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The 11 science policy stories to watch in 2019

11 January 2019

The year ahead presents both challenges and opportunities for the science community.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a 10 January post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

In 2018, a measure of predictability returned to federal science policy. Congress decisively rejected the Trump administration’s budget-cut proposals as well as its policy of limiting support for later-stage R&D activities.

However, the ongoing partial government shutdown serves as a sobering reminder of the current political era’s volatility. In addition, the sudden surge of interest in subjects such as quantum information science and technological competition with China demonstrates just how quickly the science-policy landscape can change. Based on current trends, 2019 is set to be an eventful year. Here are 11 stories to watch in the coming months.

Science consequences compound as shutdown drags on

On 12 January the partial government shutdown will become the longest in US history, surpassing a 21-day impasse in 1995–96. The shutdown has largely shuttered many federal science agencies, including NASA, NSF, NIST, and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. Some science-supporting agencies, such as the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and National Institutes of Health, are spared from the shutdown because they already received their final appropriations for the year. Scientists employed by affected agencies have not been paid since the shutdown began; most have been furloughed. In their absence, grantmaking has ground to a halt, research efforts are being postponed, US weather models are underperforming, and major scientific conferences have been disrupted. With contractors’ reserves dwindling, a prolonged shutdown also threatens the operation of federally supported research facilities and the collection of key data sets.

Budget battles on the horizon as spending caps return

Shortly after taking office, President Trump proposed steep and sweeping budget cuts, including to many science programs, leaving agencies uncertain about their budgets throughout 2017. Although Trump proposed similar cuts in his second year, a deal reached in early 2018 to raise statutory caps on the federal discretionary budget for two fiscal years enabled Congress to provide substantial spending increases for science programs. The swift advance of spending bills during the summer of 2018 signaled Trump’s new proposed cuts would find no more traction than his first ones. But budget worries are likely to increase later this year as the budget cap deal approaches its expiration at the end of September. Congress could agree to keep the caps high, but the budget deficit or any number of other politically volatile issues could also forestall an agreement, threatening the return of tighter budgets and perhaps further shutdowns.

Howe Ridge Fire, 2018
Wildfires like the 2018 Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park will become more frequent in the future due to climate change, according to November’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. Credit: National Park Service

Climate change back in the spotlight

For much of the first two years of the Trump presidency, climate change receded as a policy issue as other matters dominated the headlines. That changed last fall following the release of both an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report and the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which spotlighted the divergence of Trump’s views from the scientific consensus. Now Democrats are making the issue front and center in the House. They have established the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and several other committees are planning climate hearings early this year. As interest revives, there are signs the political contours of the subject could be changing. The network political news program Meet the Press recently devoted an entire show to the subject and excluded the views of “climate deniers.” Additionally, some Republicans are proposing actions such as innovation-centered policy solutions or a carbon tax. Some Democrats are advocating for more aggressive action via a “Green New Deal,” while others advocate a more incremental approach.

US–China tensions reverberating across research enterprise

The US government’s long-simmering allegations that the Chinese government orchestrates the theft of intellectual property and engages in unfair trading practices boiled over last year, with federal officials urging a more robust, “whole-of-government” response. The FBI in particular has worked to raise awareness in the private sector and academia about legal and illegal means China uses to acquire technologies. Based on concerns about espionage, the administration implemented new visa screening measures for Chinese nationals last summer and has reportedly considered taking more aggressive measures such as broad limits on visas for Chinese students. It also plans to establish new export controls to stem the transfer of certain “emerging and foundational technologies” to China and other nations. However, measures to protect US companies and universities also run the risk of harming economic activity, stifling scientific collaborations, ensnaring innocent individuals, and creating bias against Chinese researchers. How the US will develop its stance toward China in the coming year could have profound implications for the scientific community.

White House science office gains a leader

Kelvin Droegemeier
Kelvin Droegemeier. Credit: National Science Board

The Senate confirmation of Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on 2 January ended the position’s historic two-year vacancy. It also brings the process of filling out the administration’s senior science leadership positions almost to a close. Whether Trump intends to make Droegemeier his science adviser remains unclear, though the OSTP director has typically played that role in the past. Another key question is whether OSTP will now take on a more public role, following a long period in which it kept a relatively low profile as it advanced priorities such as artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and STEM education. In the near term, Droegemeier’s presence could trigger the revival of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A long-term sign of Droegemeier’s influence will be whether the administration changes its policy of favoring “early-stage” research, as he has said he favors a “comprehensive” science portfolio that includes “everything from fundamental research that is commercially risky but potentially transformative, to applied R&D further downstream.”

