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July 28, 2017



The partisan 235-192 vote (with five defections on each side) reflected in part Democratic opposition to the inclusion of $1.6 billion for President Trump's border wall. The "security minibus" contains appropriations for Defense, Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and the Legislative Branch for FY 2018. Progress of R&D provisions in subcommittee and approval of amendments on the floor showed more bipartisan cooperation than was evident in the final vote. The House did defund the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, setting up a tug-of-war with the Senate in a future conference, but kept DOE's Office of Science at 2017 levels and ended up restoring the Obama administration's energy hubs. The Office of Management and Budget endorsed the measure before it reached the floor, even though appropriators had rejected deep cuts proposed by the White House.

FIVE HUBS SURVIVE: The "energy innovation hubs," brainchild of former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, were restored to the minibus in an amendment submitted by Rep. Mark Takano (D–CA), Scienceinsider reports. They include the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois; the Critical Materials Institute at Ames Laboratory in Iowa; and a yet-to-be sited hub on low-energy desalination of sea water. Each is currently funded at $25 million per year or less.  See all the amendments

SENATORS SQUEEZE NSF: The National Science Foundation's current budget would shrink by 2.1 percent, or $162 million, in the bill approved by Senate appropriators, Jeff Mervis reports in ScienceInsider. That number, and the proposed cut of $193 million to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, drew a statement of concern from the Association of American Universities. "The university-based research supported by these agencies has kept the United States globally competitive in many areas of science, technology, and innovation; these cuts imperil our ability to maintain this competitiveness," AAU says. The money provided by the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee would nonetheless erase most of the Trump cuts at NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

CYBERSECURITY AND ADVANCED MANUFACTURING are among the priorities Senate appropriators want pursued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and universities, according to their report. However, the amounts allocated by the Commerce, Justice, Science panel are relatively small: for example, $2 million for an Internet of Things cybersecurity research initiative; and $5 million in competitive grants "to support research, development, and workforce training to overcome barriers to high-volume additive manufacturing of metals."

RECYCLED PLASTIC: In a world littered with indestructible plastic refuse, senators see recycled plastics as "a more sustainable option," although "[m]any hurdles remain in manufacturing products from recycled plastics with the same strength, color, odor, and malleability of new plastic products." They provide $5 million "to investigate plastic and polymeric materials, as well as  novel methods to characterize both known and newly developed materials. Such investigations should address ways to increase the strength of recycled plastics and better understand mechanical properties including tensile stress, compressive stress, thermal properties, and nanostructure of polymeric materials that could serve as industry standards for recycled plastic products."

WATER WOES: If the White House gets the Office of Science and Technology Policy up and running, senators want it to tackle unspecified "emerging contaminants" that "are increasingly being detected at low levels in drinking water systems across the country. Prolonged exposure to unregulated drinking water contaminants may pose human health risks, and the lack of research on potential health effects has hindered federal and state efforts to develop and strengthen the effectiveness of drinking water advisories or standards for these materials." OSTP should "identify current research gaps."

SPACE TECHNOLOGY BOOST: While cutting NASA Science, Senate appropriators provide $700 million for the space agency's technology programs - adding $13.5 million to 2017 levels. Among priorities are unmanned aerial systems, which get $5 million "to conduct further research in a broad range of public safety applications over land and maritime environments" at Federal Aviation Administration centers of excellence. Senators also provide current levels of support to NASA's education program, which the administration had proposed to slash.

'A TROUBLING TRACK RECORD': That's what Senate appropriators find when it comes to support for historically black colleges and universities by NSF's research directorates. Accordingly, they're providing $10 million "for the competitive HBCUs Excellence in Research program, to be separate and distinct from awards made to HBCUs under grant opportunities made available to all colleges and universities, and separate and distinct from programs to support HBCUs under the Education and Human Resources directorate." The goal is "to stimulate sustainable improvement in their research and development capacity." NSF should also "use research infrastructure improvement grants, co-funding programs, and other innovative mechanisms to achieve these goals." Noting that Hispanics "continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering disciplines," they also provide $15 million "to increase the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of Hispanic students pursuing associate or baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields." 

NDAA OUTLOOK UNCERTAIN: Following his pivotal role in the Senate's healthcare drama, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to resume treament for brain cancer in the coming week. CQ's John Donnelly reports that McCain's absence will affect Senate consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, which he would ordinarily manage on the floor. "[G]iven that he will not be back in the Capitol until September, it appears all but certain that the authorization bill will not be considered prior to the August recess. What’s more, it remains to be seen how physically fit McCain will be to shepherd the bill even after Congress returns in September, given the enervating effect of radiation and chemotherapy on patients."

