We should beware the White House’s counter propaganda arm

An anti-Russian propaganda project operating under the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors threatens to do more harm than good, while raising the stakes of battles over truth and facts in the media.

Current Time America news anchor Ihar Tsikhanenko, right, prepares for a broadcast in the offices of Voice of America in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

With fears growing of “fake news” and Russian influence on the November election, former President Obama upgraded the Global Engagement Center two days before Christmas last year, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Its stated goal is to counter “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” But the line between propaganda and counter-propaganda is rather thin, and now President Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson have the reigns.

Led by veterans of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the center plans to try to correct false claims from outlets like Russia Today, though it also has China, Iran, and the Islamic State in its sights. It’s targeting its messaging at foreign audiences abroad, but as popular news is global these days, some of its programming will easily reach American media consumers, too.

The Global Engagement Center’s activities include television and radio programs, online news, and a social media presence. It’s one thing though to use such tools and broadcasts to debunk false reports and unverified claims, whether about airstrikes or elections, but the organization is more ambitious than that. Its purpose includes “proactively advancing fact-based narratives that support US allies and interests,” according to a presentation obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

If they’re advocating for American foreign policy interests, that’s going farther than just presenting facts. This isn’t just splitting hairs; for an administration that not only believes in “alternative facts” and “truthful hyperbole” but also at times appears to be at war with the media, the risks of sliding into propaganda are very real. A broadcast that discourages a potentially violent recruit of the Islamic State is one thing, but if it promotes US foreign policy, that’s a different matter, and it could backfire.

Furthermore, Trump may tap Michael Pack, an ally of Steve Bannon, to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is already no longer controlled by a bipartisan board. The Global Engagement Center and Voice of America could lose any semblance of independence as they continue to reach more than 100 countries in 61 languages — but potentially with broadcasts more favorable to Trump’s White House.

In the age of “fake news,” this scrutiny of anti-propaganda efforts also exposes the limits of fact-checking. When checking a fact, journalists have to consider what sources to choose and whose authority to trust. A news program that seems impartial or objective to one person may simply assume a status quo long criticized by others. Journalists should be more conscious of such assumptions.

Finally, it remains unclear if American journalists could be targeted by the Global Engagement Center. It’s focused on foreign media and audiences, but well-intentioned or not, it’s not hard to imagine American reporters critical of Trump’s policies being caught in its net. For example, let’s not forget the much-criticized Washington Post news story last November about “Russian propaganda efforts spreading fake news during the election,” according to the headline. It was based on an anonymous website called PropOrNot, whose list included disinformation outlets as well as legitimate US-based news sources.

On the road ahead, let’s hope that the Global Engagement Center strives for transparency and consults independent journalists about controversial programming. In the meantime, I’m hoping that we reporters, as well as readers and watchers of the news, more carefully pay attention to what’s said and what’s not said — and to who’s doing the talking.

Is Trump betraying his base?

Many Trump voters hope their man in the White House will be a brave outsider who will shake things up in Washington and improve their economic and job situations. But his platform, landing team and appointments so far indicate that they’ll be sorely disappointed.

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

President-Elect Trump won 62 million votes, and the way I see it, many of those came from people who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by a system in which the political establishment ignored their concerns and struggles. Many from Midwestern states also saw local industries erode and jobs remain hard to come by—the rate of unemployment plus underemployment is stuck at 10%, higher than when Obama took office in 2008—at odds with talk by commentators of an improving economy. (Racism, sexism, and xenophobia disturbingly factored into Trump’s campaign as well; these are very important issues, but I’ll write about them more later.)

However, it’s hard to see how Trump would change business-as-usual when lobbyists and Washington insiders make up so many of his appointees and transition team. These include Wilbur Ross, founder of a private equity firm, to lead the Commerce Department. He previously owned a coal company whose Sago mine in West Virginia had been cited for hundreds of safety and health violations and in which 12 miners lost their lives following an (avoidable) explosion. Betsy DeVos, a prominent donor to head Education, would likely push for more access to private schools which would lead to decreased funding to public ones, including those that many Trump voters’ families depend on. Trump also has numerous advisers and potential appointees from Washington think tanks and lobbying firms, including Myron Ebell, Michael McKenna and Michael Catanzaro.

