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House "minibus" appropriations bill would boost military, cut science

On Thursday, July 27, the House approved its FY18 "minibus" appropriations bill for defense, energy, and water. The bill includes cuts that, while less severe than those proposed by the President, still fall heavily on energy programs. These include a 47% cut to the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (Trump had proposed 69%), and elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds research in new energy technologies. However, the bill is expected to face opposition in the Senate, which supports higher levels of funding for the Department of Energy (DOE). Also, the House bill would exceed current limits on defense spending, possibly triggering sequestration. Senate Democrats are likely to object to another provision of the minibus bill: $1.6 billion for Trump's proposed border wall.

Senate science appropriations take step forward, would decrease science budgets

Also on July 27, the Senate Committee on Appropriations approved the FY18 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, which had been approved by subcommittee on July 25. Funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would all be decreased relative to FY17 levels, but the Committee rejected some of President Trump's proposals for deeper cuts:

  • NSF: $7.3 billion in appropriations ($161 million cut from FY17). Funded programs include a broad range of STEM research, and the bill restores previously eliminated support for three new research ships.
  • NIST: $944 million ($8 million cut from FY17). Funded programs include cybersecurity research, advanced manufacturing, and private-public partnerships benefiting smaller manufacturing businesses.
  • NOAA: $5.6 billion ($85.1 million cut from FY17), including coverage for programs in ocean monitoring, weather forecasting, fisheries and aquaculture, and coastal grants to individual states.

Trump and Zinke threaten Murkowski

After Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted against opening debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on Tuesday, July 25, President Trump scolded Murkowski on Twitter, and on July 26, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke phoned both Murkowski and fellow Alaska Republican Senator Dan Sullivan. Sullivan implied that Zinke had threatened cuts to Federal energy, jobs, and infrastructure programs in Alaska if Murkowski didn't support the President's agenda. (Zinke denied making threats; Murkowski described their conversation only as "sharing the concern that the president expressed to him to pass on to me.") Despite pressure from the administration, Murkowski and Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and John McCain (R-AZ) voted with Democrats against a "skinny repeal" of the ACA in the early hours of July 28. Former deputy Interior secretary David J. Hayes later expressed concern over the propriety—and legality—of a Cabinet member lobbying a senator over a vote unrelated to his department, but there is another reason for Zinke to avoid conflict with Senator Murkowski: she is chair of both the oversight committee and appropriations subcommittee that oversee the Department of the Interior and its budget.

Six months in, Trump's DOE still in disarray

A report in Vanity Fair details the internal dysfunction and lack of established structure in the Department of Energy (DOE). From the first day following the 2016 election, the Trump team has shown little engagement in constructing an effective staff or policy vision for the agency, including ignoring the institutional knowledge from DOE members who worked for previous administrations—even failing to meet with the agency's outgoing CFO. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is described by a DOE staffer as having "no personal interest in understanding what we do," and another account indicates that Perry met with outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for less than an hour. This has paralyzed technology investment programs funded by the DOE, crucial for maintaining the US's leadership in the global energy market.

DOE communications office targets climate scientists

On Thursday, July 27, the DOE's official public relations Twitter account posted "In the fight between @SecretaryPerry and climate scientists — He's winning." The tweet linked to (and echoed the title of) an op-ed from a climate change denialist that praised Perry for his climate skepticism. The tweet, which seemed to acknowledge the administration's own war on science, was quickly criticized by many, including Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), the Sierra Club. The DOE's press office was also criticized earlier in the week for promoting on Twitter an op-ed that Perry wrote criticizing the ACA (the tweet violated DOE social media guidelines and was deleted). Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked the GAO to investigate whether Perry misused taxpayer funds in writing his op-ed and if the DOE acted improperly in promoting it.

GAO will review how EPA selects science advisors

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will review how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selects the members of its 23 federal advisory committees, in response to a request by ten Democratic Senators in early July. The Senators expressed concerns about the potential for politicization of the committees, writing, "The best science available has always been, and must continue to be, the foundation for EPA's work, and any attempts to politicize or silence the non-partisan conclusions of scientists will only endanger the health of Americans across this country." The committees must represent a balance of viewpoints, according to federal law. Meanwhile, a group of Senate Republicans sent a letter last Thursday, July 27, to the EPA,urging Administrator Scott Pruitt to revamp the Clean Air Scientific Advisory committee, charging that the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has not examined the social, economic, or energy effects of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) program.

Criticism of "red team/blue team" climate change debate continues

The "red team/blue team" debate over climate science that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been promoting is being criticized by former EPA leaders and some in the fossil fuel industry. Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under George W. Bush, said scientists shouldn't participate. "It's more dangerous to give credibility to people that really don't deserve it." On Monday, July 31, the leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and 15 other scientific societies sent a letter to Pruitt, requesting a meeting to discuss climate change and his planned debate. It has been reported that Steven Koonin, a physicist and former DOE undersecretary for science in the Obama administration who has previously expressed vocal skepticism of the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change, is being considered to lead the debate.

