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                         November 29, 2019                             




The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has passed by voice vote a bill directing the National Science Foundation to investigate a variety of ways to improve STEM education for some 60 million rural Americans. Finding this group to be significantly underrepresented in STEM fields, the measure provides, among other things, grants for research on effective STEM teaching practices in rural settings; professional development for rural Pre-K-12 teachers; and development of trans-disciplinary teaching practices. Sponsored by ranking Repbulican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and backed by chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the legislation also sets up R&D and a $5 million prize competition to stimulate broadband access for the many rural residents who don't have it. Rural areas represent "one of the most promising, yet underutilized, opportunities for STEM education to impact workforce development and regional innovation, including agriculture," the panel finds. In his state, Lucas says, "our universities have doubled the size of their engineering programs but still can’t keep up with demand." See coverage by the American Institute of Physics' FYI Bulletin, which notes other measures by the panel aimed at broadening participation.  

UNTAPPED POWER: Marine energy--from waves, tides, currents, rivers, and salinity and temperature differentials--"has the potential to provide significant and needed renewable electricity resources to the U.S.grid," says Bryson Robertson, an associate professor of civil and construction engineering and co-director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center at Oregon State University. At the same House Sciece Committee hearing, research professor Joseph Moore of the University of Utah's Energy and Geoscience Institute touted the "enormous" quantity of "thermal energy beneath our feet. . . . If we could capture even 2% of the thermal energy at depths between about 2 and 6 miles, we would have more than 2000 times the yearly amount of energy used in the US."

CARBON COLD TURKEY: Ernest Moniz, energy secretary under former President Barack Obama, told an appropriations subcommittee​ that "the scale and pace needed for the low-carbon energy transition (are) even greater than was put forward just four short years ago." Dedicated funding from new sources may be needed to advance energy innovation in: storage and battery technologies; advanced nuclear reactors; sectors that are difficult to decarbonize such as advanced manufacturing and building technologies; carbon capture, use, and storage at scale; sunlight to fuels; and enhanced biological and oceans sequestration. See a recent report from his Energy Futures Initiative.


SABOTAGE DIDN'T COUNT AS MISCONDUCT: After a postdoc confessed to adding decontaminant to a graduate student’s cells and cultures, rendering them useless for  experiments, his university concluded he committed research misconduct and severed his affiliation with the school. However, the National Science Foundation, which funded the postdoc, found that his actions did not meet its definition of research misconduct "because no data were affected." NSF's inspector general's office disagreed. The OIG thought the researcher's actions "were of such a serious and compelling nature" as to warrant debarment for two years and completion of a training program. "NSF’s action is pending," the OIG reports in its latest semi-annual report to Congress.

FOREIGN TIES SCRUTINIZED: In line with a more aggressive stance by U.S. science agencies toward suspicious international activities, IG Allison Lerner's preface mentions a former professor who founded two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) companies. He was convicted of conspiracy and three counts of false statements for submitting proposals to NSF for research he knew had already been done in China, she writes, as well as obstruction for falsifying timesheets. Besides a sentence for time served in jail and home confinement, he and his companies were suspended government-wide.

Elsewhere in the report, the OIG says a principal investigator's awards were suspended following discovery of involvement in "a foreign government talent recruitment program" and possible additional overseas employment. 

In another case, a PI was found to have "been untruthful . . . regarding his affiliation with a foreign government talent recruitment program and institutions outside of his U.S. university. The PI also failed to disclose his position at a foreign institution in his NSF proposals. During the course of our investigation, the PI resigned from his position at his U.S. university for a position overseas." The PI's awards (worth $500,000) were terminated. Another PI  was indicted on charges of wire fraud and program fraud for allegedly accepting federal grant money while he was employed by an overseas research university. The alleged conflict of interest  was not disclosed to his U.S. university. 

SCHOOL PROBES FOUND WANTING: A couple of cases in the NSF OIG's report put universities on notice that their investigations of misconduct may be second-guessed. After a graduate student put falsified examples in a paper submitted for a conference, the OIG "found deficiencies in the university’s investigation report,conducted an independent investigation, and found additional examples that the student likely falsified." Similarly, another university investigation into plagiarism "did not address the elements of a research misconduct finding." The OIG's investigation "determined the PI intentionally committed plagiarism," which it and deemed "a significant departure from accepted practices. We also determined that the PI provided conflicting and inaccurate information."