LEAVE IT TO THE MARKET: "The federal push for advanced biofuels has failed," University of Michigan mechanical engineer John DeCicco (right) told a recent House hearing on funding of biofuels projects. The Department of Energy and other agencies "have supported bioenergy research, demonstration and deployment for many decades and with billions of dollars. None of the promised cellulosic fuels have become commercially viable, even with subsidies amplified by mandates." DeCicco, a research professor at the university's Energy Institute, insisted that "[p]rotecting the climate from a worsening disruption due to excess CO2 in the atmosphere is now a top challenge for energy research and policy," but said the choice of what technologies to deploy should be left to the marketplace. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who chaired the hearing, has introduced legislation he says is intended "to fully eliminate the biofuel subsidies and related programs in title IX of the farm bill." Click here for more on the hearing.


EASE-UP ON H-1Bs: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency announced July 24 that it "will resume premium processing for certain cap-exempt H-1B petitions effective immediately. The H-1B visa has an annual cap of 65,000 visas each fiscal year. Additionally, there is an annual 'master’s cap' of 20,000 petitions filed for beneficiaries with a U.S. master’s degree or higher. Premium processing will resume for petitions that may be exempt from the cap if the H-1B petitioner is: an institution of higher education; a nonprofit related to or affiliated with an institution of higher education; or a nonprofit research or governmental research organization. Premium processing will also resume for petitions that may also be exempt if the beneficiary will be employed at a qualifying cap-exempt institution, organization or entity."

TURBINES IN PLACE OF OIL RIGS? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory wants to find out if the Gulf of Mexico "can transform 50 years of offshore manufacturing and deployment expertise into a thriving offshore industry" involving "various potential offshore energy resources. . . . DOE’s Wind Vision Report aims to install 86 million gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050," with Gulf Coast states—Florida, Texas, and Louisiana particularly—contributing 10 percent. One challenge is that the region has lower wind speeds - except when it doesn't. "[H]urricane-resistant turbine designs and survival strategies may be required to lessen the increased risk of severe tropic cyclones." Researchers will also "evaluate the feasibility of wave and tidal energy, ocean current energy, ocean-based solar energy, ocean thermal energy, and deepwater source cooling."

NO MORE DEADLINES: The Process Separations Program in the National Science Foundation's Division of Chemical, Biological, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET) "has, as of June 2017, eliminated target dates and will accept proposals for consideration at any time." New proposals are now being considered for review. In another change by NSF, the Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) Program will no longer require a letter of intent. IGE still has deadlines, however: Full proposals are due October 25.


The State of States' Higher Ed Funding

The graphics below come from a new report put out by the State Higher Education Executive Officers' Association, which says: "State and local government support for public higher education in FY 2016 increased from $85 billion in 2015 to more than $88 billion in 2016, with just under $70 billion going to support general education and operations and nearly $10 billion being directed to student financial aid. Another $10 billion supported medical education, hospitals, agricultural programs, and research." See an interactive version.


ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The National Academies panel examining STEM graduate-level education is a peripatetic group, having held five meetings since December with two more planned. They were in North Carolina in May and head to San Francisco in September. Among other things, the study will "[i]dentify strategies to improve the alignment of graduate education courses, curricula, labs and fellowship/traineeship experiences for students with the needs of prospective employers--and the reality of the workforce landscape--which include not only colleges and universities but also industry, government at all levels, non-profit organizations, and others.  A key task will be to learn from employers how graduate education can continue to evolve to anticipate future workforce needs."


NOMINATE A YOUNG SUPERSTAR: Prism magazine plans a repeat of its widely read "20 Under 40" issue, highlighting especially talented engineering and engineering technology teachers and researchers. Please send your nominations and a brief description of the nominees' achievements to m.matthews@asee.org with "20 under 40" in the message line. Note: Choices will be based on both accomplishments and variety.

STUDENT COLUMNIST SOUGHT: Prism's current millennial voice, Mel Chua, has earned a Ph.D. and so is no longer a student. She leaves big shoes to fill. We're looking for an engineering student who writes with skill, flair, and attitude, and who can back up a point of view with evidence. We pay a modest honorarium. Students should send a resume and writing samples to m.matthews@asee.org.

LIVABLE CITIES: The 55th International Making Cities Livable Conference (not affiliated with ASEE) is holding a competition entitled Designing Healthy, 10-Minute Neighborhoods. Projects that emphasize Community, Health, Sustainability, and Equity are actively sought, and will be given particular consideration. Deadline: October 31, 2017. The conference has also issued a CALL FOR PAPERS with the same deadline. Learn more.