Washington Update: July 1, 2020

New NSF director, FY21 budget update, research relief bill, and more

Jul 1, 2020 - by Staff

New NSF director confirmed: Sethuraman Panchanathan was confirmed by voice vote in the full Senate on June 18 to serve as the next director of the National Science Foundation. The NSF director position is typically a six-year term, which would carry his stay at the agency through the next two presidential elections. House Science Committee Chairwoman Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Lucas (R-OK) both issued statements congratulating him on his confirmation.

FY21 budget and appropriations update: The House Appropriations Committee is now planning to begin its mark-ups next week, with the Commerce, Science, Justice, and Related Agencies bill that funds NSF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA scheduled for consideration on July 8. The Senate Appropriations Committee’s mark-ups on fiscal year 2021 bills that were scheduled to begin during the second half of June have been delayed while the Senate addresses criminal justice reform proposals, the annual defense authorization bill and possibly another COVID-19 relief package. They are now expected to mark up many of their appropriations bills in July, but have not released an official schedule at this time.

Lawmakers introduce $25 billion bill for research relief: A bipartisan group of six representatives have introduced the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act, which calls for approximately $25 billion to help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on federally funded research projects at universities, independent institutions, and national laboratories. The legislation includes $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, $5 billion for the Department of Energy, $3 billion for NSF, and $2 billion for NASA, among other federal science agencies.

APLU call with House science committee on NSF: The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology discussed their outlooks on research recovery at universities, research security, NSF reauthorization, and the Endless Frontiers Act with members of the Association of Public and Land Grand Universities in a call on June 24. From the Subcommittee on Research and Technology, there is support for funding additional research infrastructure as part of recovery efforts if sponsors can show that specific basic research investments are important to U.S. economic competitiveness and to the recovery from the pandemic.

For the Endless Frontiers Act specifically, staffers suggested that some supporters in the Senate may try to attach it to the Senate’s version of the defense authorization act to at least “put it in play” for a deal at the end of the year. The Research and Technology Subcommittee is also assembling a “staff draft” of a NSF reauthorization bill that will include a new directorate that addresses some of the same goals as the proposed new “Technology Directorate” in the Endless Frontiers Act, but with greater flexibility and less disruption to how NSF currently operates. Their goal is to find a balance between supporting NSF’s current mission and the pushing of boundaries and new experimentation.

New NASA Earth Science Division director speaks: The new Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, Karen St. Germain, spoke publicly for the first time in her new position at an online meeting of NASA’s Earth Science Technology Forum on June 23. She spoke about the current decadal survey process, budgets, and issues that pose challenges as well as opportunities for implementing the decadal recommendations. Those factors include improvements in technology in the last few years, growing demand for “actionable information” regarding climate change and other environmental issues, as well as the increasing role of the commercial sector in providing new Earth observing capabilities. St. Germain came to NASA from NOAA, where she was the deputy assistant administrator for systems at NESDIS, NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. In that role she led a study that examined a next-generation architecture for future weather satellites that makes use of smaller satellites and nontraditional orbits.

NOAA ramps up use of drones to collect weather data: NOAA has announced that the agency is accelerating the use of autonomous (unmanned) ocean vehicles this summer in the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans to supplement the loss of weather data due to limited ship and aircraft missions. The underwater ocean gliders are equipped with wind, solar radiation, salinity, and temperature sensors to receive important data during the hurricane season and to support hurricane forecast models.

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