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                                                         January 11, 2020  




High technology, clean energy, and chemistry, physics, and medical research are heavily dependent on critical materials that either must be imported or--like helium--will eventually disappear. A hearing by a House Science subcommittee explored what the government, universities, and industry are or should be doing to shore up supplies or find substitutes. One promising technique cited by panel chair Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) would extract rare earth elements out of coal and coal by-products. Research on critical materials would be expanded under a bill introduced by Rep. Eric Swalwell, (D-Calif.) calling for a program of research "that the private sector by itself is not likely to undertake because of technical and financial uncertainty." Witnesses included chemist Sophia Hayes of Washington University in St. Louis, who urged wide-range adoption of helium recycling equipment; and engineers Adam Schwartz, who directs the Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory at Iowa State; Carol Handwerker of Purdue; and David Weiss of Eck Industries in Wisconsin.

UPCOMING HOUSE HEARINGS: Before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Jan. 15, "An Update on the Climate Crisis - From Science to Solutions"; and DOE Office of Science Director Chris Fall testifying on "Exploring the Next Frontiers in Energy Research and Scientific Discovery." Also: before House Armed Services Committee, "DOD’s Role in Competing with China."

FUTURE INDUSTRIES: The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportion Committee will hear Jan. 15 from the directors of the National Science Foundation (France Córdova) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Walter Copan), along with U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios and two members of the Federal Communications Commission. Their topic: "how the United States can maintain its global economic edge in artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, biotechnology, and developing the next generation of wireless networks and infrastructure."


TRUMP BUDGET IS DUE FEB. 10: So reports Politico, which notes that the annual document is being crafted "with the certainty of spending levels for the fiscal year at hand" as a result of the 2019 spending cap deal between Congress and the White House. AAAS says the deal means that "spending will only increase by one percent in FY 2021, meaning the fiscal situation for research could tighten." The defense topline will be $741 billion. Overseen by acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought, right, the budget will spell out the administration's priorities as President Trump campaigns for reelection. Image: YouTube, Fox News.

EXPORT CONTROLS ON AI: The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) intends to "restrict the export of artificial intelligence (AI) software designed to automatically analyze geospatial satellite imagery," AAAS reports. "The ruling would ban AI software that uses neural networks for machine learning and provides graphic user interfaces to allow users to identify specific objects such as houses and vehicles. This is the first of what will be a series of export controls for emerging technologies."  See the Federal Register notice.

ADVISERS SOUGHT: The Commerce Department is seeking nominees for one of the Bureau of Industry and Security's technical advisory committees, which advise on "parameters for export controls applicable to dual-use items (commodities, software, and technology) and on the administration of those controls. The TACs are composed of representatives from industry, academia, and the U.S. government and reflect diverse points of view on the concerns of the exporting community." See the Federal Register notice.

GLOBAL RESEARCH NETWORK: The National Science Foundation's International Research and education Network Connections (IRNC) program intends to spend as much as $50 million on up to 14 awards (pending availability of funds and quality of proposals) for high-performance network connections and infrastructure that will "assist the U.S. research and education community by enabling state-of-the-art international network services and access to increased collaboration and data services." Learn more.

STURDIER CROPS: The Department of Energy plans to spend  up to $75 million over five years for research on "sustainable bioenergy crops tolerant of environmental stress and resilient to changing environmental conditions" that won't compete with food production. "Applications will be open to universities, industry, and nonprofit research institutions as the lead institution, with possible collaborators at DOE national laboratories and other federal agencies." See this and other DOE funding opportunities.

MORE EFFICIENT ENERGY FEEDSTOCK: The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) wants to "develop better monitoring technologies to quantify feedstock-related emissions for biofuels and promote new market incentives for improved efficiency in feedstock production and carbon management." The agency has $20 million "to develop technologies to quantify feedstock-related emissions at the field level through its Systems for Monitoring and Analytics for Renewable Transportation Fuels from Agricultural Resources and Management (SMARTFARM) program." See the funding annoumcement.

