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Court Sides with Whales


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The United Nations’ highest court has halted Japan’s large “research whaling” program in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. But the decision will not stop all whaling by Japan or several other countries, and creating a “whale conservation market” that sells sustainable “whale shares,” as described in Issues, may provide an effective alternative to legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect global whale populations.

Looking for New Ways into Space


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In the spirit of a call in Issues for bold new technologies to advance space exploration and development, an international group of experts has backed the use of beanstalk-like “space elevators” to carry people and goods into orbit, and NASA has announced plans to build ion thruster engines popularized in “Star Wars” to power a mission to capture an asteroid.

Promoting Free Internet Speech


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Speaking during a visit to Beijing, Michelle Obama declared that freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet and in the news media, provides the foundation for a vibrant society. Striking a similar theme in Issues, Hilary Rodham Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, said that protecting open communication—online and offline—is essential to ensuring the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere.

Protecting the Unwanted Fish


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The conservation group Oceana has released a new report detailing how “bycatch” is damaging the health of U.S. fisheries. Ecologist and writer Carl Safina has examined this and related problems in Issues, calling for a new era of fisheries management that will beef-up old tools and adopt an array of new “smart tools” to protect these valuable and threatened resources.

Alternate Routes to Career Success


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Education expert Michael J. Petrilli argues in the online magazine Slate that many students would be best served not by focusing them on pursing a traditional college education but rather by providing them with sound early education followed by programs in high school and at community colleges that help them develop strong technical and interpersonal skills. Issues has examined various ways of structuring such alternative routes to the middle class, including the expansion of occupational certificate and apprenticeship programs.

Progress in Childhood Obesity, yet Challenges Remain


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A major new federal health survey has reported a 43% drop in the obesity rate among young children over the past decade, but older children and adolescents have made little or no progress. In Issues, Jeffrey P. Koplan and colleagues presented lessons from an earlier groundbreaking study by the Institute of Medicine on what the nation should be doing to address this epidemic and its higher risks for serious disease.

Pitbull Promotes Education


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Along with making school attendance compulsory, states and cities should develop programs to keep students—especially those at risk of absenteeism and poor performance—engaged in learning from elementary grades through high school graduation, two education experts have noted in Issues. In an innovative application of this spirit, the pop star Pitbull is supporting a charter school in Miami that engages students by drawing its lessons in all subjects, including science and math, from the world of sports.

Immigration and the Economy


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The financial services company Standard & Poor’s has recently released a report suggesting that increasing the number of visas issued to immigrants with technical skills will boost the U.S. economy and even spur job growth for native-born workers. Several Issues articles have made similar cases (here and here), but an expert in labor markets has also argued that the nation is producing more than enough quality workers in scientific and engineering fields—and policymakers and industry leaders should proceed accordingly.

Leveling the Playing Field for Women in Science


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Issues has explored the status of women in science from several angles, including in an examination of how to plug the leaks of both women and men in the scientific workforce, and in a personal essay about the choices women often face when confronting the “system” of science. Many of these and other ideas are explored in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Mary Ann Mason, co-author of the recently published book Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower.

Toward a Smarter Electric Grid


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Utilities have installed more than 60 million smart electric meters in North America in the past decade, the Wall Street Journal recently noted, adding that the challenge now is figuring out what to do with all the information the devices are generating. In Issues, Lawrence Makovich examined the perceptions and reality of implementing a “smarter” grid system, which faces some bumps along the way but offers significant potential rewards.

Climate Change and National Security


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The latest report from an international panel of scientists details the increased certainty that human activities are driving climate change and surveys the range of effects thought likely to result. Some observers argue that climate change will touch directly on the United States’ security, and in Issues, Richard Matthew examines the case and offers some possible actions the nation might take.

New Rides into Space Needed


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The launch by SpaceX of its newest Falcon 9 rocket, which followed hard on the heels of the arrival of Orbital Science Corporation’s Cygnus cargo ship at the International Space Station, collectively mark the reach of private companies into space. But Jonathan Coopersmith argues in Issues that rockets are so 20th century, and a government effort to develop new launch technologies could open the door to vast opportunities for space exploration and development.

