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Washington Update: April 1, 2020

Pandemic relief package, COVID-19 impacts on R&D, NOAA and NSF leadership changes, and bids for EPIC

Apr 1, 2020 - by Staff

Congress acts to provide pandemic relief: The third and most recent coronavirus relief legislative package passed by Congress will provide over $2 trillion in funding, with most of the money going to employers, out-of-work employees, and states to deal with the economic slowdown caused by widespread business shutdowns. 

The legislation also includes funding to shore up coronavirus research efforts at an array of federal agencies, including $945 million for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and billions to other public health agencies, $100 million for supporting researcher access to the Department of Energy’s user facilities and computational resources, and $75 million for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research grants that will help “prevent, prepare for, and respond” to the novel coronavirus. It also provides resources and the authority to cover coronavirus-related disruptions to agency activities. For example, it enables agencies to reimburse contractors that pay employees who cannot work remotely.

The legislation is primarily focused on providing economic aid, which includes the creation of a $14 billion relief fund for universities. That amount is well short of what university associations requested, though Congress has already indicated it plans to pursue additional coronavirus relief legislation, likely in the next month or two, that may address these additional university needs among others.

COVID-19 impacts on federal research and development: States and the federal government continue to take increasingly serious measures to detect, slow, and treat the spreading disease outbreak. More states across the U.S. implemented restrictions on nonessential activities last week, and another wave of federal facilities took actions to minimize onsite operations. 

As major research universities have shuttered and moved to online instruction, some university researchers are raising serious concerns about losing access to labs required to conduct sponsored work. There is uncertainty about whether or not exceptions will be made to allow that funding to continue despite these current access restrictions. Major academic conferences have also been canceled around the country, through summer and even into fall. As a result, scientists and their associations have increasingly experimented with virtual conferencing tools in a bid to salvage some of these meetings. 

NOAA nominee Neil Jacobs receives Senate hearing:  On March 11 the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to review the president’s nomination of Neil Jacobs to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Jacobs has been serving as the acting administrator since last February. Jacobs stated that restoring U.S. leadership in weather forecasting is one of the top three challenges facing the agency and mentioned the concept of crowdsourcing forecast model development through an Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC) as one of the ways to accomplish that goal. He faced more questions about fisheries management than weather or climate issues, although Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska had good questions about flooding in the Midwest and NOAA coordination with other federal and state agencies that monitor rainfall and other contributors to river flooding. A confirmation vote was originally anticipated in mid-April, but that date could change due to the coronavirus outbreak.

NSF director nominee hearing and vote uncertain: This past week France Córdova stepped down as NSF director after six years at the helm, but due to the impact of coronavirus on congressional operations, her nominated successor, Sethuraman Panchanathan, a professor of computing and informatics at Arizona State University, is not yet able to take over. Panchanathan is already familiar with NSF’s inner workings through his service on the National Science Board, the agency’s 24-member governing board, to which President Obama appointed him in 2014. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which will review the nomination, had not announced a hearing date before all routine business was subsumed by the legislation to respond to coronavirus, and now there is uncertainty as to when they will return to Washington and be able to work through backlogs on things like agency nominations.

NOAA officially seeking bids for Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC): NOAA has released its solicitation for bids to operate EPIC, which is intended to be a cornerstone of its new efforts to reclaim global leadership in weather forecasting. The agency anticipates making a single award by this fall, which would provide up to $45 million over five years to operate the center. Although the solicitation notes the workforce operating the center will likely be “largely virtual,” it adds that the contractor may be tasked with establishing a “physical point of presence” anywhere in the continental U.S. The House Science Committee has taken a strong interest in EPIC, and its chair and ranking member sent a joint letter to NOAA earlier this month urging that the request for proposals “result in a single award being issued to ensure EPIC is implemented in a unified manner that prevents fragmentation of the program.”  UCAR is presently closely reviewing this opportunity and undertaking numerous discussions with membership.

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