None of these people have experience with or a record of supporting working-class people, whom Trump won more votes from than Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, according to exit polls. He also won more men and more people with less than a university education, according to a Pew survey, and his supporters primarily came from rural areas and suburbs. (And yes, there was a big racial divide, but it looks similar to previous elections, in spite of the role racial issues and immigration played in Trump’s campaign.)

Furthermore, the tax code Trump has proposed would raise taxes on the poorest while cutting them for the richest people. Nearly 8 million families, most of them single-parent ones, would see higher taxes, too. The biggest tax changes would be to the richest 1 percent, who would benefit from windfalls of 13.5% on average, the Tax Policy Center finds. The richest of the top 1 percent (multi-millionaires) would also benefit from him repealing the estate tax (and possibly the gift and generation-skipping taxes). If all these tax cuts passed, the deficit would balloon over Trump’s term and it could be tough for his administration to continue the federal government’s support for the welfare system that some of his voters and many other people rely on, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump voters are concerned about what they perceive as inequality in job opportunities, according to a Pew survey conducted right before the election. (But they’re not worried about economic inequality, presumably hoping that the “American Dream” will one day come true for them.) It’s not clear where the needed jobs would come from during Trump’s term though. Infrastructure projects often create many jobs, but Trump’s proposal seems to depend on huge tax credits, which won’t necessarily have the intended results.

Nevertheless, if Italy’s experience with Berlusconi is any guide, I suspect that most Trump voters won’t simply turn against him just because he broke some campaign promises or because his economic policies don’t benefit them. People want to feel like they have someone, anyone, who listens to them and represents their interests. If no one else provides a clear and credible alternative, I think many people will stick with Trump through his term.

Finally, how will journalists grapple with the Trump era? Many have different thoughts on this (see this, this, and this), and I’m still trying to figure it out for myself as well. I don’t really have an answer yet, but stay tuned.

Campaign promises and proclamations I hope President Hillary Clinton will fulfill

I know, it’s probably premature to talk about what President (Hillary) Clinton could or should do. Poll aggregates currently estimate about an 88% chance of her winning the election, but you don’t need to be a political scientist to know that that’s far from guaranteed. A lot can happen in the next two and a half months, and we haven’t seen Clinton and Donald Trump debate yet. But barring a major shift, Clinton will likely prevail in November.

(Credit: U.S. Department of State)

(Credit: U.S. Department of State)

If she wins handily, by a margin of even 10%, and if there’s a big turnout of the electorate (60% turnout is actually considered high in this country), then Clinton can say that she’s earned a “mandate.” But as the New York Times asked on Monday, what exactly will that mandate be for? Thomas Frank argues in the Guardian that, as Trump’s campaign nosedives, Clinton need only campaign against him, rather than for a progressive agenda. What Clinton says in her speeches and whom she highlights as her top advisors and endorsers is at least as good a sign of what’s to come as her official platform.

In any case, many voters as well as observers abroad pay close attention to her policy positions and campaign promises, and they want action, not just rhetoric. As noted by the LA Times and the Atlantic, political-science research shows that promises made during this phase of the campaign often get followed up on later (with mixed results). Here are a few in particular I’m hoping she follows through on. Clinton will be able to make progress on many of these even if the Congress becomes gridlocked.

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Philanthropists are Enabling and Influencing the Future of Astronomy

[This is a longer version of an op-ed I published in the San Jose Mercury News with the title “Tech moguls increasingly deciding what scientific research will be funded.” Thanks to Ed Clendaniel for help editing it.]

Billionaires and their foundations are both enabling and shaping scientific endeavors in the 21st century, raising questions that we as a society need to consider more seriously.

I have spoken to many astronomers, who consistently clamor for more reliable funding for scientific research and education. With broad public support, these scientists passionately explore the origins of life, the Milky Way, and the universe, and they naturally want to continue their research.

But what does it mean when private interests fund a growing fraction of scientific work? Can we be sure that limited resources are being directed toward the most important science?

Research & Development as a Fraction of Discretionary Spending, 1962-2014. (Source: Budget of the U.S. Government FY 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

Research & Development as a Fraction of Discretionary Spending, 1962-2014. (Source: Budget of the U.S. Government FY 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

After the Apollo program, federal funding for science and for astronomy in particular has never been a top priority, declining as a fraction of GDP. Since the Great Recession, science has received an increasingly narrow piece of the pie. Acrimonious budget debates perennially worry scientists that the mission or research program they’ve devoted their careers to might be cut.

