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                          October 26, 2019                                 




Since at least 2007 and the National Academies' "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report, university luminaries have warned Congress about growing global competition that threatens U.S. leadership in research and innovation. Testifying this week before a Senate Commerce subcommittee​, National Science Board Chair Diane Souvaine cited the same trends, noting that "while the U.S. remains a leading player, other countries have seen the benefits of investing in research and education and are following our example. The world of R&D performance, historically centered around the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, has been shifting toward East and Southeast Asia." But she injected a more uplifting message: "This is our 'ask' for this committee: Be Fearless. Let us not merely react based on anxieties about increased global competition, security threats, or current budget limitations. Instead, ask how we can grow our economy, lead the next era of science and engineering, remember the 'can-do' attitude that defines America, and recommit to the partnerships among governments, universities, and private industries that has driven our success." See other testimony by Rebecca Blank, Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Sethuraman Panchanathan, Executive Vice President, Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise; and David Shaw, Provost and Executive Vice President, Mississippi State University. Lewis-Burke Associates reports that topics covered included the STEM workforce pipeline, skilled technical workforce, upskilling and reskilling, equipping citizens to be “master learners,” support for early career researchers, and the importance of open science and partnerships with industry.

A 'SKINNY' DEFENSE BILL: Don't expect the the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee to propose running the Pentagon on the cheap. The slimmed-down version of the Defense authorization bill that Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) plans to introduce next week will just have fewer provisions. CQ reports that it "includes necessary authorizations but nixes contentious language that has stalled negotiations" between the House and Senate. 

NASTY STUFF: The appropriations process "has only grown more acrimonious with each passing month," CQ says. Completing fiscal 2020 appropriations by November 21, when a stopgap measure funding the government expires, "now appears virtually impossible." To avoid a shutdown, "there is already talk of punting with a second continuing resolution that would extend current funding through sometime next spring."

LITTLE NUCLEAR PLANTS: Modular reactors have caught the imagination of a bipartisan group of 15 House members who have co-sponsored the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act. Introduced by nuclear engineer and Navy veteran Elaine Luria (D-Va.) the bill sets out "advanced nuclear reactor research and development goals," including demonstration projects and "technologies to manage, reduce, or reuse nuclear waste." The bill also establishes a University Nuclear Leadership Program, which would, among other things, "provide financial assistance for scholarships, fellowships, and research and development projects at institutions of higher education . . . with respect to research, development, demonstration, and deployment activities for technologies relevant to advanced nuclear reactors, including relevant fuel cycle technologies." (See a profile of Luria in Prism.)



Universities, government agencies go farther together

University of Delaware researchers are collaborating with national labs and government agencies to advance quantum materials, neutron scattering, high-performance computing and more.


PCAST REVIVAL: Four of the seven new members of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology have an engineering background. From left to right, they are Fisk Johnson, chairman and CEO of SC Johnson, which makes well-known household cleaning products (M.Eng. from Cornell); Dario Gil, IBM Research director (Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT); Attiganal Sreeram, Dow Chemical chief technology officer  (materials science doctorate, MIT); and Shane Wall, chief technology officer at HP Labs (B.S., Computer Engineering, Oregon State). You might also count chemist and quantum expert Birgitta Whaley of UC Berkeley. PCAST had a prominent role in the Obama administration, but wasn't reestablished until this week by President Trump. His exective order states: "With American leadership facing fierce global competition, today more than ever our Nation is in need of new approaches for unleashing the creativity of our research enterprise and empowering private sector innovation to ensure American technological dominance." See reports in the Washington Post and Physics Today, which notes that the executive order reflects several themes championed by Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Photos from corporate and university websites. 

NEEDED - A BIOTECH ECOSYSTEM: A summary of the recent White House-sponsored bioeconomy summit concludes: "We will work alongside federal agency partners to improve interagency cooperation and ensure the bioeconomy is prioritized in key R&D budgets to drive basic research in this field. Much work remains to ensure we tap into the talents of the entire innovation ecosystem, take advantage of opportunities to promote innovation, and remove obstacles to growth and advancement."