'NATIONAL PRIDE IS AT STAKE': The hypersonic arms race "promises to upend strategic calculations," Science magazine says. The Department of Defense is pouring more than $1 billion annually into hypersonic research, with competition from China and Russia a key motivator. All three nations "appear to have made substantial progress in overcoming key obstacles, such as protecting hypersonic craft from savage frictional heating. Russia recently unveiled a weapon called the Kinzhal, said to reach Mach 10 under its own power, and another that is boosted by a rocket to an astonishing Mach 27. China showed off a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) of its own, the Dongfeng-17, in a recent military parade. The United States, meanwhile, is testing several hypersonic weapons. "It's a race to the Moon sort of thing,” says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “National pride is at stake.” U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua Armstrong

IoT - SHOULD THE PENTAGON WORRY? That's a question now before the Defense Science Board, Lewis-Burke Associates reports. A task force will report on "the scope of acquisition of Internet of Things (IoT) devices by DOD; assess the state of cyber vulnerability and cyber defense for those devices; examine the operational implications for those vulnerabilities;" and recommend ways to mitigate the risks. Other task forces are examining DOD’s current Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) systems and support communications missions, and "future dimensions of conflict that may be exploited by Russia, China, and other adversaries to impose their will on other states and counter U.S. interests." Learn about other current task forces.

SYN-BIO MANUFACTURING: The Pentagon intends to solicit proposals in coming weeks for a manufacturing innovation institute that will “foster an end-to-end ‘ecosystem’ in the U.S. for synthetic biology, including cohesive scale-up manufacturing and downstream processing capabilities, integrated test & evaluation capacity, and data operationalized for design for manufacturing, all coupled with workforce development and a focus on ethics and biosecurity.” This will be the ninth manufacturing innovation institute, Lewis-Burke reports. See the notice of intent.

RESEARCH AT MINORITY COLLEGES: The office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering is assessing the capabilities of historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions in artificial intelligence and machine learning, one of 13 DoD modernization priorities. A request for information flagged by Lewis-Burke says: "Based on the responses to this RFI, the Department of Defense (DoD) may issue a funding opportunity call against the HBCU/MI Research and Education Program Broad Agency Announcement." The RFI adds, "For purposes of gauging capabilities in AI/ML, only responses from HBCU/MIs will be considered." A document appended to the RFI says: "DoD seeks to establish a Center of Excellence in AI/ML to focus efforts in three areas:  (1) accelerating development of key AI applications for DoD, (2) creating a technological foundation for trustworthy AI technologies, and (3) investing in infrastructure for AI research and development." Previously released information is available here.


Source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSF); FFRDC = federally funded research and development center; NOTE: Data for 2017 are preliminary, and those for 2018 are estimates; some of these data may later be revised.

Source: NCSES. "Data for 2017 are preliminary, and those for 2018 are estimates; some of these data may later be revised. The federally funded data represent the federal government as a funder of R&D by all performers; similarly the business-funded data represent businesses as funders of R&D by all performers."


ENGINEERING ACADEMICS AMONG CRASH VICTIMS: Dozens of students, professors, and researchers from at least 18 Canadian universities--many of them graduate students and faculty in engineering and computer science--were among passengers aboard a Ukrainian jet shot down Jan. 8 by an Iranian missile. They included ASEE member Mojgan Daneshmand, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alberta, her husband, Pedram Mousavi, a professor of mechanical engineering at Alberta, and their two daughters. Their departments each posted notices of mourning, with the the mechanical engineering department saying it had lost not only Mousavi, but "graduate students Nasim Rahmanifar and Amir Hossein Saeedinia, and recent alumnus Mohammad Mahdi Elyasi." The Canadian online publication University Affairs says: "At least 40 of the victims were active in Canada’s university and research communities. Many were international students returning to school after spending the holiday break in Iran." See the passenger manifest and coverage in the Edmonton Journal. Iran's military said Jan. 11 that it had mistaken the jet for a U.S. cruise missile.

ISOLATED LEARNERS: "From their first day in the classroom, computer science students are nudged to value individual successes over team victories," Nathan Esquenazi, co-founder of a nonprofit working to increase diversity in tech, writes in a Bloomberg op-ed. "Most assignments are completed and submitted solo. While liberal arts majors are drilled in methods of communication, and vocational programs like business and medicine feature tons of group work, many computer science programs prize technical output over so-called “soft skills” like collaboration and communication. Conflict resolution and critical thinking get short shrift."


PEER BROADENS FOCUS: The National Academies' Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER), supported by USAID and other agencies, has announced several new focus areas in this year's cycle. "In addition to the broad call for projects on any development-related research topic, the program welcomes calls in focus areas on advanced digital tools; family planning and reproductive health; the social, economic, and behavioral sciences. There are also several country-specific focus areas: urban WASH and transboundary water in Afghanistan, clean energy in Bangladesh, multiple research sectors in Tunisia, and bioremediation of dioxins and furans in Vietnam." Learn more here and here.

A CENTURY OF TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH: A new volume portrays generations of work to improve safety, social equity, and environmental protection on roads, rails, sea, and air.


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