Trends in Federal Research & Development. (Source: National Science Foundation, AAAS.)

Trends in Federal Research & Development. (Source: National Science Foundation, AAAS.)

Perhaps as a result, philanthropic funding for scientific research has bloomed, increasing sharply relative to the federal government, according to the National Science Foundation. For example, the Palo Alto-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, built on the success of Intel, agreed to provide $200 million for the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, intended to study distant stars and galaxies. This summer, Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation dedicated $100 million to research at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere to expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Because the federal role is more and more constrained, there is a real opportunity for private philanthropy to have a lot of influence on the way in which scientific research goes forward,” Robert Kirshner, head of the Moore Foundation’s science program, told me.

These laudable initiatives put personal wealth to good use. They enable important scientific research and technology development, and some scientists benefit from the philanthropists’ largesse. But they also transfer leadership from the scientific community and public interest to the hands of a few wealthy businesspeople and Silicon Valley tech moguls.

While philanthropists support leading scientists and valuable scientific research, they and their advisors decide what is “valuable.” If they desire, they could fund their favorite scientists or the elite university they attended. They have no obligation to appeal to the scientific community or to public interests.

Philanthropists sometimes go for attention-getting projects that gets their name or logo on a major telescope (like Keck or Sloan) or a research institute (like Kavli), which also happen to enable important science for many years.

For better and perhaps also for worse, private funding of science is here to stay. Although fears of billionaires controlling science might be overblown, we should ensure that we support a democratic and transparent national system, with scientists’ and the public’s priorities guiding decisions about which projects to pursue.

Public funding involves thorough review systems involving the community, and projects develop upon a strong base with considerable oversight and transparency. This takes time, but it’s worthwhile.

Government agencies and universities support “basic” science research, allowing scientists to focus on science for its own sake and to explore long-term projects. Private interests often ignore basic research, typically spending 80 cents of every research and development dollar on the latter. In response to this shortcoming, the Science Philanthropy Alliance formed recently near Stanford University to advise foundations about how to invest directly in fundamental scientific research.

“If you’re going to have an impact in the long run, then you should be supporting basic research, which is often where some of the biggest breakthroughs come from,” said Marc Kastner, its president, referring to the Internet and the human genome.

These well-intentioned efforts offer no guarantee, however. We should urge policy-makers to reliably fund science and consider it as sacrosanct as healthcare and social security, regardless of budget limits. At the same time, we should clearly delineate the role philanthropy and private industry will play.

COMPETES Act: The House Science Committee’s Controversial Bill

Two weeks ago, the United States House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) along party lines. Originally authored by Bart Gordon (D-TN) in 2007 to improve the US’s competitiveness and innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, it contributed substantial funding to research and activities in federal agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (In a previous post, I was hopeful about the passage of an earlier version of the bill.) Its current version, however, includes contentious cuts to NSF and DOE research programs, and it now proceeds to the House floor.

Although the President’s Budget Request for fiscal year 2016 includes small increases for the NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST, the new COMPETES Act, if passed in its current version, would shift funding away from research in the social sciences, geosciences, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and biological and environmental research. In other words, federally funded research in some science fields would gain more support at the expense of these fields, whose funding would be cut by 10-50%. In particular, the bill would severely narrow the scope of NSF research and scientific facilities in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) and geoscience (GEO) directorates and would reduce the DOE’s basic and applied research programs in climate change and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

I suppose it could be worse. Lamar Smith’s earlier version included attacks and interference in the NSF’s scientific peer-review process (which I discussed in
this post in March), and he made a small concession by removing such language from the bill.

Clearly not happy with the COMPETES Act, scientists of all stripes continue to voice their opposition. While the House Science Committee’s Republican majority rejected one Democratic amendment after another, 32 scientific agencies submitted official letters for the record describing their concerns. (These agencies include the American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics, of which I am a member.) Moreover, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—the US’s premier scientific society—submitted a letter as well, pointing out that H.R. 1806 violates its own Guiding Principles. The letter also states, “NSF is unique among federal agencies in that it supports a balanced portfolio of basic research in all disciplines, using the scientific peer review system as the foundation for awarding research grants based on merit.”