STEM DIVERSITY: Broadening participation is "a  fundamental  prerequisite"  for  making  high-quality  STEM  education  accessible "and will maximize the creative capacity of tomorrow’s workforce," says a newly released progress report on the Trump administration's STEM strategy. "Agencies are   planning   to   build   stronger   partnerships  with  institutions  that  serve  underrepresented  groups."  The report also notes: "While duplication and fragmentation of STEM programs have been diminished over time, a conscious effort toward open communication across federal agencies seeks to reduce the risk of this occurring in the future."

BROADER PARTNERSHIPS WITH ACADEMIA: The Army Research Laboratory and the Army Research Office are tapping universities "as never before," seeking access to knowledge and innovation that enable the Department of Defense (DOD) "to gain back or widen the military’s advantage in combat power across multiple domains," reports the Defense Media Network. "ARL’s Wendy Leonard said the Army is trying to 'bring together the government labs, academic institutions, and the private sector to form a global collaborative network.'” Leonard is the program manager for ARL’s Open Campus initiative, a framework launched in 2014 to connect ARL scientists and engineers with outside researchers and research institutions."

'DOMAIN-AGNOSTIC SOLUTIONS': The National Science Foundation wants to know how these can be devised and implemented when it comes to cyberinfrastructure. As the agency looks to refine its CI investment strategy, it asks what "structural, functional and performance characteristics . . .  cross-disciplinary solutions must possess. Such new CI services and capabilities should allow for seamless data integration and interoperability; support existing S&E drivers, users and usage modes; and foster the initiation of future modes of discovery." See the request for information.

CYBER UPGRADES: NSF anticipates making 29 to 53 awards totalling $14 million to $20 million as part of its Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*) program, which "invests in coordinated campus-level networking and cyberinfrastructure improvements, innovation, integration, and engineering for science applications and distributed research projects." See the solicitation.

DOE LABS TO HOST GRAD STUDENTS: The Department of Energy’s Office of Science has selected 49 graduate students to conduct part of their thesis research at a host DOE laboratory in collaboration with a DOE laboratory scientist for up to 12 months. See the awardees and their projects.

FUTURE AI: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) "seeks to invest in focused explorations of what the AI science and technologies of the future could be. DARPA’s AI Exploration (AIE) program will enable exploratory research on a range of AI related topics that will be periodically solicited as AIE Opportunities through publication of Pre-Solicitation Notices on FedBizOpps." Learn more

WATCHDOG PROTEST: The National Science Foundation's inspector general, Allison Lerner, has co-signed a letter urging the Justice Department to "withdraw or modify" an Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion that overruled a determination by the intelligence community's inspector general (ICIG). The ICIG had found that a whistleblower's "urgent concern" about President Trump's July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was credible and should be transmitted to Congress. The OLC said it was not an "urgent concern" as defined by statute and therefore Congress didn't need to see it. The OLC's interpretation, say Lerner and colleagues, "has the potential to undermine IG independence across the federal government." Lerner co-signed the letter in her role as vice chair of  the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL TRAUMA: That was Chinese physicist Xiaoxing Xi's experience, as recounted before "a spellbound audience of 300" in Palo Alto, Calif., CQ reports. "In May 2015, armed FBI agents roused Xi from bed, then handcuffed and arrested him in front of his terrified family for allegedly sharing sensitive technology with China." After four months, "the Justice Department’s case fell apart when it became clear investigators had entirely misunderstood the blueprints Xi was accused of sharing." What some see as a form of racial profiling-- "researching while Chinese"--is sparking "a debate on Capitol Hill about discrimination, national security and technological innovation at a time when tensions with China are at an all-time high." 


Source: Progress Report on the Federal Implementation of the STEM Education Strategic Plan, Appendix 2 (FY 2019 STEM Inventory of Programs)


Source: Progress Report Appendix 1. The dots in the table above "indicate the  objectives  for  which  each  agency  has  developed  mission-specific  implementation  actions."


A FUTURE OF FAILURE OR SUCCESS: A National Academies workshop imagined two scenarios: "a dystopian future a decade hence in which NASA had failed utterly. What would that failure look like? What would have caused it? The purpose of this pre-mortem was to . . . zero in on those aspects that are most important to NASA’s success. The second activity, Imagining Success 2030, came at the same topic from the opposite direction and asked participants to answer the questions, What would a successful NASA look like in the year 2030? What specific features would it have?" Read the report.

See also Review of the Draft 2019 Science Mission Directorate Science Plans



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