to experimental drugs that might only worsen a patient’s condition. Since then, several states have passed their own right-to-try laws. In 2009, Congress expanded the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to allow patients access to experimental drugs when there is no clinical trial available. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) expanded access policy guarantees a patient a response to a request within 24 hours—with a 99% approval rate, according to FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb. The policy requires that the drug must have shown “sufficient evidence of safety and effectiveness,” which usually means relying on data from Phase III trials or very compelling evidence from Phase II trials. Given the FDA’s expanded access policy, it may be unnecessary to adopt federal right-to-try legislation.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 3 (Spring 2018).

Forum


by

Helping fathers be parents

The law is evolving in response to behavioral science. If Criminal Law 1.0 was capital punishment for all felonies and mutilation of offenders, and Criminal Law 2.0 meant due process, public defenders, and “humane” incarceration, we are now implementing the more effective Criminal Law 3.0—restorative justice practices, treatment courts for a growing range of offenders, and probation officers trained in “motivational interviewing”—which essentially asks what do you want to accomplish in this probation and how can we help you?

Kathryn Edin’s field research has educated us all about unmarried parenting and poverty. Now she is using her knowledge of life on the ground to give us the most comprehensive program I have yet seen for Child Support 3.0, and her ideas are clearly presented in “Child Support in the Age of Complex Families,” (Issues, Winter 2018).

A wise friend, a psychologist, once told me, “The normal response of a healthy adult when faced with coercion is to resist.” The truth of this statement has been borne out to me time and time again over 20 years on the bench. By the time I have to order someone to do something, the battle is just about lost. Far better to ask, What do you want to accomplish at this point in your life and how can we help you? This approach, soundly grounded in behavioral science, undergirds the 3.0 wave of legal processes.

It is not just the court system that is following behavioral science to develop the wave of “3.0” versions. Consumers now can easily research any medical condition, and doctors are finding that issuing “doctor’s orders” is less effective than asking people about their health goals and pointing out the tools to accomplish them. My wife is a psychologist, and the continuing education brochures I keep seeing in our mailbox advocate mindfulness training for every variety of mental distress from anxiety to addiction to pain.

Business too, always on the lookout for effectiveness, is well into the 3.0 wave. Bottom-up engagement is proving more successful than top-down commands. I just finished reading the book about the fabulous success of Bridgewater Capital, Principles, in which the author, founder Ray Dalio, keeps coming back to his fundamental principle of “radical truth and transparency.”

The Co-Parent Court Edin uses to illustrate the value of empowerment and respect was started because some of us in Minneapolis were dissatisfied with the Child Support 2.0 process that summoned droves of young men into court to tell them, “Congratulations, you are the father. Here is your child support order.” We suspected it would be much more productive to ask them what kind of father they wanted to be and how could we help.

The carefully evaluated results demonstrate that behavioral science applies to parenting just like everything else. My biggest fear in starting the program was that people would blow us off—they just wouldn’t come. Instead, in a highly unstable population, two-thirds of the parents completed the workshops. And I worried that we would push troubled people together and just foment conflict. Instead, most of the parents worked out comprehensive parenting plans together. Just as Edin predicted, the vast majority of the low-income men I encountered, despite all the employment, health, housing, and legal issues in their lives, very much wanted to take pride in being good fathers. We just empowered and respected them.

The motivation behind Child Support 2.0—formal legal processes to try to coerce men into being responsible fathers—was always admirable. But now we just know better.

By the way, Edin mentions in passing the “withering” of the current welfare (TANF) system, which is based on version 2.0 sanctions to coerce work. What would Welfare 3.0 look like? How about asking a parent what do you want to accomplish for your family in the next year and how can we help you financially to do it?

Bruce Peterson

Judge, Fourth Judicial District

Hennepin County, Minnesota

 

Fostering economic growth

Robert Solow famously developed the field of growth economics by demonstrating that what he termed technological and related innovation was the dominant causative factor in economic growth. Only 211 years after publication of the iconic Wealth of Nations, Solow in 1987 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for finally identifying the long-invisible monster in the economics room: a demonstrated theory of economic growth. But there was a catch-22 imbedded in his efforts; he found that economic growth was “exogenous” to the approaches of his still-dominant economic school of neoclassical economics. The elements and variables behind innovation were simply too complex to fit within more simplistic, metrics-driven neoclassical theories. Of course, an economics school without a functioning theory of growth appeared entirely unacceptable to many, and a group of “New Growth Theory” economists, led initially by Paul Romer, worked to make growth theory “endogenous,” to put it into an analytical, neoclassical box. But this has proven to be a very hard problem, and economists have gone off on more manageable projects such as behavioral economics.