In my opinion, the COMPETES Reauthorization Act needs serious revision so that scientists in all fields, including the social sciences and geosciences, may continue their work at an internationally respected level. This would certainly make the US more competitive in science and would aid people seeking STEM careers. If the bill’s proponents will not allow these necessary improvements to be made, then the bill should be rejected.

For more information, check out this well-written article in Wired and detailed coverage in Science magazine and Inside Higher Ed.

How Do Politics Interfere with the National Science Foundation and NASA?

Why do Congress members members keep getting involved in scientists’ work? Is it because they really love science? In my opinion, this interference impedes scientists’ communities from setting their own priorities and from continuing their work. (I argued as much when I spoke to Senator Feinstein’s staff at her San Diego office recently.) But first I’ll describe how Representatives in the House Science Committee seek to interfere with the National Science Foundation’s peer-review process and how a Subcommittee Chair in the Senate interferes with NASA’s scientific programs. As budget negotiations begin for FY 2016, these issues take on additional importance.

Suppose the scientist Dr. X wrote a paper about her findings and wants to publish it. She’d submit it to a journal, where it would go through the peer-review process: a peer reviewer would review the paper and assess whether it is publishable and appropriate for the journal. When Dr. X submits a proposal for a research grant with a federal agency, such as with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the process works sort of similarly. More is at stake though, and a panel of reviewers review many proposals and assess their scientific merits.

nsf1

In the context of budget debates during the recession and ongoing “sequestration,” it’s natural that policy-makers would scrutinize agencies’ budgets. Nevertheless, in the federal R&D budgets by agency, the NSF’s is rather small—much smaller than the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, for example—and in any case, hasn’t the NSF been doing a good job? In spite of this, last year the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (“House Science Committee,” for short), chaired by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), began “an unprecedented—and some say bizarre—intrusion into the much admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants,” according to science policy analyst Jeffrey Mervis.

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX). Credit: Science Insider

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX). Credit: Science Insider

In 1976, Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) attacked scientific research with the annual “Golden Fleece” Awards, the first of which went to the NSF. These awards and Proxmire’s grandstanding resulted in generating suspicion towards government spending on science. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) continued this legacy by criticizing primarily research grants in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) sciences. In response, a few years ago, a coalition of scientific groups started the Golden Goose Awards to highlight “examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.”

Lamar Smith’s current attack goes further than the Golden Fleece Awards by investigating the NSF’s peer-review process itself, and scientists are concerned about whether the process will remain confidential. Moreover, Smith would like to ensure that every research grant funded by the NSF is in the “national interest;” any other research, according to him, constitutes “wasteful spending.” It seems that Smith’s mission is to attack research in the social sciences, and at the same time he threatens to “compromise the integrity of NSF’s merit review system as part of this campaign,” according to House Science Committee member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX). (For more coverage, see these excellent articles in Science, National Geographic, and LA Times.)

Finally, on a more positive note, it seems that Smith and NSF Director France Córdova may eventually resolve their disagreements. Following a hearing on the NSF’s grant making policies and procedures, Smith backed down from his previous position and appears to have endorsed the NSF’s peer review system. This is encouraging, but I fear that the battle isn’t over.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Credit: AP)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Credit: AP)

But it’s not just the NSF that has experienced politicians interfering in its work. NASA faces a somewhat similar situation. (The Environmental Protection Agency has also withstood attacks in recent weeks, but that’s another story.) Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, which oversees NASA, is getting involved in that agency’s work. At a budget hearing, Cruz questioned Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and NASA’s administrator, to explain NASA’s funding of earth sciences (also known as geosciences), which Cruz claimed are not “hard science.” Cruz argued that manned space exploration is NASA’s “core mission,” and earth sciences have nothing to do with that.

Bolden responded, “It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment, because this is the only place we have to live…We’ve got to take care of it. and the only way to take care of it is to know what’s happening.” Moreover, according to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Science magazine, one can’t decouple earth sciences and planetary sciences, which are inextricably linked. (For more coverage, also check out these articles in the Guardian, Slate, and Salon.)