THEFT OF TRADE SECRETS: The semi-annual report to Congress by the Department of Energy's inspector general reports on a SBIR/STTR grantee submitting false claims and false statements. "Additionally, the investigation determined that the convicted grantee stole trade secrets from former company employees and transferred the technology overseas to entities in the People’s Republic of China." Another investigation determined that a former Los Alamos employee "provided false statements to Federal investigators when questioned about involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Program."



Source:  United Nations Environmental Program, Renewables 2019 Global Status Report: "Although renewable electricity is gaining ground quickly in many individual  countries  and  regions,  it  faces  challenges  in  achieving  a  larger  share  of  the  global  total.  This  is  due  mainly  to  continued  strong  growth  in  total  electricity  production  (up  4.0%  in  2018)  as  well as to persistent investment in fossil fuel (and nuclear) power capacity and subsidies. . . . By the end of 2018, 7,110 GW of total power capacity had been installed, comprising 2,378 GW (33.4%) of renewable and 4,732 GW (65.6%) of non-renewable power capacity."


The recent Emissions Gap Report from the United Nations Environmental Program states: "In most parts of the world today, renewables have become the lowest-cost source of new power generation and are generally competitive without incentives when directly compared with fossil alternatives. Since 2010, the global weighted-average levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) from solar photovoltaic, onshore and offshore wind projects, bioenergy and geothermal, have all reduced and are approaching the lower range of fossil-fuel-fired power generation costs (figure 6.1). Continued cost declines are expected during the following decades (IRENA 2019c). The key to integrating larger shares of variable renewable energy into the power supply is system flexibility."



Click here for a National Science Foundation data tool that offers a detailed picture of each state and lets you compare up to seven states. 

Source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSF)


AIRBORNE CLUTTER: The Federal Aviation Administration admits it "wildly underestimated the number of commercial drones in service. It now expects that there will be more than 450,000 of them in the sky this year, a total it originally predicted for 2022," reports the Financial Times. "[T]he FAA says that commercial drones appear to be 'at an inflection point of demonstrating powerful stages of growth' that will 'continue to accelerate over the next few years.'" The FT says "analysts at Barclays estimate that the global commercial drone market will grow tenfold from $4 billion last year to $40 billion in five years." 


DESPITE INVESTMENT, 'A VEXING CHALLENGE': Cybersecurity startups drew more than $5 billion in venture capital in 2018—an increase of 20 percent over 2017 and 80 percent over 2016, according to an estimated cited in a new National Academies report. Yet as devices and interdependencies proliferate, complexity grows and security suffers. Needed, says one speaker at an Academies workshop, is "a science of cybersecurity to establish a deeper understanding of what creates a system vulnerability and how it can be exploited, identify cause-and-effect relationships, generate and test hypotheses, and improve prediction of outcomes. Such an effort, he suggested, would lay the groundwork for building more resilient systems." Read the report.



'The Computing Accreditation Commission (CAC) of ABET is seeking feedback on accreditation criteria for Associate Cybersecurity and Similarly Named Computing Programs, as well as revisions to the program criteria for Information Technology and Similarly Named Programs. Both sets of criteria will be open for public review and comment through June 15, 2020. Learn more.

EAC CHANGES PROMOTE INCLUSIVE ENGINEERING: Programs undergoing review by the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of ABET are now required to show compliance with new criteria related to curricula and student outcomes. Rice University associate dean Yvette Pearson writes in PE Magazine that the changes "provide a number of opportunities to modify our traditional approaches to educating engineers so they are not only aware of the need to practice engineering in an inclusive manner but also are equipped to do so." 

ELEVATOR ELOQUENCE: See a video of the 2019 NSF Engineering Research Centers' Perfect Pitch Competition and try to guess the winner.


Dec. 2019 Webinar – Insights from NSF GOLD on Increasing Underrepresented Minority Recruitment and Retention: Tune in for a free webinar on Dec. 10 at 1:00 PM, ET, during which GeoDES and Sparks for Change teams supported by NSF GOLD (GEO Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity) will share insights and lessons learned from their innovative professional development projects developed to increase the engagement, recruitment, and retention of URM faculty in the sciences. Register now: http://bit.ly/31nQjPL


ASEE is seeking applications and nominations for the position of Editor‐in‐Chief for the journal Advances in Engineering Education. The anticipated start date for this volunteer position is July 1, 2020, with applications due this fall. Learn more here.

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