Countering a Blooming Problem


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Blooms of toxic algae, nourished by nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into waterways, are increasingly common across much of the United States, according to a recent report described here. In Issues, a trio of experts has explained how better managing use of these nutrients—in agriculture and in urban areas—can yield environmental, socioeconomic, and national security benefits, especially as atmospheric warming drives climate change.

The Little Reactor That Could?


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The United States and several other nations are pursuing small modular nuclear reactors as vital components in their energy futures, Issues reported in summer 2011. Progress in developing such reactors continues apace, as described recently in National Journal, spurred by their potential economic and safety advantages over larger nuclear cousins, as well as by their projected role in diversifying energy production and reducing carbon emissions.

Crafting Better Strategies to Fight Drugs


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A new international study suggests that the supply of illegal drugs in the United States and globally is increasing, with drugs also becoming cheaper, purer, and more potent. In Issues, four experts on public drug policies proposed a new research agenda—less focused on current approaches and more attentive to alternatives—that may lead to improvements in public welfare.

Skilled Migrants Looking Elsewhere


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The value of encouraging migrants to enter and stay in the U.S. science and technology enterprise is hotly debated, as presented in Issues here, here, and here. But an expert working on the immigration frontlines raises a point in National Journal that may affect the conversation: most potential migrants with technical skills are now looking to other countries—and those countries are putting out the welcome mat.

From the Hill


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“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.

Future uncertain for COMPETES legislation

The America COMPETES Act first became law in 2007 with the goal of promoting innovation and boosting U.S. global competitiveness. It was reauthorized in 2010 and is once again up for reauthorization. Although the 2007 bill had bipartisan support, division along party lines is hurting chances for a comprehensive 2014 reauthorization.

There are currently four COMPETES bills; the House Republicans initially split the legislation into two separate bills: the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act and the Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America (EINSTEIN) Act. Democrats in the House and Senate each proposed their own versions. Hence, the outlook for the most recent iterations of the bill is uncertain.

The FIRST Act proposed a two-year reauthorization (FY 2014-FY 2015) for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), with both agencies receiving a 1.5% increase in FY 2015. The EINSTEIN Act reauthorized the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (OSC) but not the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which was created under the 2007 COMPETES bill.

The two versions prepared by the Democrats propose four-year reauthorizations (FY 2015-FY 2019) at higher funding levels. However, these bills differ from one another in a few key areas. The House Democrats’ bill (H.R. 4159) reauthorizes NSF, NIST, and DOE OSC, and focuses on four goals: supporting research, fostering innovation, creating jobs, and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In order to support research and foster innovation, the bill would increase funding for the three agencies by 5% each year, and it would reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative, ARPA-E, a Regional Innovation Program, and the DOE Innovation Hubs. It would also establish the Federal Acceleration of State Technology Commercialization program in order to “advance United States productivity and global competitiveness by accelerating commercialization of innovative technology by leveraging federal support for state commercialization efforts.” Provisions for job creation in H.R. 4159 would include offering federal loan guarantees to small and mid-sized manufacturers to help them stay competitive, improving NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, and helping local governments employ more technologies that improve energy efficiency.

Efforts to support and improve STEM education and the STEM workforce would include establishing an ARPA-ED to invest in R&D for educational technology, providing grants for students who receive STEM-related undergraduate degrees, and increasing participation by women and minorities in STEM fields.

The Senate bill (S. 2757) reauthorizes NSF and NIST from FY 2015-FY 2019, but excludes DOE, which is not within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The bill would provide annual increases for both agencies at 6.7%. Other goals include improving STEM education, supporting NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate, reducing administrative burdens for government researchers, maintaining attendance at science conferences, and supporting NSF’s merit review process.

Like the House Democrats’ bill, S. 2757 prioritizes STEM education and the STEM workforce; the bill directs the National Science and Technology Council to collect input from various stakeholders on the five-year STEM education reorganization that was approved in the 2010 COMPETES Act. The bill would also establish a subcommittee to review administrative burdens on federally funded researchers and issue a report containing recommendations for improving efficiency in the grant submission and review processes. This is likely a response to findings of a recent National Science Board report, which concluded that grant applicants often spend more than 40% of their work time on administrative tasks.

Finally, the Senate offers support and praise for NSF’s merit review process, but does require a report from the agency detailing steps taken to improve transparency and accountability. This appears to be in response to certain provisions in the FIRST Act, which would have required NSF to write a justification for each grant awarded that certifies that the research in question would accomplish at least one of a few specified national goals.