Cruz is right that the proportion of NASA funding going to earth science research has increased over the past few years, but there is a reason for that. In my opinion, some people reporting on this in the news seem to focus on the misguided and ill-informed views of Senator Cruz when it comes to climate science in particular. But I think the issue here is that politicians shouldn’t generally interfere with scientists doing their work as best they can. Scientists in the space sciences (including earth sciences) periodically write reports known as Decadal Surveys, in which they set their short- and long-term priorities for investing funding and research. Though there could be more interaction and better communication between scientists and policy makers, especially when some research programs might have policy implications, that doesn’t mean that non-scientists know better when it comes to setting priorities for scientific research.

These debates don’t happen in a vacuum but are related to the larger context of federal budgets for science research, education, and public outreach. Negotiations for FY 2016 budgets are already underway, and just last week scientists and their allies advocated for a 5% increase to the NSF’s budget, primarily going to telescope construction projects and the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division, as well as an 11% increase to its education budget. The debates surely will continue, and I’ll keep you posted.

Update: US Federal Science Budget for 2015

Last week, three months into the fiscal year, the US Congress avoided a government shutdown and finally passed a budget for 2015. Better late than never. As I wrote about during the time of the midterm election, the budget situation is particularly important for science research and development and for education and public outreach. The $1.1 trillion and 1,600 page omnibus bill includes many important non-science issues of course, such as provisions reducing financial regulations and others allowing larger campaign contributions to political parties, and the bill does not address funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which will be decided in February, but my focus here, as usual, is on the implications for science.

Many agencies will receive small budget increases for science and technology relative to FY 2014 and to the President’s initial budget request (but excluding his Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative). According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), federal research and development (R&D) would rise to $137.6 billion, which is a 1.7% increase from last year and consistent with inflation. This was not guaranteed, however, and scientists were braced for the worst. Under the current circumstances, the science budgets will fare rather well.

Importantly, note that the budget bill includes discretionary spending subject to the caps established by the Budget Control Act (“sequestration”) and modified last year. In addition, the cost of mandatory spending, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, continues to increase; without more revenue, these will take a larger share in coming years. The following figure shows federal R&D relative to GDP. It’s courtesy of AAAS, and if you want more details about budget issues, I recommend reading Matt Hourihan‘s writings there, which includes a breakdown by agency. Details can also be found at the American Institute of Physics science policy news.

15p Omnibus GDP graph

NASA

For specific agencies, let’s start with NASA. In the omnibus bill, NASA received a budget of $18.01B, a significant increase over the President’s request and slightly larger than the inflation rate. For NASA’s Astrophysics Division, most of the budget increase comes from rejecting the President’s proposal to cancel the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 aircraft that is funded at $70M. They will not have enough funding to implement all of the desired upgrades to the telescope though. The budget also includes $50M for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is expected to launch in the early 2020s. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is funded as expected (under its $8B total cost cap) and is on schedule for a 2018 launch. The Planetary and Heliophysics Divisions also saw budget increases over last year, including $100M for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa (which might harbor life) and at least $100M for the high-priority Mars 2020 rover mission. Nonetheless, NASA may not be able to advance its smaller Discovery-class space probes and New Frontiers missions as quickly as hoped.

For detailed coverage of NASA’s budget, check out Josh Shiode of the American Astronomical Society and Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline.

National Science Foundation

The budget includes an increase of 2.4% ($172M) to the NSF’s budget, and according to Shiode, this is partly thanks to efforts by the retiring chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative Frank Wolf. There will be a 2.2% increase over current funding to research and related activities across the six directorates, while there will be flat funding for research equipment and facilities construction, including expected funding for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). I’m particularly looking forward to the LSST, which will be located in northern Chile and is planned to have “first light” in 2019. It will observe millions of galaxies and will be a successor to the very successful Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

Department of Energy

The DOE’s Office of Science received approximately flat funding at $5.1B in the budget bill. The Cosmic Frontier program, which includes dark matter and dark energy research, will see a $6.4M (6.5%) increase in its budget, however. The bill reverses potential cuts to nuclear fusion research, and it importantly threatens “to withhold the US contribution to ITER, the multibillion-euro international fusion consortium [based in southern France], if the beleaguered project, which is 11 years behind schedule, does not implement management changes,” according to an article in Nature.

