Programming Note: Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, this is a combined multi-week summary. The Week in Science & Technology will continue to be published at a reduced frequency through December and the winter holidays.

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Senate passes tax bill in post-midnight party-line vote; Democrats decry rushed process

The Senate passed its version of the Republican tax reform bill in the early morning hours on December 2, with all Democrats voting against it, joined by only one Republican, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). A blistering New York Times editorial called the bill a "historic tax heist" that would raise the federal deficit by $1.4 million over the next decade, make health insurance unaffordable for 13 million people, funnel permanent corporate tax savings directly to executives and shareholders, disproportionately burden poor and middle-class taxpayers, and be unlikely to create new jobs. The differences between the Senate bill and the recently passed House bill may be resolved in conference by a joint House-Senate committee before the final vote.

Here is a list of how each senator voted, on the bill itself and on four of its amendments. One amendment that passed, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), would permit 529 plans for college savings to be used for private and religious school tuition. Another, sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), would have exempted only one college--Michigan's Hillsdale College--from a new tax on university endowments. (The family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has close ties to Hillsdale.) The latter amendment was rejected when four Republicans joined the Democrats in voting against it.

Senate Democrats slammed not only the bill, but the manner of its distribution. In a now-viral video, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) angrily displayed a 479-page version of the bill, covered with illegibly scribbled edits, that was handed to senators only hours before the vote. Noting that the bill is not yet law, Indivisible has posted explanations of its different versions, along with suggestions for citizen actions in opposition to the bill.

Senate appropriations bills released; votes pending, deadline looming

As of November 29, the Senate Appropriations Committee has released FY 2018 appropriations bills for the Departments of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs, as well as for 8 executive-branch funding agencies. No vote on these bills has yet been scheduled, but because current funding expires on December 8, disagreements between Democrats and Republicans may lead to a government shutdown unless a deal is reached. The Senate's bill would override the current defense spending cap by $70 billion, which in the absence of a budget agreement could result in the Department of Defense later losing 13% of its funds through mandatory sequestration. The Senate has also recommended flat or increased funding for several research agencies that were slated for budget cuts by the House.

For more on the importance of federal scientific funding and non-defense discretionary funding in general, see our collection of op-eds published in newspapers the U.S.

FCC plan would end net neutrality

On Tuesday, November 21, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai revealed plans to repeal the net neutrality rules that would enable internet providers to restrict or give preferential treatment to Internet content and independently meter the speed of Internet traffic. The plan's release was scheduled for the Thanksgiving holiday week, giving opponents less time to respond before the FCC's December 14 vote on the proposal. Under the plan, internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T, Verizon, Charter, and Comcast would be able to control access to content based on their own financial interest; the sole requirement is that the ISP make its policies available online to consumers. Though favored by ISPs, the plan would complicate both consumer choice and federal regulations. In countries without net neutrality (e.g. Portugal), ISPs can bundle services into separate plans that are both confusing and devoid of real choice; also, enforcement of provider-specific terms of service would be split between the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission. During the open comments period, 22 million comments were left on the FCC website, but a natural-language processing study suggests that more than a million comments supporting repeal are probable products of spambots, and of the 800,000 comments most likely to be original, 99% supported net neutrality and opposed the repeal. If Pai's proposal passes, it may be subject to challenge in court.

FCC reverses decades-old protection, allows further consolidation of TV stations

The FCC voted along party lines on November 16 to strike down a 45-year-old rule specifically designed to prevent any individual or company from holding too much power over local media outlets and coverage. In a strongly worded statement, Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic commissioner who voted against the orders, stated that the "FCC majority has given the green light to more than a dozen actions that are a direct attack on consumers and small businesses. And most Americans are unaware that the agency established to protect the public interest has traded in that role for the chance to grant the wish lists of billion-dollar companies." The reversal will especially benefit the conservative media conglomerate Sinclair. Critics point to Sinclair's requirement that affiliates broadcast nine segments each week that were produced by former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn. If the decision stands, the Trump-friendly Sinclair stands to expand to over 200 stations reaching 70 percent of American households. Legislators have called for the FCC inspector general to investigate FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and 13 Senators called on Pai to recuse himself from any matters related to media ownership, due to his ties to Sinclair.