Gregory Tassey remains one of the small number of card-carrying economists still pursuing economic growth policy. His succinct article “Make America Great Again” (Issues, Winter 2018)—which is more of a cri de coeur—lays out an analysis of the failure of the past decade of national economic policy, particularly the past year of it, to focus on the underlying necessities for renewal of American economic growth. As he notes, the nation’s economy has been beset with low growth—and behind that is low productivity growth and behind that is low investment in capital plant, equipment, and technology. This low growth is breaking us apart: there is a dramatic increase in income and asset inequality and a declining middle class in a nation founded on the ideas that everybody gets better, the next generation is better off than the last. This economic success has been at the heart of America’s democratic experiment. But now we seem to be systematically striving to leave our working class behind by failing to advance a broad-based, innovation-based growth agenda that might create the societal resources that could put them ahead again.

Tassey finds fault with the political parties, neither of which seems to “get” the basics of the growth economics that he lays out. How did the political parties completely miss growth economics? As John Maynard Keynes famously wrote, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Our political parties appear to have locked-in long ago on classical economics. The politics of each is organized around one of the two dominant factors that classical economics thought (wrongly) was behind growth: capital supply and labor supply. Republicans have focused on capital supply, with its leaders returning again and again to the popular political well of lowering marginal tax rates. Democrats focus on labor supply: improving education, health, and income in labor markets. Neither of these are bad pursuits; they are still significant. But they miss the monster in the room that Solow and Romer—and Tassey—want us to understand: technological innovation and its role in technology-driven growth.

In 2005 the economist Benjamin Friedman’s noted book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, showed from international studies that periods of higher economic growth tend to be accompanied historically by more tolerance, optimism, and egalitarian perspectives, while periods of declining economic growth are characterized by pessimism, nostalgia, xenophobia, and violence. Today, though the American upper middle class is doing fine, the remainder, as Tassey’s data indicate, has been in decline. Unless growth agendas such as Tassey’s are followed, we’re in for a difficult time; we now are seeing that the social externalities of economic well-being are affecting the American working class.

William B. Bonvillian

Lecturer at MIT

Author (with Peter L. Singer) of Advanced Manufacturing, The New American Innovation Policies (2018)

 

Coal facts

In “President Obama’s War on Coal? Some Historical Perspective” (Issues, Winter 2018), Charles Herrick offers some helpful insight, but he misses a key set of developments. In 1987, Congress passed the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act, repealing an existing federal ban on the use of natural gas for new power generation—a ban that had been instituted in part to promote coal. This repeal, combined with natural gas price deregulation, the advent of wholesale electric competition, improvements in gas generation technology, and finally the onset of unconventional gas exploitation through fracking, opened the floodgates for inexpensive natural gas-fired power generation. Today, natural gas fuels over a third of US power generation, roughly equal to coal’s share, which is down from roughly 50% a decade ago.

In short, this is largely a story of market forces and technical innovation, not regulation, much less a “war on coal.” An April 2017 report by the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy titled “Can Coal Make a Comeback?” found that competition from natural gas accounts for about 50% of coal’s erosion in the past decade; another 26% comes from lower than expected energy demand that reduced headroom for the more-expensive-to-operate coal plants; and about 18% stems from wind and solar, which steadily improved in cost and performance over this period, aided by federal tax policies supporting research and development. (The same market forces have challenged US nuclear power generation, but no one complains of a “war on nuclear.”) In contrast, the Columbia study found that less than 10% of coal’s loss was due to environmental regulation of harmful air pollutants—regulations, by the way, that have already saved tens of thousands of lives, reduced neurological damage to children, reduced ecosystem damage, and improved visibility. As for prospective regulation, most analyses of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan have concluded that much of the anticipated emission reduction would already be achieved due to these ongoing trends; the rule simply locks in and makes enforceable these early reductions.

Beyond the Clean Power Plan, in a world more constrained by carbon, coal can continue to play a role by adopting carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technology—at both new plants and as retrofits on existing coal-fired plants. CCUS technology has been commercially demonstrated in Texas and Canada. Congress, with the support of a broad coalition of environmentalists and industry, recently approved tax credits for CCUS projects roughly equivalent in value to the wind production tax credit.

