What you can do

Shutdown ends with government funded through February 8, but more interruptions possible

For the fourth time this year, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to pass a budget for FY18. The three previous times, a temporary continuing resolution was passed before the deadline to continue funding the government at current levels. However, no such deal was reached before January 19, causing a federal government shutdown, which ended three days later, with a deal that funded the Children's Health Insurance program for six years but postponed any action on immigration policy. However, the newest continuing resolution to fund the government runs out on February 8, risking another shutdown. An estimate of worker furloughs and office closures, based on the effects of the 2013 shutdown, shows their potential effects on science agencies: 95% of Environmental Protection Agency staff could be furloughed during a government shutdown, as well as 87% of the Commerce Department (which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The actual effects of the January 19-22 shutdown were relatively minor because of its brevity, but a longer shutdown would impact all major federal research funding agencies and many others -- including the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which would furlough more than half its workers during a severe flu season.

Senate confirms Azar as HHS head; Senate Science committee approves Bridenstine and Myers nominations

On January 24, the Senate confirmed former Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar as Secretary of Health and Human Services, filling the four-month vacancy that followed the resignation of Tom Price for misusing taxpayer funds. The 55-43 vote was mainly along party lines; only six Democrats plus Sen. Angus King (I-ME) supported Azar, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was the only Republican to vote against confirmation.

The previous week, on January 18, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation advanced, by strict party-line (14-13) votes, the nominations of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) as NASA administrator and former AccuWeather CEO Barry Lee Myers as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator. Neither Bridenstine nor Myers has a background in science or engineering; Bridenstine has indicated that he would shift NASA's focus from research to military and commercial development, while Myers has advocated limiting activities of NOAA's National Weather Service to minimize its competition with the private sector -- including AccuWeather.

House Republicans target NIEHS director for advocating citizen engagement

A December 2017 editorial by Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), drew the ire of House Science Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and member Andy Biggs (R-AZ). Dr. Birnbaum's editorial addressed toxic-chemical regulation, ending with the statement, "Closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence." On January 17, Smith and Biggs sent letters to Health and Human Services officials, accusing Birnbaum of violating the Anti-Lobbying act, which prohibits Federal employees from lobbying Congress. Smith and Biggs -- themselves recipients of chemical-industry donations -- asked HHS to "launch a full-scale review" of Birnbaum's publication. Several legal experts disagree that Birnbaum's editorial violated anti-lobbying rules, and former Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu called the Republicans' letter "an attack on science and evidence".

Science advisory panels shrink during Trump administration; National Park panel quits

On January 18, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported on the disappearing influence of science advisory committees during the Trump administration. Independent experts normally advise the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, and Interior Department, but both their group sizes and meeting frequencies reached 20-year lows during 2017. Advisory committees have historically included both public- and private-sector scientists, but the balance of representation has changed during the Trump administration; after the EPA banned its grant recipients from advisory roles, its proportion of industry advisors rose from 6% to 23%. Across agencies and departments, some committees have been disbanded, many departing advisors have not been replaced, and, on January 15, 10 of the 12 members of the National Park Service's advisory panel resigned in protest after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to convene the panel at all during 2017.

FCC keeps broadband speed standards, but won't prioritize increased access

On January 18, the Federal Communications Commission announced that they would not change the definition of broadband Internet to allow the lower speeds achievable via cellular data connections, but FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also stated that the agency is already doing enough to ensure that all Americans have access to broadband. This contrasts with Obama administration policy, which consistently advocated additional efforts to increase broadband access. On January 25, San Jose (California) mayor Sam Liccardo resigned from an FCC broadband advisory panel, alleging that the FCC unfairly favors commercial Internet service providers; also, a Harvard study released on January 10 showed that when compared to conventional ISPs, community-owned broadband networks usually save consumers money.

Quick takes
  • The draft of the White House's FY19 budget, slated for release on February 12, is expected to include a plan to end support for the International Space Station by 2025, three years before the end of the ISS's operational lifetime.
  • NSF's biennial Science & Engineering Indicators report for 2018 shows that overall research spending in China has increased by about 18 percent per year since 2000; in the United States, the annual increase since 2000 has been only 4 percent.
  • The Senate's SESTA bill, which would require Internet publishers to monitor their sites for online sex trafficking, has 64 co-sponsors and is likely to pass, but is opposed by some Internet advocates concerned that it will unduly burden publishers while actually impeding anti-trafficking efforts.
  • The Senate is evenly divided on restoring net neutrality via a Congressional Review Act. Though restoration is unlikely to pass in the House or survive a Trump veto, net neutrality is sufficiently popular with voters to become a campaign issue this year.

Highlights from partner organizations

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is accepting applications for their Science for Public Good Fund, which provides awards of $1,000 for advocacy to defend the role of science in public policy, especially at the local level. Applications are due February 16, 2018.
  • As a followup to the State of the Union Address on January 30, UCS will hold an hour-long telephone briefing on defending science, beginning at 7 pm EST / 4 pm PST on Wednesday, January 31. Follow the link to RSVP and participate in the call..

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

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