Author Archives: Jonathan Leo

Archives


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Skeletal Reflections

Chico MacMurtrie’s Skeletal Reflections is an interactive robot sculpture that has stored in its memory a library of body postures from classic painting and sculpture. A camera/computer attached to the robot records and analyzes the posture of people viewing the sculpture. When the viewer strikes a pose such as that of Rodin’s The Thinker, the robot also assumes that posture.

MacMurtrie is the artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works (ARW, http://amorphicrobotworks.org), a collective of artists, scientists, and engineers. Currently operating out of Brooklyn, New York, ARW is dedicated to the study and creation of movement as it is expressed in anthropomorphic and abstract robotic forms.

Skeletal Reflections
Chico MacMurtrie / ARW
Photo: Bobby N. Adams
Skeletal Reflections
Chico MacMurtrie / ARW
Photo: Bobby N. Adams
Skeletal Reflections
Chico MacMurtrie / ARW
Photo: Bobby N. Adams

Cite This Article

"Archives." Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015).

From the Hill


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White House budget guidance

In early July, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued their annual joint memo identifying science and technology priorities for the FY 2017 budget. That memo provides guidance to federal agencies as they prepare their FY 2017 budget plans, which must be submitted to OMB for review in September before they’re sent to Congress by the president in February.

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

The FY 2017 guidance largely reiterates research and development (R&D) budget priorities from years past. A partial list includes:

Climate change. The memo highlights the need for “actionable data, information, and related tools” to assist with climate resilience and adaptation. Since the Republicans took back the House of Representatives in 2010, few areas of science and technology funding have been as controversial as climate science, with the possible exception of clean energy.

Clean energy. As in past years, the memo casts a wide net related to low-carbon energy technology, calling for grid modernization and innovation in renewable energy, transportation, and efficiency in homes and industry. But again, Congress tends to have very different ideas about where to put these dollars.

Advanced manufacturing, including enabling technologies such as nanotechnology and cyber-physical systems. Attempts to establish a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation have been a centerpiece of recent administration budgets. The network was authorized by law in December 2014, but so far funding has not been forthcoming.

Life sciences and neuroscience. This is one of the few areas on which both parties seem to agree, as reflected in the willingness of appropriators to embrace the BRAIN Initiative.

The memo also cites antimicrobial resistance, which received special focus in last year’s budget submission; biosurveillance; and mental health access. In addition, the memo directs agencies to prioritize resources for commercialization and technology transfer, requests agencies’ evaluation strategies for their R&D programs, and cites the Maker Movement as important potential collaborators.

Bipartisan energy bill passes Senate committee

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a broad, bipartisan bill aimed at modernizing the nation’s energy system—from infrastructure, to workforce, to R&D. The bill, a compromise worked out over several months by the committee’s chair, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), was intentionally kept free of the most controversial issues, such as lifting the existing U.S. ban on exporting oil, though they are all but guaranteed to be raised when the bill reaches the Senate floor for debate. Tucked inside the broad energy policy legislation is the bipartisan “E-Competes Act” championed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, which would authorize five years of 4 percent annual funding increases, beginning with FY 2015 levels, for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy. Though the bill is bipartisan, not everyone is supportive, with environmental groups notably expressing their displeasure with several of the bill’s provisions. No timetable has been set for the bill to reach the Senate floor.

House passes GMO labeling bill

The House has passed the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599) to regulate the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The legislation will prevent states and other localities from enacting mandatory labeling of food that contains GMOs, while at the same time setting up a voluntary non-GMO certification to be run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. H.R. 1599 would block states that have already passed mandatory labeling laws from enforcing those regulations. The bill will also require that the Food and Drug Administration be consulted before a GMO is brought to market. This consultation is currently voluntary.