Education

The budget bill has multiple provisions affecting education. It includes legislation for a program that would allow students without a high school diploma to get federal student aid as long as they are enrolled in college-level career pathway programs. It also unfortunately includes a $303M cut in discretionary funding from the Pell Grant program this year, according to Inside Higher Ed. The budget will increase funding to $530M supporting institutions that serve percentages of minority and low-income students through Title III funding.

NASA will receive $42M for education and public outreach, but the agency may have to shuffle its education budget, which has traditionally funded education activities in conjunction with every scientific mission. The NSF will receive $866M for education and human resources, including funding for its Graduate Research Fellowships.

Environmental Protection Agency

I don’t have good news about the EPA, which will now be funded at $8.1B this year, its smallest budget since 1989 according to Scientific American. The bill also includes some environment-related riders in the EPA and other agencies such as the following: President Obama will not be allowed to fulfill his pledge to contribute $3B to the United Nations Green Climate Fund; the Export–Import Bank will lift its ban on loaning funds to companies to build coal-fired power plants overseas; and the Transportation Department will not be able to fund most of its current light-rail projects.

Other Agencies

Finally, there are a few other agencies with science-related budgets. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will receive essentially flat funding (0.3% increase). It will receive larger increases for cancer research, Alzheimer’s research, and the BRAIN Initiative on neuroscience. The bill also includes a multibillion dollar Ebola response that goes primarily to the NIH. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) will get flat funding, including full funding for its GOES-R and JPSS satellites for meteorological and polar research. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) received flat funding as well, and the US Geological Survey received a small increase.

This will be my last post until next year, so happy solstice (or Shabeh Yalda, as the Persians say) and happy holidays!

Rep. Rush Holt, Physicist, to Lead American Association for the Advancement of Science

Can you imagine what would happen if we had a PhD physicist in the US Congress? We actually already have one there, Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), who has done a lot of excellent work in that role over the past sixteen years. Bumper stickers saying “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist” are popular in his central New Jersey district. In Congress since 1999, Holt has been a consistently strong advocate for science and science communication and for increasing funding for scientific research and education in federal budgets. Earlier this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency that provided Congress with comprehensive and authoritative analysis of scientific and technical issues, and was terminated in 1995. He’s also an inspiring speaker; I saw him give a great speech when I participated in a Congressional Visit Day with the American Astronomical Society.

Rep_Holt_Official_Headshot

Now Rep. Holt is retiring from the House of Representatives. Considering the frequent attacks on science, such as on National Science Foundation research grants, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, and on the EPA’s scientific advisers—to give just a few examples—we’ll need more people like him. In an interview with Scientific American, he said that if there is one issue that nags from his terms in Congress, it’s

…science and international affairs. That means bringing good scientific thinking to matters of arms control and intelligence and war and peace. I think we would all benefit from thinking like scientists, and those are important areas. Also, in areas of environmental protection and public health we need more scientific thinking. Most recently, I think we would benefit if more people thought like scientists in confronting Ebola. We would benefit if more people thought like scientists in facing climate change.

Fortunately, I have good news! Holt will continue his service by succeeding Alan Leshner as the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, of which I’m a member). According to the AAAS, “Efforts to advance science, promote public engagement with science and technology, and ensure that accurate scientific information informs policy decisions—core AAAS activities—have also been central to Holt’s long record of public service.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Holt said that he didn’t have an agenda, but he offered a general thought about the AAAS’s mission, saying that it needs to “look after the health of science in America—the entire science enterprise.”

Holt’s first responsibilities as the new CEO of AAAS will include oversight of a transformation initiative to enhance AAAS’s engagement with its members and to better utilize the Science journals for science communication, which also involves transitioning from a print-centric to a digital-first publishing environment. He will also oversee next year’s launch of a new open-access journal, Science Advances. I’m sure there will be more plans for the future at the AAAS’s annual meeting in February, and I’ll be there and will report on any new developments.

A Bad Week for Commercial Spaceflight

The US commercial space industry did not fare well last week. Two accidents on 28th and 31st October highlight the risks, costs, and difficulties of spaceflight—as well as pointing to potential setbacks for commercial spaceflight. (If you’re interested, other news outlets have commented on these issues as well, such as here and here and here.) Pardon the self-promotion, but you can check out our discussion with Ken Kremer on a Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today on the 31st for more information.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket

First, on Tuesday (the 28th), an unmanned 13-story rocket designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. exploded a few seconds after liftoff off the coast of Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. It carried a Cygnus capsule with more than 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of hundreds of millions of dollars of supplies and equipment, as well as school students’ science experiments. It was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and was the first time a resupply mission contracted by NASA to a private company failed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Though the flight facility is designed to handle explosion and fire, there was significant damage to the launch infrastructure.

