Washington Update: May 5, 2020

Budget and appropriations update, continued impacts from COVID-19, input on Earth system predictability, and more relief spending

May 5, 2020 - by Staff

FY21 budget and appropriations update: In April, UCAR finished its efforts to brief the entire Colorado delegation and committees of jurisdiction on its fiscal year 2021 appropriations priorities, which had to be completed virtually due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The original House Appropriations Committee schedule of agency budget hearings in March and April – which were to be followed immediately by markups of the first FY21 spending bills – has been upended by the House adjourning in March. Since then, the House has only returned to draft and vote on emergency legislation and funding in response to the pandemic. As a result, the FY21 appropriations process is stalled and no agreement has yet emerged in the House that would allow such committee business to be conducted remotely.

The House Appropriations Committee leadership has, however, decided on top-line subcommittee allocations, which allows the subcommittees to begin drafting their bills. These numbers have not been released to the public at this time. The House’s previously planned return for “regular business” on May 4 also has been indefinitely delayed due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the region, so there is no new schedule for the resumption of hearings and markups.

COVID-19 impact on weather forecasts and climate research: Science advocates and policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impacts of the pandemic on climate research and weather forecasting due to the sharp decrease in trips made by planes and ships that carry climate and weather sensors, as well as the broad travel restrictions affecting most fieldwork.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, air traffic readings in the U.S. are down by 60%, and while operating flights are still sending data, the lost observations may decrease the accuracy of weather forecasts by 2% or more.

Travel restrictions also have interrupted some normal maintenance and cleaning cycles of remote climate sensors and interrupted the downloading of information needed to maintain continuous datasets. Climate scientists are especially concerned about COVID-19’s impact on the ability of developing nations to prepare for extreme weather, since weather data in these countries is primarily collected manually. However, federal climate science agencies are continuing to process daily grant payments to recipients without interruption during the pandemic and remain open to the possibility of extending grants where research has been disrupted by the pandemic.

Federal government seeks input on Earth system predictability: An interagency “fast track action Committee,” stood up in February, is now collecting public input on what sorts of research and development activities could improve the predictability of the Earth system. The initiative follows from last year's White House research and development budget priorities memorandum, which directed agencies to prioritize efforts that “quantify Earth system predictability across multiple phenomena, time, and space scales,” as well as to evaluate “how measures of and limits to predictability, both theoretical and actual, can inform a wide array of stakeholders.”

NASA has issued this “Request for Information” on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council, with responses due by May 15. The request pertains to the "practical needs" of an Earth system predictability research effort as well as the socioeconomic benefits that would result from it.

Continued COVID-19 impact on events: The United Nation’s COP26 climate change conference and summit was due to take place in November in the United Kingdom but has now been postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, though a new date has not yet been announced. In Washington, D.C., the 45th Annual NOAA Fish Fry event has been moved from its traditional week in June to September 10, 2020. UCAR’s climate science and policy briefings on Capitol Hill have also been postponed, with plans being made to provide these events online if necessary.

Potential for stimulus spending package: Separate from the FY21 budget, many members of Congress are interested in evaluating what additional federal spending or policy changes could help the U.S. economy recover in the short and long terms from the blows of the pandemic. Colleges and universities are seeking significant extra financial support in any new package, as are states and municipalities, which are facing growing revenue holes caused by lower tax collections.

Various scientific societies specifically responded to a request for input from the House Science Committee on research needs that could be addressed in a future coronavirus relief package. Additional ideas for a “phase 4” bill have included a new highway bill to boost infrastructure spending and other investments similar to some of those included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

The $800+ billion ARRA included funding for modernizing federal infrastructure, additional National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health grants, as well as investments in numerous clean energy programs to help quickly put more people back to work after the financial crisis. However, given the even larger price tag of government spending so far in response to the pandemic, it may take some time to negotiate such a package, given some strong opposition in the Senate to additional spending not directly needed for COVID-19 research, response, and mitigation.

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