Washington Update: September 30, 2019

Continuing resolutions, congressional hearings, appropriations bills, and more

Sep 30, 2019 - by Staff

Continuing resolution keeping federal government open: By a vote of 81-16, the Senate last week sent to President Donald Trump a House-passed continuing resolution (HR 4378) that will extend current funding for all federal agencies through November 21, avoiding a government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins on October 1. The measure was necessary because Congress has yet to pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills needed by then. November 21 is the beginning of the Congressional recess for Thanksgiving, and Congress would likely propose another two- to three-week week continuing resolution to deal with any (or all) FY20 bills that remain unfinished.

House Science Committee hearing on extreme weather events:  On September 26, the House Science Committee held a hearing entitled “Understanding, Forecasting, and Communicating Extreme Weather in a Changing Climate.” The panel was made up entirely of non-government witnesses, including James Done of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, J. Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia, Adam Sobel of Columbia University, Berrien Moore of the University of Oklahoma, and Ann Bostrom of the University of Washington. The hearing was very well attended, and committee members asked a range of well-informed questions about how the changing climate is making the modeling and forecasting of severe weather events more difficult and how federal agencies and other entities involved in Earth system science can provide the advanced observing and forecasting tools that will be needed in the future.

The discussion also included the difficulty of making evacuation decisions in the event of potentially landfalling hurricanes, as well as on the effects of warming ocean waters on the increased intensity on some hurricanes. The panel gave input on which land-, air-, and space-based observations would prove most useful in better understanding processes related to extreme weather events, from hurricane eyewall intensity to upper atmospheric steering effects to atmospheric rivers. The House Science Committee thanked the panel for their observations and advice and may use the hearing as a springboard to introduce new legislation focused on extreme weather events in the coming months.

FY20 budget and appropriations:  The House of Representatives in May had acted on the bill that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but it took the Senate until the last week of September to advance its version of that same FY20 Commerce/Justice/Science appropriations bill. Like the House bill, the Senate bill was very favorable to several UCAR legislative, program, and budget priorities. The Senate Committee included language in the NOAA section of the bill that provided no less than $7 million from the Weather Research Program budget for the agency to establish the Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC), as authorized by the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2018.

The committee also provided continued support to the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) mission and restored all proposed cuts to NOAA extramural research programs. NOAA overall is slated for a $87 million “cut” from the FY19 funding level, but this decrease is primarily driven by greatly reduced procurement funding for NOAA’s flagship weather satellite programs as the satellites launch and enter into the operational phase. The Senate is proposing an increase of $880 million above the President’s request for the agency.

For NSF, the Senate has proposed an increase of $242 million above its FY19 funding level. The House on the other hand has proposed a more generous $561 million increase. This demonstrates continued bipartisan support for boosting NSF funding annually, and the final number may be somewhere inbetween the House and Senate proposals. The Senate committee also provided direction to NSF on Temperate Woodline and Alpine Ecosystems/Ecoregions research, the VORTEX-SE tornado program, marine research facilities, and Earth system science. It proposed a $30 million increase to the mid-scale research infrastructure account.

Federal R&D Priorities Guidance from OSTP and OMB:  On August 31 the White House released the annual guidance document that provides a broad overview of the areas of priority research and development (R&D) investment for the federal government in the coming year. This document, which the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy both helped compile, does not provide specific requested budget numbers for these items, but signals where the emphasis of proposed federal funding increases are likely to go in the coming year. It provides some guidance to agencies on specific administration goals in these areas. In this year’s letter, there was the following guidance on Earth system science research:

Earth System Predictability: Knowing the extent to which components of the Earth system are practicably predictable - from individual thunderstorms to long-term global change - is vitally important for physical understanding of the Earth system, assessing the value of prediction results, guiding Federal investments, developing effective policy, and improving predictive skill. Departments and agencies should prioritize R&D that helps quantify Earth system predictability across multiple phenomena, time, and space scales. Strategic coordination and leveraging of resources across agencies on research and modeling efforts is needed to accelerate progress in this area. Additionally, agencies should emphasize how measures of and limits to predictability, both theoretical and actual, can inform a wide array of stakeholders. They also should explore the application of AI and adaptive observing systems to enhance predictive skill, along with strategies for obtaining substantial improvements in computational model performance and spatial resolution across all scales.

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