Journalists were pretty close to the launch zone, and this video (tweeted by Pamela Gay) shows the launch, explosion, and fleeing from the potentially dangerous area (see also videos at LA Times):

It will take time to recover from this. And we will have to see how much this damages Orbital Science Corp.’s reputation and NASA’s efforts to outsource orbital flights. Four previous Antares flights, including three to the station, had launched successfully, and five resupply flights remain in the company’s multi-billion dollar contract, the next one being scheduled for April. This likely will be delayed though, and according to Orbital’s press release, they will implement a propulsion system upgrade previously planned for 2016. The loss of this supply vessel doesn’t pose an immediate problem for the ISS’s crew, which includes two from NASA, one from the European Space Agency (ESA), and three Russians. The second US supply line to the ISS is with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has its next launch planned for 9th December. Although the ISS crew and their missions are not in any danger, this loss significantly affects Orbital Sciences, and more work and investment will be needed to proceed.

NASA held a press conference the same day as the accident, and their investigation into the cause(s) of the explosion and failed launch continues. These space-bound rockets have many components—many things that could go wrong—and there is considerable debris to examine, so it could take awhile. It’s not clear whether extra weight and length were factors in the accident, for example. A turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage-one engines might have been the culprit. These liquid oxygen and kerosene fueled engines, produced during the Soviet era in Russia (with modifications), likely will be discontinued in future Antares rockets.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

And now for Act Two. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, part of a commercial space program founded by Richard Branson, suffered an “in-flight anomaly” on Halloween. It crashed midflight during testing and broke into several pieces over the Mojave Desert (north of Los Angeles, for you non-Californians). One pilot (Michael Alsbury) was killed and was unfortunately still strapped to his seat in the wreckage. The other pilot (Peter Siebold) successfully ejected at an altitude of around 50,000 feet and deployed his parachute. He was airlifted to a hospital and treated for injuries.

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After successful programs like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, NASA has been attempting to privatize spaceflight and redefine its missions partly because of tighter budgets over the past couple decades. According to the NY Times and Lori Garver (former deputy administrator at NASA), public funds should be focused on activities that advance technology and provide public benefits to all, like planetary science. At the same time, Garver said, the government should encourage private companies to move ahead and find innovative ways of reducing costs.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press conference last Sunday with more details. A new fuel was being tested on this flight, which may or may not have been an issue, and a “feathering mechanism” might have been deployed prematurely on the spacecraft, when it was traveling beyond the speed of sound. But the investigation is still in progress, and I’ll give you more details in the near future. In any case, our thoughts are with the pilots and their families.

So what does the future hold? I’m not sure, but it looks like Orbital Sciences (and SpaceX) and Virgin Galactic will continue their spaceflight programs, as they should. Both of these accidents are unfortunate and costly—to say the least—but they should not deter us from space exploration. We have much to gain from continuing these programs. At the same time, I think we should be careful about outsourcing too much; I believe that our best prospects lie with continuing to invest funding, resources, and personnel in NASA, ESA, and other space agencies, where our scientific expertise and oversight are the greatest, and where short-term setbacks are less likely to affect our long-term objectives or derail whole exploration programs.

Implications of the Midterm Election for Science

Just to be clear, I should distinguish between my statements as a scientist and my views on “science policy” and politics. This post is more about the latter, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts and views about these issues too.

The US midterm elections never receive as much media attention and as high turnouts as presidential ones. For family reasons or work reasons (because Election Day is not a holiday in the US) or because of disillusionment or apathy or other reasons, typically more than 60% of eligible voters do not vote during midterm elections.

The midterms on Tuesday (November 4th) are nonetheless important. In particular, science-related issues—especially climate change and Ebola—are playing significant roles in political campaigns and referenda on ballots around the country. In addition, the next (114th) Congress will shape federal budgets for basic and applied research in science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and public outreach, as well as setting budget priorities that could remain in place for years to come.