Supreme Court nixes EPA action

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have considered the costs of regulating emissions from power plants, before deciding that such regulation is “appropriate and necessary.” The EPA sought to regulate power plant emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants by using authority granted to the agency by the Clean Air Act to control air pollution. Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion for Michigan v. EPA, concluded that the EPA acted “unreasonably” in its interpretation of the Clean Air Act. Scalia was joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Roberts, and Kennedy. The majority position explains that it was irresponsible for the EPA to not consider a cost-benefit analysis of its regulation; “[i]t is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

Senators create competitiveness caucus

In a recent op-ed in Roll Call, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) call attention to policy areas where they say the United States is losing its competitive edge, and note that the nation is at what they term a “competitive inflection point.” In response, Coons and Moran are launching a new bipartisan Competitiveness Caucus in partnership with the Council on Competitiveness as “a forum to bring together Democrats and Republicans to address the most pressing issues facing our economy.” They plan to tackle issues ranging from transportation infrastructure, to tax policy, to federal support for R&D.

NASA plans human travel to Mars

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is seeking input at an October workshop from planetary scientists, space technologists, and human spaceflight experts on where to land humans on Mars. The event will be held October 27-30 at the Lunar Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas

Census Bureau launches annual entrepreneur survey

The Census Bureau is planning to supplement the Survey of Business Owners and Self-Employed Persons, which is conducted every five years, with an annual survey of entrepreneurs. Once approved by OMB, the survey should begin being implemented this fall and will include questions on innovation, R&D activities, and access to capital. The survey is funded jointly by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Minority Business Development Agency, and the Census Bureau.

Forensics labs discuss reforms

The International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management, organized by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, involved some 500 scientists, managers, and practitioners across a range of disciplines discussing the many factors that have contributed to the growing number of reports of flawed forensic science practices. A 2009 National Academies report highlighting the lack of scientific rigor underlying certain forensic science practices is largely credited with kicking off the ongoing process of reforms. A major focus of the recent meeting was on the lack of standard blinding procedures for most practitioners. In many labs, practitioners are privy to irrelevant (to a given forensic test) information with the potential to bias interpretation of the results. Participants at the meeting discussed the potential for implementing or adapting safeguards like blinding at diverse labs across the country.

Modernizing biotech regulatory system

On July 2, the administration issued a memorandum to the Food and Drug Administration, EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlining plans for modernizing the U.S. regulatory system for biotechnology products. According to the memo, a first task will be to clarify the responsibilities of each of the three agencies, and how each may overlap depending on the product. A second task will be to develop a long-term strategy to minimize the risks of biotechnology products. Finally, the administration will support an “independent analysis of the future landscape of the products of biotechnology” and has tasked the National Academies to lead the project. To maximize public engagement in these efforts, the administration plans to conduct a series of public meetings, the first of which will be held this fall in Washington, D.C.

Updated national HIV/AIDS strategy

The Obama administration has updated its National HIV/AIDS strategy for 2015-2020 to build on the foundation of the first comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy that was released in 2010. This updated strategy will prioritize efforts to support groups that are most affected by HIV, and will focus on the following four actions: widespread testing and linkage to care; broad support for people living with HIV to enable them to remain in comprehensive care; universal viral suppression for people affected by HIV; and full access to comprehensive pre-exposure prophylaxis services within certain demographic groups.

Cite This Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1 (Fall 2015).

From the Hill


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

House Appropriations smiles on NASA, trims NSF

In mid-May the House Appropriations Committee passed on a voice vote the FY2016 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Commerce, which houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The overall bill would provide a small increase in research and development (R&D) funding from FY2015, but less than the administration requested, as House appropriators continue to abide by sequester-level spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act. Whereas NASA R&D picked up slightly more than the president’s request, NSF fared less well compared to FY2015 levels:

    • The total NSF budget would increase by 0.7%, which is 4.3% below the request.
    • The total NASA budget would increase by 2.9%, the same level as the request.
    • The total NIST budget would decrease by 1.0%, which is 23.6% below the request.
    • The total NOAA budget would decrease by 5.2%, which is 13.6% below the request.

NSF. The committee fell short of the president’s request for NSF by $329 million, with appropriations below the request for research activities, education programs, and agency operations. The associated committee report specifically “directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70% of the funding within Research and Related Activities.” These accounts comprise what committee chair John Culberson (R-TX) has termed “core science,” meaning that geological and social and behavioral research would be significantly cut.