AT&T threatens to investigate White House role in Time Warner deal

As the FCC opens up media ownership to political allies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the White House may have been attempting to scuttle a major merger of a perceived opponent. On November 11, AT&T stated its intention to probe potential White House involvement in the Justice Department's review of the company's planned $84.5 billion merger with Time Warner. In mid-October Trump, a vocal opponent of Time Warner's CNN, repeatedly threatened to restrict or rescind broadcast licenses of media and news outlets who delivered unfavorable coverage of his policies and opinions. In the intervening weeks tensions have escalated. On November 29, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson stated that he was willing to "make concessions" but not sell assets in order to satisfy DOJ requests. He also renewed questions about the impartiality of Makan Delrahim, United States Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, and a former lobbyist for Comcast and Google, among other telecom and tech companies. To further complicate matters, while Trump's ongoing attacks on CNN clearly indicate some form of vendetta, government regulators and consumers have many legitimate reasons to oppose the deal. The merger would further consolidate media ownership and deeply impact internet, telecom, and cable TV services, to the detriment of consumer choice and innovation.

Tech experts, human-rights activists oppose extreme vetting technologies

On November 16, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke received two letters opposing the department's Extreme Vetting Initiative for screening immigrants and the technologies being proposed to implement it. One letter was signed by 54 technology experts, warning that reliable vetting algorithms would be infeasible; the other by a coalition of 56 human-rights groups outlining how these technologies could threaten civil liberties. Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology, said "This administration should be ashamed of this initiative. But our real hope is that government contractors recognize this for what it is: a digital Muslim ban. Principled companies should publicly reject this discriminatory initiative." Bedoya suggested pressuring the private sector to refuse to participate; a human-rights coalition is now petitioning to keep IBM from developing vetting technologies. Despite the outcry, at a recent tech conference The Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) invited companies to create facial recognition software for the program it has renamed "Visa Lifecycle Vetting." The ICE presentation made clear that despite the name change, the program will continue using social media to monitor visa holders.

Administration STEM posts still unfilled; voices from all sides urge nomination of science advisor

Ten months after President Trump's inauguration, a broad range of critical STEM leadership positions in the federal government remain vacant, and many still lack nominees. The lack of leadership, and continued understaffing in general, continues to deeply impact key policy matters, and the day-to-day operations of several agencies. For example, The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been reduced to one-third of its size under the Obama administration. Trump has yet to name either a science advisor or a head of the OSTP. On November 16, seven Democratic senators led by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) sent a letter to Trump, requesting for the second time that Trump nominate an OSTP chair. Former OSTP director and Obama administration science advisor Dr. John Holdren commented, "Trump is a science and technology talent repellent." Meanwhile, other agencies without official leadership include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (see item below), the Federal Trade Commission (currently understaffed and headed by an acting chair) and NASA, whose nominee for administrator, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), faces opposition from Democrats for his refusal to accept scientific consensus on climate change. Another recent development: Many acting directors are removing "acting" from their title, bypassing the legal requirement for Congressional approval. The moves enable the administration to fill key roles without Congressional oversight -- a contravention of the separation of powers.

Nominee to head NOAA, Accuweather CEO Barry Lee Myers, faces a skeptical Senate committee

The Trump administration's nominee to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) faced questions from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology on November 27. At issue was whether Myers is qualified to lead the agency. In the role, Myers would oversee some 12,000 NOAA employees, half of whom are scientists and engineers, yet he has no scientific background. Critics point to direct conflicts of interest related to his business ties. Myers' brother founded AccuWeather and runs a hedge fund, Weather Prophets, which could stand to profit from Myers' position. Others have cited Myers' past support of attempts to keep the National Weather Service from competing with private weather services and fear he would move to privatize the NWS.