Though some people may find it convenient to blame regulation for the problems of the US coal industry, free markets and American ingenuity are the real culprits, if that is the word. If coal is to have a significant future, more technical innovation is essential.

Armond Cohen

Executive Director

Clean Air Task Force

Boston, Massachusetts

 

Coal is abundant, with America possessing a 200-400-year supply, and is more reliable and less expensive than every other source of electric power except natural gas. Competition with natural gas plants is the primary reason why many coal-fired power plants have recently closed or are slated for early retirement. But if one is concerned about price volatility, coal beats natural gas in many instances as a long-term fuel source because its price is less prone to rise or fall in response to weather or surging demand from alternative uses. Coal can compete under fair conditions.

Charles Herrick’s article indicates that he believes it misleading to call former President Obama’s actions vis-à-vis coal a “war on coal.” I disagree. Nearly a year into his presidency, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an endangerment finding ruling carbon dioxide, the gas plants need for life and every human and animal exhales, a danger to human health or the environment. Never before had EPA found a naturally occurring chemical dangerous at levels that have no toxic effect. During his tenure, Obama also successfully pressured Congress to increase the subsidies to wind and solar power plants and directed agencies such as EPA to expand their regulatory authority to tighten regulations on coal-fired power plants. Combined with competition from natural gas, these regulations and subsidies caused the premature closure of more than 250 coal-fired power plants nationwide.

President Donald Trump is in the process of reversing many of these policies by withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement and rescinding the Obama era clean power plan. However, additional federal and possibly state actions are required to fully level the playing field and provide electric utilities with coal-fired generating units some degree of confidence that they will be allowed to compete fairly in the marketplace and thus should keep vital power plants open.

Ultimately, Congress should eliminate all energy subsidies. Absent subsidies, wind and solar power would largely disappear from the marketplace, being less reliable and more expensive than other sources of power. Coal, hydropower, natural gas, and nuclear power would thrive, competing solely on the basis of reliability and price, rather than government favors. This action would also strongly encourage state legislators to repeal renewable energy mandates. Absent generous federal subsidies and tax credits, electric power users would have to pay the full costs for renewable power. The result would be a dramatic increase in the price of power in states with renewable mandates. The howls of outrage over the price shock would likely cause state legislators to repeal renewable mandates.

Most important, Congress should bar the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide emissions unless and until it adopts a law specifically regulating carbon dioxide by name.

Sterling Burnett

Senior Fellow

The Heartland Institute

Arlington Heights, Illinois

 

Reinvigorating nuclear energy

In “How to Reinvigorate US Commercial Nuclear Energy” (Issues, Winter 2018), Steven Aumeier and Todd Allen make a compelling and timely case about the importance of the nuclear energy sector in the United States and why it should be encouraged.

A broad range of imperatives—including national commitments to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions and the need to meet growing energy demands, diversify energy supplies, ensure long-term price stability, and conserve land and natural resources—are driving an increasing number of countries to embark on nuclear energy development programs. Unlike during the 1970s and ’80s when the first global wave of nuclear construction took place, there are now multiple alternatives to US suppliers and several nations to which aspiring nuclear programs can turn to acquire civilian nuclear reactor technology.

Two nations in particular, Russia and China, have demonstrated their intent to employ nuclear energy exports as a means of expanding and strengthening their global influence. As Aumeier and Allen show, these nations are pursuing aggressive nuclear export strategies because they understand the long-term influence that comes from building a nuclear power plant in another nation. A nuclear plant is an extremely long-lived piece of energy infrastructure, designed to operate for 60 to 80 years, possibly more. So when a country sells a nuclear reactor to another nation, that transaction marks the beginning of what can be a century-long relationship. And the relationship is not just a commercial one; as I saw firsthand when I led the US Department of Energy’s nuclear energy program, bilateral relationships forged through commercial nuclear energy span a wide range of areas including education, training, safety regulation, environmental protection, physical and cyber security, and nuclear nonproliferation. These relationships lead to the types of long-term alliances that have been the hallmark of US global leadership.