Additionally, the committee provided $146 million for neuroscience and cognitive science activities at NSF, including the BRAIN Initiative; this represents a $46 million increase above FY2015 and includes $3 million for the establishment of a National Brain Observatory working group. The committee also provided $176.6 million for NSF’s advanced manufacturing investments, matching the request and providing a slight increase above FY2015, and kept flat the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), rather than granting the increase sought by the administration.

An amendment offered by Rep. David Price (D-NC) sought to increase NSF funding to match the administration request. Although Price’s amendment failed, Culberson suggested during the proceedings that extra funding could be provided to NSF should a broader deal on discretionary spending be reached.

NASA. The committee granted an overall $519 million increase to NASA, thereby matching the president’s request and allowing the agency budget to keep pace with inflation. It would also keep NASA’s budget ahead of the overall spending curve, as the discretionary budget is slated to increase by only 0.2% in FY2016. However, spending would be reallocated among various agency programs to achieve the “balanced portfolio” sought by Republicans.

The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) remains a source of enduring tension, given claims that SMD’s budget has received a disproportionate increase and that it is taking on climate science programs better left to NOAA and U.S. Geological Survey. Under the committee’s CJS bill, the Earth Sciences program would be cut and funding shifted to Planetary Science, building on previous Republican efforts to increase funding for a robotic mission to Europa. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) offered and subsequently withdrew for lack of support an amendment to increase funding for NASA Earth Science to equal the president’s request.

The committee would also eliminate an increase sought for NASA’s Space Technology program, which contains funding for the administration’s controversial proposal for an Asteroid Redirect Mission. The Aeronautics Research Directorate would be cut, but not by as much as requested.

NASA’s human exploration activities, which include the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System (SLS) program, would receive a substantial increase from the president’s request, continuing the long-standing dispute between Congress and the administration over the importance of building SLS. The House appropriations bill does provide an increase for Commercial Spaceflight in FY2016, but 19.6% less than what the president had hoped for.

NIST and NOAA. Appropriations for the two major R&D agencies in the Department of Commerce fell far short of what the administration requested for next fiscal year.

NIST funding would remain 23.6% below the president’s request, and any increases would be limited to NIST’s laboratory programs, including those for cybersecurity and disaster resiliency. Funding for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership would stay flat, and the committee declined a requested increase for the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a multi-agency initiative to establish public-private manufacturing institutes across the country.

NOAA received considerably less than what the president requested. Where divergence occurs to a significant degree is within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which carries out climate research. All other accounts would be funded well below the request, and only the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service would see any gains. Additionally, the committee granted funding increases for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

An amendment introduced by Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), which was accepted during markup, will add $7.2 million for the NOAA Bay Watershed and Training education program, offset by a cut to the NOAA administrative account. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) also offered and withdrew an amendment that would have boosted funding at NOAA.

Research replication. Included in the report language accompanying the appropriations bill is a requirement for NSF to develop guidelines to “ensure that research conducted by NSF grantees is replicable.” The FY2015 appropriations bill also included language regarding replication, but it required only that NSF report how it would “improve research methods, increase research transparency, and allow increased scientific replicability.” Under the new legislation, the agency must submit an implementation plan to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment into law.

The full House approved the committee’s bill. On June 11 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved their FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, which includes funding for NASA, NIST, NOAA, and NSF. The committee did not release full details, but it indicated that it differs from the House bill in a few small ways. The increase, for NASA is slightly smaller; NIST receives a small increase whereas the House cut its budget; NOAA also receives a slight increase in contrast to the significant cut in the House bill; and NSF funding is kept constant, whereas it received a slight increase from the House.

In a move intended to force a deal on sequester-level spending, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that Democrats plan to filibuster every spending bill in the Senate. The current spending caps, established by the Budget Control Act, remain unpopular with both parties, but Democrats are particularly eager to eliminate the caps before appropriations progress much further. The president has also issued a veto threat for every spending bill that abides by sequester-level spending so far.

