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Washington Update: June 2, 2020

Updates on the federal budget, proposed expansion of NSF, COVID-19 stimulus, and more

Jun 3, 2020 - by Staff

FY21 budget and appropriations update: Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) has said he expects the Senate to begin markups on fiscal year 2021 spending bills in the third week of June. The House had initially suggested it would start producing and passing its bills in early June but postponed the start of their efforts until the Senate takes up another package to address additional relief for pandemic response and recovery, meaning they are presently eyeballing early July for the start of the markup of their FY21 appropriations bills.

Neil Jacobs NOAA nomination: Neil Jacobs’ nomination to be the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) moved forward in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee by a vote of 23-3 during an executive session on May 20. Three Democrats provided the no votes (two by proxy) – Sens. Blumenthal (CT), Duckworth (IL), and Baldwin (WI). Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voted in favor of sending his nomination to the full Senate; however, she remarked that she also felt the Senate still needed all the “facts about his suitability and performance” and that she would have preferred this committee hearing and vote on his nomination to have waited until after the Department of Commerce Inspector General delivered his final report on the controversy regarding Hurricane Dorian and apparent White House interference with NOAA. It is unclear at this time whether or not she (or another Senator) will place a “hold” on a vote on his nomination until this report is delivered, or when a final vote on the Senate floor may be scheduled.

Proposed Endless Frontiers Act would massively expand NSF, add a technology focus: New bipartisan authorizing legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN). Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) are expected to soon introduce the same bill in the House. The bill proposes a major reorganization of NSF, which would include creating a Technology Directorate that, within four years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget, authorizing a total of $100 billion for NSF over five years. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the Science and Technology Directorates would each be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. The new Technology Directorate’s efforts would concentrate on a periodically updated list of no more than 10 “key technology” focus areas. One of the initial areas suggested is “natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention." While it is unlikely the Congress will take up the Endless Frontiers Act in the remaining months of the 116th Congress, due to its focus on COVID-19 response and late start to the FY21 appropriations process, it will start a significant debate about how NSF could further expand beyond its original focus on basic research.

Next COVID-19 stimulus package: The timeline of the next stimulus package remains uncertain. Though House Democrats passed the HEROES Act on May 15 – a newly proposed and sweeping $3+ trillion stimulus bill built around aid for local governments and another batch of direct payments to the public – there's currently minimal bipartisan talk about the package because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) cannot agree on the need for immediacy on the bill or its scope. The HEROES Act proposes $915 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments and an additional $100+ billion to support the educational needs of states, school districts, and institutions of higher education ($37+ billion), but it falls short of the research recovery proposal made by several major university associations in April. The House also proposes another $100 million for NOAA’s Fishery Disaster Assistance programs and $125 million to NSF to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to” coronavirus. The Republican Senate majority will likely propose a more targeted bill in mid-June that would include legal liability protections for businesses and universities and set negotiations in motion with the House later this month on a package to send to the president by early July.

Decadal strategy for NSF's Division of Earth Sciences released: On May 19, the National Academies held a briefing to mark the release of its latest decadal survey for NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences. The 2020-2030 report provides recommendations on research, infrastructure, and training priorities as well as facility capabilities for Earth science advances over the next decade.

Karen St. Germain named NASA’s Earth Science director: NASA announced on May 5 that Karen St. Germain will lead its Earth Science Division beginning June 8. St. Germain will be joining NASA from her current role as deputy assistant administrator, systems, of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service.

DOE Office of Science shuffles top-level management: The Department of Energy reorganized its Office of Science’s top-level management and has named Steve Binkley, previously the deputy director for science programs, to the new position of principal deputy director. The former head of the office’s Basic Energy Sciences program, Harriet Kung, stepped into Binkley’s previous role of deputy director for science programs.

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