As Aumeier and Allen demonstrate, there is no question that the best outcome for the US economy, national security, and global standing is for the United States to reestablish itself as the nuclear energy supplier of choice in burgeoning markets in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Given that the private US companies pursuing global nuclear energy opportunities are competing against state-owned enterprises, the US government must concern itself with helping US firms compete—by expanding investments in clean energy research, development, and demonstration to ensure that the nation retains its place as the leader in nuclear energy innovation; by restoring a functional export credit agency; and by creating opportunities for US firms through government-to-government agreements. And finally, the nation must preserve its nearly 100 domestic commercial nuclear reactors. Keeping these reactors running isn’t just a crucial step in preserving America’s largest source of carbon-free electricity generation. The decades of safe, efficient, and reliable operation of these reactors have set the global standard for nuclear power operations. The United States will not be seen as a credible global nuclear leader if it allows this domestic nuclear fleet to atrophy.

John F. Kotek

Vice President for Policy Development and Public Affairs

Nuclear Energy Institute

Washington, DC

 

Steven Aumeier and Todd Allen make a timely and convincing case for the need to reexamine the present export rules and regulations toward China that impede US industry in competing in the global nuclear energy market.

Clearly, the dwindling domestic market will not be able to support a robust nuclear industry. It is also arguable that from a national security perspective, the United States needs to maintain a viable civilian nuclear industry to retain its influence in the nonproliferation arena.

BP Energy has projected that over the next 20 years three-quarters of the new nuclear reactors built will be in China. China has 36 operating plants today, but the number will double in 20 years, and by 2050 China will have over 100 plants, the largest operating fleet in the world.

Currently, the United States still has the most sought after advanced technology, but US nuclear exports to China have been severely curtailed by federal export regulation called 10 CFR Part 810. The Part 810 approval process can take more than 300 days, according to a recent study by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

The 810 regulation was instituted in the 1950s mainly for nonproliferation purposes when the United States was the only exporter of nuclear power. Today, US competitors include France, Russia, Canada, Korea, and China. Importantly, it is generally recognized that the widespread use of light-water reactor (LWR) technology globally has not created a corresponding proliferation threat. On the contrary, the countries that adopted US civilian nuclear technology have less of a tendency to pose a proliferation threat amid continuous engagement with the United States.

The export regulation toward China has been inconsistent. While the US government has granted permission for the transfer to China of the most advanced technologies—such as Gen III+ reactors, AP1000 reactors, traveling-wave reactors, and molten salt reactors—China is still subject to more stringent review with a case-by-case specific authorization on all commercial activities, large or small. Other countries competing with the United States do not impose the same scrutiny and restriction on China.

It is time for the United States to adopt a coherent export policy toward China. The two nations must build a stronger and trustworthy bilateral relationship in the civilian nuclear program to help ensure continued nonproliferation engagement.

The United States is running the risk of being a lame duck in the sphere of nonproliferation if it stays on its current course regarding nuclear export policy toward China. It is time for the United States to modernize its export control to reflect the world market reality. In this light, the United States should designate China the same as other recipient countries with which it has Section 123 agreements. (Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires an agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the United States and any other nation.) The United States could grant general authorization for LWR technology export to China that has no implication on proliferation concerns.

The days are gone when the one who provides the ball for the game can dictate the rules, because now there are many other balls available. The United States may still have the best ball around, but before long it will be standing on the sidelines unless it focus on how it can stay engaged today.

P. Lau

President

Fraser Energy Consulting LLC

Oakville, Ontario, Canada

 

Climate and character

In “Character and Religion in Climate Engineering” (Issues, Fall 2017), Forrest Clingerman, Kevin J. O’Brien, and Thomas P. Ackerman make a strong case that religion, particularly virtue ethics, can substantially contribute to the debate about whether and how to conduct geoengineering research. They argue that focusing on character, particularly virtues such as responsibility, humility, and justice, can help guide such decision-making. I agree that more attention to character evaluation and development is needed in American political life in general and in the assessment of geoengineering in particular. Yet I am concerned that the individualism of American culture will hinder the implementation of their suggestions unless even more attention is paid to the virtues of institutions and communities alongside those of individuals.

Discussions of character in American popular discourse focus almost entirely on virtuous individuals. Whether as part of famous moral exemplars (Martin Luther King Jr., Lois Gibbs) or news stories about whistle blowers, individuals rather than institutions or communities receive the attention. Certainly, individuals are important agents of change, but overemphasizing them can hinder ethical decision-making and action. It is too easy to see the virtuous person as a saint or superhero rather than as someone in whose footsteps we regular people can follow. It is tempting to wait for the as-yet-unidentified virtuous leader to rescue us rather than figure out how we can act more virtuously ourselves. Though Clingerman and his colleagues do not advocate this extreme individualism, I worry that readers may go down that path.