Plan S jump-starts open-access movement

Discussions about moving scholarly publishing toward an open-access model received a jolt last year when 11 European funding agencies committed to an aggressive plan to accelerate such a transition. Known as Plan S, it requires that, by 2020, all articles resulting from research funded by signatory organizations be published in journals that provide immediate free access. The sweeping requirement could pressure leading publishers and nonparticipating funding agencies to move toward a similar policy. Important questions moving forward are whether the plan’s implementation will proceed smoothly and whether it will gain broad backing beyond Europe. Some major Chinese scientific institutions have already expressed support for the plan, while in the US only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has signed on. Some scientific societies and publishers have urged caution, arguing that disrupting established business models could harm the scientific publishing ecosystem. The US government continues to abide by a 2013 policy that generally requires articles from federally funded research be made open access within one year of publication, though the Trump administration has been reviewing that policy.

Democrats at helm of House Science Committee

Eddie Bernice Johnson
Eddie Bernice Johnson

For the first time in eight years, Democrats control the House Science Committee, which has long been Congress’s focal point for science policy debate and legislation. The new majority will set the committee’s tone as it crafts legislation and calls hearings. The committee chair, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), is the first woman and the first African American to lead the panel. Her predecessor, Lamar Smith (R-TX), sparked controversy over issues such as his use of subpoena powerchallenges to climate science, and efforts to reshape how the EPA uses science. Johnson has often expressed her desire that the committee be more bipartisan. In her first action as chair, she introduced bills with the new ranking member, Frank Lucas (R-OK), to combat sexual harassment and promote research at the energy-water nexus. She has also said she plans to focus on climate change, diversity in the sciences, and “neglected” oversight activities.

Further action expected in fight against sexual harassment

Efforts to combat sexual harassment in the sciences that took shape last year are set to continue in 2019. The newly introduced House legislation directs the adoption of a uniform approach to the problem across science agencies and instructs NSF to support research on sexual harassment in the STEM workforce. Additionally, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has said she plans to reintroduce legislation requiring higher education institutions receiving federal grants to report findings of sexual harassment to funding agencies, which are to consider the reports when awarding new funding. Droegemeier has also expressed support for developing a government-wide effort. Meanwhile, individual agencies such as NSF and NIH are expected to continue advancing their own policies, while the National Academies expects to move soon on a policy relating to its elected members.

Quantum network
With quantum R&D a priority of the federal government, researchers are working on a prototype quantum network to teleport information between Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. Credit: Jean Lachat/University of Chicago

Federal quantum R&D program ramping up

During the course of 2018, interest in quantum information science (QIS) surged across the federal government, culminating with the signing of the National Quantum Initiative Act on 21 December. Efforts are under way to translate that wave of enthusiasm into the development of a coordinated, long-term program of federally supported R&D. As part of the initiative, the White House will establish a national QIS coordinating office and advisory committee, while science-supporting agencies are set to increase the share of their portfolios dedicated to QIS. DOE and NSF will begin establishing between two and five QIS research centers each, and NIST will organize a “quantum consortium.” Meanwhile, the Defense Department is establishing a coordinated QIS R&D program in line with separate legislation. The scope and shape of those efforts remains to be seen, but work is already beginning on a national infrastructure of test beds and prototype communication networks.

Space science programs face turning points

In 2018 NASA began planning to renew lunar research as part of its broader agenda to make the Moon a destination for human and commercial exploration. This year, NASA will begin working to realize plans to use the lunar campaign to combine science with exploration and to integrate its own efforts with those of commercial partners. Meanwhile, the departure from Congress of key NASA appropriator Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) raises the prospect that certain research initiatives he pushed could fall by the wayside, most notably a lander mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Another matter that Congress must address is how to handle the fallout from last year’s news that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will breach its $8 billion cap on development costs by an estimated $800 million. That project is likely to continue, but it could siphon funding from the follow-on Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which could be delayed or even cancelled.

EPA to advance controversial science transparency rule

EPA is expected to remain a center of attention in science policy under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, whom Trump has now officially nominated to lead the agency. Wheeler has said he plans to move forward this year with implementing the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule advanced by his predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The rule would require EPA to rely on studies with publicly available data when advancing many types of regulations. It could also have implications for regulatory policy more broadly and has already inspired a similar proposal within the Department of the Interior. It is not yet clear, though, whether EPA will narrow the rule in the face of numerous objections to it. Several scientific societies, for instance, oppose it, arguing the rule would unduly restrict the use of important studies for which it is infeasible to release the underlying data. Wheeler has defended the rule as an important transparency measure, telling The Hill it is partially intended to “send a signal to the research community that you need to make your data available to the public. Particularly if the United States government is paying for it.”

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