Administration disaster relief proposal includes cuts to USDA research and infrastructure

On November 17, The Trump administration proposed cuts to USDA research funding to offset a small proportion of a $44 billion request for hurricane and wildfire relief. The proposal would eliminate $212 million previously planned for infrastructure improvements for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), as well as $1.4 billion in funding for conservation research. Policy specialist Alyssa Charney of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition warned that cuts to conservation programs can actually leave farmers more vulnerable to expensive natural disasters. Senate Agriculture appropriations subcommittee chair John Hoeven (R-ND) has offered to work with the administration to develop an aid package with less severe cuts to the USDA budget.

House passes defense bill including major research provisions

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a $692 billion bill passed by the House on November 14, includes provisions for funding new national security and defense initiatives. These include medical research benefiting health and safety of military personnel, and construction of a $1 billion Coast Guard icebreaker to improve support for polar bases. One medical program authorizes emergency treatments of battlefield injuries with drugs and devices that are not yet Food and Drug Administration-approved, but is linked to passage of a second bill that will require input from the FDA and Department of Defense. Another provision of the bill, unsuccessfully opposed by some Republican representatives, requires the Pentagon to report on climate change threats to military installations. Also included is an incentivization program, modeled on academic intellectual-property policies, that would permit scientists in military labs to receive higher royalties for innovations licensed to private-sector firms. The Senate is expected to pass the bill later this year; while the bill covers both policy and budgets, a separate appropriations bill will determine actual spending levels.

House Science Committee Passes STEM Education and DOE bills

In a flurry of legislative action on November 15, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee passed four bills addressing STEM education and three Department of Energy bills. The broad range of bills includes measures to bolster STEM research and education, veteran career training, early STEM education, and includes the Women in Aerospace Education Act. Three unanimously passed bills include the DOE Research Infrastructure Act and the Accelerating American Leadership in Science Act both meant to fund the upgrade of research equipment and build additional facilities, and the Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act to fund construction of a "versatile reactor-based fast neutron source."

House passes bill for evidence-based policymaking

The House of Representatives passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 (H.R.4174) to implement the recommendations of a Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Established in 2016, the commission issued a report with recommendations for the use and transparency of data to build evidence related to government programs and protect privacy and confidentiality. The bill implements some of the commission's recommendations and has found support from a range of organizations.

Hartnett White, Wheeler nominations advance to Senate vote

On November 29, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to advance the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to head the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Hartnett White, who holds no science degrees, is currently the director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank. All committee Republicans voted in favor of Hartnett White, while all Democrats on the committee opposed the nomination. At a contentious November 8 committee hearing, White was pressed to answer questions about her climate change skepticism and her failure to require cleanup of radioactive water contaminants in Texas. More than 300 scientists signed a November 28 letter opposing Hartnett White's confirmation. On the same day, the committee also advanced the nomination of fossil-fuel lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as deputy EPA administrator; the full Senate vote on these nominations has not yet been scheduled.

Other Hearings and Markups

  • On November 29, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the nomination of Alex Azar as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Azar, an HHS counsel during the George W. Bush administration, is also the former CEO of Eli Lilly & Co.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a November 30 hearing on implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act. Witnesses will include National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb. The act, passed in December 2016, supports medical research, innovation, public health, and patient-centered medical practice.
  • On November 29, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a full committee markup on 7 bills. One bill, H.R. 1778, would delay a planned moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands pending Congressional approval. Another, H.R. 3117, would forbid federal agencies from considering the social costs of carbon, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions while setting environmental policy or planning an action.

Quick takes

  • The U.S. delegation to the November UN Cop23 climate conference in Bonn was accused of making outdated "zombie arguments" for fossil-fuel energy.
  • The Senate's version of the tax reform bill has eliminated an unpopular provision that would have taxed stock options for the earliest employees of startups.
  • Scientists applying for federal grants are omitting the term "climate change" from the titles and summaries (which are public) of grant applications.

Have comments or something to add? Contact the RISE Stronger Science & Technology Policy Working Group at [email protected].

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