To counter this possibility, we can look to two other features of religions. First, they are practicing communities in which, at their best, they offer moral support and training, both informal and institutional, in the development of their members’ virtues. Individuals are not virtuous on their own. Thus, while an individual may provide insight about geoengineering, we should not wait for such a moral exemplar, but should foster the virtues together so that we might support each other in this difficult decision-making.

Religious communities also develop a collective character in which they work to uphold virtues as a group. Similarly, decision-making bodies about geoengineering should develop both policies and a culture that uphold virtuous decision-making and action. Focusing on those virtues discussed by Clingerman and colleagues, we can ask whether organizations focused on research, policy-making, or implementation of geoengineering are willing to take responsibility for the potential and actual effects of their actions. Do they create a culture in which everyone can rise to the occasion, creatively identifying and solving problems, or do they encourage buck-passing, micromanaging, or dictatorial style decision-making that erodes responsibility? Are they humble about the limits of their knowledge and power as an organization? Do they strive for justice within and outside of their organization? Developing methods of cultivating organizational virtues is outside the scope of this short response. Looking to the theory and practice of religions as well as that of businesses, governments, and nonprofits can enhance the virtues necessary for making decisions about geoengineering.

Sarah E. Fredericks

Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics

University of Chicago Divinity School

Cite this Article

"Forum." Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 3 (Spring 2018).

From the Hill


by

“From the Hill” is adapted from the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress, ­published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

The never-ending budget debate

The House of Representatives and the Senate spent most of 2017 turning the annual budget process on its head, with the result that at the end of December there is no official budget for fiscal year (FY) 2018, which began October 1.

The annual budget resolution is intended to be the mechanism by which Congress establishes the overall spending framework within which the appropriations committees are supposed to operate when distributing funds to specific agencies and programs. The budget resolution is supposed to be completed by April 15, before the appropriations process really gets going. But this year, for a variety of reasons, the budget committees that draft these resolutions punted the work until much later. The House Budget Committee didn’t approve its budget plan until July, and it wasn’t approved by the full House until October. The Senate approved its significantly different budget resolution in October. Unable to reach final agreement, Congress was forced to approve a series of continuing resolutions that were necessary to keep the government operating in the absence of an approved budget. The most recent continuing resolution was passed December 22 and lasts until January 19, 2018.

The lack of a final budget resolution didn’t stop appropriators from trying to do their work. In fact, the House completed its annual appropriations, approving all 12 bills on schedule before the end of September. The full Senate failed to pass a single spending bill, but the Senate Appropriations Committee did produce its spending recommendations by early December. At this stage, the House appropriations differ significantly from the administration’s requests, and the figures from the Senate Appropriations Committee differ from both the administration and the House levels. But until there is a budget resolution that establishes overall spending levels, neither the House nor the Senate numbers can be considered final, so the two chambers cannot begin reconciling their differences.

The reality is that neither plan does much to resolve the major issue of the day for science and technology (S&T) funding where the current spending caps will end up. Under current law, the statutory caps on both defense and nondefense spending, which have been in place since 2011, are slated to decline by about one-half a percentage point below FY 2017 levels. The Senate budget resolution simply adopts the current caps, but Senate appropriators chose to ignore the scheduled decrease for FY 2018 and wrote their spending bills to the FY 2017 limit instead. The Senate budget numbers are functionally a placeholder, pending a deal to raise the spending caps later. If Congress does not vote to raise the budget ceiling, the Senate spending numbers would be subject to across-the-board reductions under the sequestration rules.

On the House side, appropriators remained within the limits for nondefense spending established in the budget resolution, but they approved defense spending that far exceeds the cap. The defense spending cap is unlikely to be raised because that would require 60 votes in the Senate, and Democrats are unlikely to go along with that. Thus, the House defense appropriations would be reduced according to sequestration rules.

The budget debate will pick up again in mid-January, when the continuing resolution expires, and Congress will again face the necessity of arriving at a budget deal. In the meantime, it is worth reviewing the science funding recommendations that emerged from the House and Senate appropriators.