It is this example of policy-related language coupled with low funding levels that has made it difficult to move a bipartisan bill forward in the House. Although the FIRST bill was voted out of both the subcommittee and full committee, the votes fell along party lines and received little support from the scientific community. The EINSTEIN bill received a hearing but was not marked up as a stand-alone bill. That legislation was absorbed into a broader Department of Energy Research and Development Act of 2014, which authorized funding for a range of DOE programs.

In brief

Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Brian Higgins (D-NY) introduced legislation to facilitate funding increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the potential for NIH budget growth is currently limited by the tight cap on discretionary spending. The bill, dubbed the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act, would adjust the spending cap to allow for increased NIH appropriations of up to 10% above the current year estimate for two years, and up to 5% thereafter.

The House passed by voice vote the bipartisan Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act of 2014 (H.R. 2996), introduced by Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) in partnership with Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA). The legislation would establish a Network for Manufacturing Innovation Program within the National Institute of Standards and Technology with the goal of improving U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.

The House of Representatives passed the American Super Computing Leadership Act of 2014 (H.R. 2495) and the Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act (H.R. 5309). The supercomputing bill would require that the Department of Energy develop, through a competitive merit review process, a program for partnerships between national laboratories, industry, and universities for exascale supercomputing research. The tsunami legislation would reauthorize funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation and Tsunami Research programs.

Agency updates

The Office of Science and Technology Policy released its policy for institutional oversight of life sciences dual-use research of concern (DURC). The policy details the necessary oversight to identify DURC and implement risk-mitigation measures. The policy covers specific types of experiments, such as enhancing the harmful consequences of an agent or toxin for 15 pathogens and toxins, including avian influenza virus. Accompanying the new policy are two complementary documents: A Companion Guide of Tools for the Identification, Assessment, Management, and Responsible Communication of Dual Use Research of Concern and Implementation of the U.S. Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences DURC: Case Studies.

The White House released a National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria that outlines five goals for combating the spread of resistant bacteria. The goals of the strategy are to: slow the emergence and prevention of their spread; strengthen efforts to identify cases of antibiotic resistance; advance the development and use of rapid diagnostic tests; accelerate basic and applied research of new antibiotics, therapeutics, and vaccines; and improve international collaboration. President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the enactment of the strategy as well as creating a new Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria to be co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services. As part of the overall strategy, the administration is directing the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to co-sponsor a $20-million prize for the development of a rapid point-of-care diagnostic test to assist health-care workers. Timed to coincide with the release of the White House strategy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its report on Combating Antibiotic Resistance. The report outlines a series of recommendations for the federal government that parallel many of the actions outlined in the White House national strategy. The PCAST report assesses antibiotic resistance within human health care, including prescription overuse; animal agriculture, including promoting animal growth; drug development; and surveillance and response.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (H. R. 3410), which would direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to include the threat of electromagnetic pulse events as part of scenario planning, including the role that research and development can play in strategic planning. The bill passed the House on December 1 by voice vote, and will be considered by the Senate next.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (R-CA) introduced the National Laboratories Mean National Security Act (H.R. 3438), which would permit organizations funded by the DHS Urban Areas Security Initiative—a program to help local communities prepare and protect against acts of terrorism—to work with Department of Energy’s national laboratories in their community. The bill passed the House unanimously under a suspension of the rules vote, which requires a 2/3 majority.

On November 26, President Obama signed into law the Traumatic Brain Injury Reauthorization Act of 2014 (S. 2539), introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), which reauthorizes appropriations for programs and activities at the Department of Health & Human Services relating to the study, prevention, and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI). In addition, the bill would direct the agency to improve interagency coordination of federal TBI activities.

Federal budget debate goes down to the wire

With its winter recess approaching and the continuing resolution on the budget about to expire on December 12, Congress continued its practice of just-in-time decisionmaking.

The latest proposal to keep the government from shutting down, while also responding to concerns surrounding the president’s executive action on immigration, is to fund the majority of the federal government via an omnibus bill and extend funding for immigration programs only until next year when the new Congress is in place and able to negotiate with the administration.

Cite This Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 2 (Winter 2015).