The Budget Situation

Developing and implementing federal budgets take considerable time and effort. The President and Office of Management and Budget first propose a budget for the next fiscal year (FY), then Congressional appropriations committees negotiate to develop their own budget bills, and then the final bill is executed by the federal agencies. Annual budgets for agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can fluctuate throughout the budget-making process. For example, the House gave the NSF a 2.1% higher budget than the Senate Appropriations Committee, while both chambers rejected the President’s proposal to cut the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) through NASA. The House and Senate appropriators also have different funding levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which include possible cuts to climate research. Note that federal science budgets also include the social and political sciences, which are funded through the NSF. It took forty years since the establishment of the NSF to include them under its aegis, and this is still contentious; an attempt in the House Science Committee to reduce their funding levels with an amendment earlier this year failed to pass.

Budget negotiations for FY 2015 were not completed when the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on the appropriations bills this summer. With the election approaching, Congress passed a three-month stopgap measure starting in September known as a continuing resolution (CR) to avert another government shutdown. The shutdown in 2013 had a disruptive impact on scientific researchers, students, and agency employees. For example, 99% of NSF’s workforce was furloughed, NASA sent 98% of its employees home without pay or access to their work, and NIH put 73% of its employees on enforced leave and suspended new clinical trials. Fortunately, this experience was not repeated.

Nevertheless, FY 2015 has just begun, and the CR means that the budgets continue on autopilot until December, and scientists hope that by then the new Congress will successfully finalize a budget bill for the rest of the fiscal year. Until a budget is passed, agencies continue to fund their programs at FY 2014 levels, which has the result that “sequestration” spending reductions from the Budget Control Act of 2011 will remain in place. If Congress does not make an agreement to reduce or remove these budget constraints, discretionary spending will return to sequester levels in FY 2016 and will remain there for the rest of the decade, meaning continued challenges for investment in science and technology. Considering that mandatory spending, which includes Social Security and Medicare, will continue to grow relative to the discretionary budget (see this CBO report), future budget negotiations will become even more difficult to resolve.

Education

STEM education and public outreach will be affected by the post-election Congress’s priorities as well. A couple months ago, Sen. J. Rockefeller (D-WV), introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. According to the Association of American Universities, the bill calls for “robust but sustainable funding increases for the [NSF] and National Institute for Standards and Technology” (NIST), and it supports each agency’s effort to improve education of future STEM professionals. However, support for the bill has not been sufficiently bipartisan to reauthorize it yet. Depending on the post-election environment, the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, introduced by Sen. T. Harkin (IA) might be more likely to pass. The HEA governs federal student aid, and considering that at least 70% of US university graduates are burdened with debt, this is clearly important. The bill would provide some relief for students by increasing state contributions to public universities and thereby reducing tuition fees, supporting community colleges, and expanding programs that allow high school students to earn college credits.

Election Campaigns and Ballot Measures

In addition to these science research and education issues, science policy is also relevant in many midterm election campaigns and ballot measures. Climate change, energy policies, and the environment are the most prominent science policy issues and are playing a big role in campaign ads. With increased flooding in the eastern US and the ongoing drought and wildfire conditions in the southwest—motivating a $7.5 billion water bond in California (see this PPIC post for info)—global warming concerns many voters. However, a partisan divide persists, depending how poll questions are framed. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the Keystone XL remain controversial as well, and anti-fracking measures were nearly included on Colorado and Michigan’s ballots. In addition, in another science policy issue, voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide on the labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Moreover, climate change is a major campaign issue in the race between Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52), and Carl DeMaio in San Diego County. This tossup race has gained national attention, and though both candidates acknowledge the science behind climate change, DeMaio has stated that more research is needed. (Both candidates recently visited us at UC San Diego.) Importantly, Peters serves on the House Science Committee, and committee members Alan Grayson (FL-9) and Ami Bera (CA-7) are in close races as well. The post-election House Science Committee could change shape. Climate change also plays a role in the election between Sen. Mark Udall (CO) and Rep. Cory Gardner and in the one between Gov. Rick Scott (FL) and Charlie Crist.

In any case, science policy issues are clearly important in this election, which will have important implications for investment in science research and education.

[Note that part of this post was adapted from an op-ed that I submitted last month to the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.]