Bipartisanship not dead

Despite the controversies surrounding much science legislation, in May the House of Representatives passed six science and technology bills that were reported out of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Bills included: H.R. 1561, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015, introduced by Vice-Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR.); H.R. 1119, the Research and Development Efficiency Act, introduced by Research and Technology Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and co-sponsored by ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX); H.R. 1156, the International Science and Technology Cooperation Act of 2015, introduced by Research and Technology Subcommittee ranking member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and co-sponsored by Research and Technology Subcommittee Vice-Chairman John Moolenaar (R-MI); H.R. 1162, the Science Prize Competitions Act, introduced by Oversight Subcommittee ranking member Don Beyer (D-VA) and co-sponsored by Oversight Subcommittee Vice-Chairman Bill Johnson (R-OH); H.R. 1158, the Department of Energy Laboratory Modernization and Technology Transfer Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO); and H.R. 874, the American Super Computing Leadership Act, introduced by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and co-sponsored by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA).

Hill addendum

Energy Title of the COMPETES bill introduced

A bipartisan group of seven senators introduced an authorization bill for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and its Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E). The bill (S. 1398) is a sharp contrast to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act that passed the House of Representatives. The bipartisan proposal calls for 4% annual increases from current levels for the Office of Science and ARPA-E for FY2016–FY2020 and consolidates a small subset of programs from the original America COMPETES Acts that were never appropriated funds. The group of bipartisan co-sponsors, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), includes Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) , and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

House appropriations committee approves transportation funding

The House Appropriations Committee approved on a voice vote the FY2016 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development appropriations bill. According to current American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates, the bill provides $858 million to the Department of Transportation for R&D activities in FY2016, which is 18.2% below the president’s request. Most individual science and technology programs received flat or reduced funding from FY2015 levels, though the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program received $931 million, good for an 8.6% increase and only 2.6% short of the request. The bill now moves to the House floor.

House approves defense authorization bill

The House of Representatives voted to approve the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act by a 269 to 151 vote. According to current AAAS estimates, the bill would authorize $69.8 billion in base research, development, test, and evaluation funding for the Department of Defense in FY2016, virtually matching the administration request and providing an increase of 9.5% above FY2015 levels. Science and technology spending would vary little from FY2015 levels. The bill has been criticized for using war funding as a means to sidestep the current defense spending caps, as laid out in the congressional budget resolution, and the White House has threatened a veto the bill for this reason. The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, also voted to mark up and approve its own bill in a closed session.

21st Century Cures Act advances

The 21st Century Cures Act, launched with the aim of advancing the discovery, development, and delivery of new medical interventions, passed out of subcommittee last week and will now advance to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bipartisan bill covers a wide range of territory and includes several provisions relevant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including language seeking to boost the NIH budget.

Senate PATENT Act introduced

A bipartisan group of leaders on the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced the Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship Act (PATENT Act). Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), along with committee members John Cornyn (R-TX), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), introduced the bill to address abusive patent litigation. The new version of the bill includes changes regarding fee structures that elicited a moderately favorable response from the university community, but the higher education groups have not formally endorsed the measure.

OSTP releases draft National Space Weather Strategy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has released a National Space Weather Strategy, which aims to set strategic goals for enhancing U.S. preparedness for space weather events. Space weather refers to the interactions between the sun and earth via the solar wind, and more dramatic flares and eruptions that occur intermittently. The intense radiation, particularly from the most violent events, has the capacity to disrupt essential infrastructure such as the telecommunications system and electrical grid.

NIH reaffirms stance on gene-editing of human embryos

NIH Director Francis Collins has released a statement reaffirming that “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.” This statement is in response to a recently published study in which Chinese scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to genetically modify a nonviable human embryo.

NIH releases Alzheimer’s agenda

NIH released recommendations for a research agenda related to Alzheimer’s disease, a top priority for the administration. Overarching themes include the expansion of integrative, data-driven research approaches; the development of computational tools and infrastructure to enable large-scale analysis of patient data; and the use of wearable sensors and other mobile health technologies. The agenda also calls for engaging patients, caregivers, and citizens as equal partners in Alzheimer’s disease research.

Toxic substance bills moving forward

The House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up its version of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Modernization Act of 2015 (H.R. 2576). The bipartisan bill unanimously passed the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy in May and has support from the American Chemistry Council, among others. The House majority leader has already announced that he expects H.R. 2576 to reach the House floor before the Independence Day recess begins in the last week of June. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, meanwhile, passed its own bipartisan version at the end of April, though with some vocal dissent from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA).

Cite This Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015).