Defense. The proposed Senate bill includes spending levels for S&T that are roughly equal to the FY 2017 budget and that are higher than what was recommended by the White House or approved by the House. Although the defense subcommittee of Senate Appropriations has been a supporter of Department of Defense (DOD) basic science in the past, this year’s legislation would cut basic research programs by $17 million or 0.8%. About half of this reduction would come at the expense of university partnerships. Naval basic science is actually increased by 5.8% across an array of fields, but this is offset by Army and Air Force reductions.

It’s a somewhat mixed bag for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Although the agency received a 4.9% increase, with space and electronic technology research boosted, the increase is smaller than that provided by either the House or requested by the administration, with constrained or reduced funding for materials, biotech, aerospace, and sensor technology.

Elsewhere, manufacturing research and development (R&D) is one of the brighter spots in the Senate bill, with several manufacturing S&T programs granted extra funding. An extra $25 million was added to the National Defense Education Program for manufacturing-oriented grants. Senate appropriators also increased DOD’s Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental by $5 million above the request and added $25.5 million for the new National Security Technology Accelerator, a public-private-academic consortium. Peer-reviewed medical research via the Defense Health Program received several hundred million dollars more than the request, though less than last year.

The Senate defense bill would exceed the current spending cap by $70 billion. As Democrats pointed out, that would mean DOD spending would be automatically ratcheted down substantially via sequestration unless Congress decides to roll back the spending caps approved in 2011.

Interior. The Senate Appropriation subcommittee’s draft bill would diminish the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental and climate research activities, while keeping US Geological Survey (USGS) programs funded at last year’s levels. Within EPA’s discretionary budget, the S&T account would drop by 11.2% below FY 2017 levels; most core S&T research programs would be subject to reductions in the order of 10% to 12%. The House approved slightly larger cuts, and the administration had requested even steeper reductions. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said that if the Senate bill had received a markup, he would have offered an amendment including $200 million to restore proposed cuts to EPA’s core research and regulatory programs.

Of note, a provision in the Senate’s bill continues to prohibit EPA from using funds to implement a mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system within the agricultural sector. A separate provision would change federal policy to treat forest biomass activities as non-contributors of carbon dioxide, a concept known as “carbon neutrality.”

The USGS would see overall flat funding in the Senate bill, compared with a 4.2% reduction recommended in the House and a 15% cut requested by the administration. USGS climate R&D and Climate Science Centers would be flat-funded rather than reduced as the House and administration wanted. Meanwhile, Senate appropriators joined their House counterparts in rejecting the administration’s proposed elimination of the agency’s earthquake early warning system. Landsat 9 development is fully funded in the Senate bill.

Homeland Security. The Senate’s draft appropriations bill would cut the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) research activities and laboratory facilities funding. Still, overall R&D funding would remain significantly higher than either the House version or the administration’s request. S&T laboratory facilities would be subject to a 23.8% cut, whereas the House had recommended flat funding. University programs would also see a moderate reduction under the Senate bill.

For the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s R&D account, the Senate prescribes a 7.8% cut, in line with House and administration budget proposals. The bulk of this reduction would come from detection-capability development and assessment programs. The Transformational R&D account, which supports an array of R&D activities to support detection as well as university and Small Business Investment Research activities, would see a small cut. Nuclear forensics would also be trimmed.

Also included in the Senate’s bill is a provision that would provide $1.6 billion for President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) ridiculed the border wall proposal as “bumper sticker budgeting” and said he would have offered an amendment that would have blocked funding for the wall unless it was paid for by Mexico, as Trump promised during his election campaign.

National Science Foundation. The total NSF budget would decrease by $161 million or 2.2% below FY 2017 under the Senate legislation. Senate appropriators prioritized $105 million for construction of three Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRVs), continuing recent Senate efforts to shore up funding for the RCRV project, whereas the House offered no funding for RCRVs in its bill. Conversely, the Senate bill would cut NSF’s primary research account by 1.9% and NSF’s Education Directorate by 2% below last year.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Within NASA, Senate appropriators would impose a $234 million or 12.7% cut to Planetary Science, while keeping Earth Science funded at last year’s levels—the opposite of the approach taken by the House. The Senate’s move would allow the agency to continue funding for several Earth Science missions slated for elimination in the administration’s request, including the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3); the Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder mission.