FCC reauthorization hearing comes amid flurry of controversy

On July 25, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on oversight of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), including a draft bill to reauthorize the FCC. The FCC's three commissioners were questioned about the highly contentious net neutrality debate, critical media ownership rules, and funding for the E-Rate program that provides much-needed discounts to rural and low-income schools and libraries for Internet connectivity and infrastructure. During the discussion on net neutrality, Democratic and Republican legislators debated the very definition of net neutrality, while some felt that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai misled Congress about his positions and policies. In the hearing, a number of Democratic representatives voiced their concerns. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) stated to Pai that his chairmanship "rests on the altar of dismantling net neutrality as we know it." Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) called out Pai for "an agenda that is anti-consumer, anti-small-business, anti-competition, anti-innovation, and anti-opportunity." These comments echoed criticisms of Pai's position on the Commission's oversight of the E-Rate program, as well. The American Library Association noted that "Chairman Pai and [FCC] nominee [Brendan] Carr declined to commit to maintaining its present funding level or to taking a 'hands-off' approach to changing E-rate modernization orders just adopted in 2015 and not yet fully implemented." FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a vocal supporter of the program, noted that "the future belongs to the connected. No matter who you are or where you live in the country, you need access to modern communication for a fair shot at 21st Century success."

Commission calls on Trump to act on opioid epidemic

Opioid overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, but little policy action has been taken by the Trump administration to deal with the epidemic. In March, the President signed an Executive Order that created a commission "to study the scope and effectiveness of the Federal response to drug addiction and the opioid crisis… and to make recommendations to the President for improving that response." The Commission, chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, finally presented its interim report to the President on Monday, July 31 (after failing twice to meet its 90-day deadline previously).

The Commission calls on the President to declare a National Emergency to galvanize a coordinated and robust Federal response to the epidemic. Other recommendations (in line with those of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)) include: 1) creating a federal fund to increase access to medication-assisted treatments for opioid addiction, such as methadone and buprenorphine (though HHS Secretary Tom Price has previously made false statements about these medications), and work with the NIH to develop new treatments; 2) supporting legislation to expand access to naloxone, a lifesaving overdose-reversing medication; and 3) increasing funding for state-run prescription drug monitoring programs, and other recommendations. However, it is unclear what actions, if any, the President will take on these recommendations, which would likely require increased funding for Medicaid, the NIH, and other federal agencies in order to implement effectively.

Earlier in July, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report, which calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tighten regulations for approving opioid pain medications, among other recommendations that overlap with the Commission's findings.

In somewhat related news, on Thursday, July 27, the Senate rebuked Attorney General Jeff Sessions by including an amendment to the FY18 Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill that prohibits the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere with state-run medical marijuana programs (Sessions had previously requested that Congress to not take this action). A growing body of evidence suggests overdose deaths are reduced in states with medical marijuana.

Sham electoral integrity commission meets while serious voting vulnerabilities remain

On Wednesday, July 19, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity held its first meeting. The Commission's membership is heavily Republican (13 of 15 members), and includes no experts in political science or election data analysis. The committee chairman, former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, previously instituted controversial laws that made voter registration more difficult in his state.

In other election security news, this year's DEF CON hacking conference, held in Las Vegas July 27-30, featured a "Voting Village" of 30 computerized voting machines, and a challenge for attendees to find vulnerabilities in both hardware and software. Hackers found security risks that included easily guessable permanent passwords, outdated software, and unsecured ports that could be used to install malware. The first wi-fi break-in took about two minutes.

House considers first self-driving car bill

On July 27, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill (H.R. 3388: DECAL Act) outlining proposed Federal policy and regulations on self-driving cars. There are currently no federal laws covering these vehicles, though some states have regulated them. The bill would give the federal government sole responsibility for regulating the design and construction of autonomous vehicles, and would require manufacturers to address cybersecurity and customer privacy concerns. Under this proposal, individual states and localities would still handle registration, licensing, and similar requirements that apply to both autonomous and conventional vehicles. The bill, which has had bipartisan support, is ready to advance to the House floor.

Proposed cuts to research overhead could decimate university research

Earlier in July, Inside Higher Ed published an op-ed by 12 chief research officers from Florida universities, expressing express concerns that the administration's proposed FY18 budget would cripple university research. The proposed budget would significantly reduce funding for overhead costs that pay for the everyday functions of research universities. The research officers argue that if the federal government reduced this funding, universities may have to stop performing research as they would likely be unable to cover these costs on their own. It has been reported that university research has contributed $1.3 trillion and 4.2 million jobs to the US economy since 1996.

More scientists consider running for office

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and also a former congressman from New Jersey, has been fielding an increasing number of calls from scientists considering running for office. "It's still not in the dozens [of prospective candidates]. But instead of two or three, it might be 12 or 15," Holt said. "There seems to be a general sense that policy is being made without sufficient attention to scientific evidence." A new political action committee called 314 Action encourages those with science backgrounds to run for office.

Nominations and confirmations

  • On Monday, July 24, the Senate voted 53-43 to confirm lobbyist David Bernhardt as Deputy Interior Secretary.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has postponed a meeting, originally scheduled for Thursday, July 27, to vote on several nominees for positions at the Departments of Energy and the Interior.
  • Trump's nominee to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior Department's Office of Policy, Management and Budget has been described as on a "personal crusade to fight endangered species."

Senate Science Committee activity this Wednesday

On Wednesday, August 2, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is holding an executive session to consider a wide range of legislative measures and nominations.

House on Recess

The House of Representatives has adjourned for its August recess, and members will return to work on September 5.

What you can do

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