On the exploration front, the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Vehicle would be funded at FY 2017 levels, the same as in the House bill, as opposed to the cuts requested by the administration. The Space Technology directorate would see a 2% increase, including $130 million to preserve the RESTORE-L (a robotic spacecraft equipped with the tools, technologies, and techniques needed to extend the lifespans of satellites) from its requested elimination; the House provided only $45.3 million for RESTORE-L. NASA’s Office of Education, which was slated for termination in the administration’s request, was also protected in the Senate bill, with flat funding recommended for FY 2018.

National Institute of Standards and Technology. At the Commerce Department, NIST’s laboratories would see a small 0.7% uptick instead of the cut recommended by the administration. Notably, Senate appropriators rejected the administration’s proposed elimination of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP); the House proposed a $30 million cut to MEP. Funding for NIST’s coordinating role within Manufacturing USA, the interagency network of public-private manufacturing innovation institutes, would be equal to the president’s request of $15 million in FY 2018, a $10 million decrease from last year.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Elsewhere in the Commerce Department, the Senate would maintain NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at last year’s level, avoiding the 19% cut recommended by the House and the administration. Senate appropriators did side with the House in rejecting the administration’s proposed elimination of the National Sea Grant College Program. The Senate also sidelined the administration’s proposal to terminate federal funding for the National Estuarine Research Reserves System, as did the House. NOAA’s flagship weather satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system, would receive full funding for FY 2018. Notably, the Polar Follow On mission, which was targeted for big cuts by the House and administration, would instead gain $90.1 million above its FY 2017 amount of $328.9 million.

Transportation. The Senate committee took a similarly mixed approach for Department of Transportation (DOT) technology programs The committee granted a moderate funding increase above FY 2017 levels for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) NextGen initiative to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system. NextGen would receive $1.1 billion, whereas the administration had requested only $988 million in its FY 2018 budget proposal. Senate appropriators also granted a small increase for FAA’s research, development, and engineering program, mostly for advanced materials research for commercial aviation.

Other news

Grad students heave sigh of relief on tuition waivers

The final version of the tax reform bill passed in late December did not include a provision that was in the House version of the bill that would have required graduate students to pay taxes on certain tuition allowances, a change that would have significantly increased the tax burden for some students.

House considers five science bills on “Science Day”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) named Monday, December 18, “Science Day” in Congress to acknowledge the five bipartisan bills from the Science, Space, and Technology Committee that were considered on the House floor that afternoon. The bills included H.R. 4375, the STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act; H.R. 4323, the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act; H.R. 4254, the Women in Aerospace Education Act; H.R. 1159, the United States and Israel Space Cooperation Act; and H.R. 4661, the United States Fire Administration, AFG, and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act of 2017.

Senate committee revisits law that may hinder battle against opioids

On December 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss whether the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act should be repealed or amended. The House and Senate had passed the bill unanimously, but critics charge that it strips the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of its most effective tool in combating the flow of opioids. Demetra Ashley, the acting assistant administrator of DEA, testified that under the law, DEA investigators face a greater challenge in proving that a company’s conduct poses an immediate danger of death or harm, making it more difficult to shut down shipments of painkillers from a distributor to a pharmacy for these cases. She noted that Congress should choose between repealing and amending the law. Senators split largely along party lines in opinions on what changes Congress should make to the bill.

Reprieve for ARPA-E

In December, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent federal agency, officially found that the Department of Energy violated federal law when it withheld previously approved funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) earlier in 2017. According to the GAO, the move violated the Impoundment Control Act, a federal law that requires the executive branch to obligate funding appropriated by Congress. The Trump administration proposed eliminating ARPA-E in its FY 2018 budget request and also began to freeze funding before Congress had given its consent. The funding in question has since been released.

Assessing NASA progress

On December 15, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report assessing the progress that NASA has made on scientific priorities outlined in the Academies’ 2011 decadal survey. A Midterm Assessment of Implementation of the Decadal Survey on Life and Physical Sciences Research at NASA concludes that NASA should “raise the priority of scientific research that addresses the risks and unknowns of human space exploration” and stresses that it should develop a US strategy for the International Space Station beyond 2024.

Improving undergraduate STEM education

On December 12, the National Academies released Indicators for Monitoring Undergraduate STEM Education, which offers a framework to track progress toward assessing the quality and impact of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The report identifies three overarching goals to improve undergraduate STEM education: increase students’ mastery of STEM concepts and skills; strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion of STEM students and instructors; and ensure adequate numbers of STEM professionals.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 2 (Winter 2018).