February 26, 2016

Washington’s Week in Science

Policy News and Selected Funding Opportunities

Top Stories of the Week

  • Congress: Efforts to Pass Appropriations Bills Face Steep Challenges, Science Committee Submits Views and Estimates
  • NSF: Brain Observatory Announced
  • NIH: Tau Protein Research to be Advanced with a Center Without Walls
  • EPA: Solicitation Seeks to Integrate Ecosystem Services with Human Health and Well-being
  • NIST: New Manufacturing Institutes Solicited
  • Climate Science: New Analysis Suggests Warming Hiatus was Real

Congress

This week, Congress returned to work and hearings on the FY17 budget started in full swing. In order to set the framework for considering appropriations bills and fulfilling their commitment to pass all spending bills in an orderly fashion, Republican leaders are considering whether to take up a budget resolution, and if so how it will address discretionary spending limits.

Fiscal conservatives, concerned over the growing deficit projected by the Congressional Budget Office, have advocated additional spending reductions.  Although Republicans have yet to coalesce around a single plan, conservatives have discussed the possibility of a reduction in mandatory spending as the means of reducing the future deficit.  The President’s budget, which hinges on increases in mandatory spending to fully fund many high priority science programs, would run counter to such a plan and, thus far, have attracted strong criticism.

In other news, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has submitted Views and Estimates expressing the priorities of the Republican majority for NSF, NASA, DOE Science, DOT, NIST, EPA, Homeland Security, and NOAA.  Although these are non-binding, they can sometimes serve as a basis for decisions by the Appropriations Committees.  The document recommends reductions and reallocations away from renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, manufacturing programs, NASA’s asteroid redirect mission, and Earth Sciences programs.

NSF

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is now three years old and has provided individual investigator grants from five federal agencies including NSF and NIH.  Neuroscientists, however, have also advocated the establishment of a National Brain Observatory as an important tool in addressing the Grand Challenge of understanding the brain.  Just as national telescopes have advanced the frontiers of astronomy, and national particle accelerators have done the same for high energy physics, a Brain Observatory would provide a framework for large-scale research infrastructure and establish brain research as a “big science” undertaking.  In language accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of FY 2015, Congress encouraged the NSF to establish a National Brain Observatory working group, and propose an initiative in future years.

The NSF has now issued a Dear Colleague Letter announcing its intention to supplement its participation in the BRAIN initiative with the National Brain Observatory.  The concept is based on a network of neuroscience research centers which would coordinate and communicate research results, share instrumentation, and unify public and private investments in brain science.  Large electron microscopes, magnetic resonance facilities, nanotechnology laboratories, computational and data centers, and other facilities would be better shared and utilized by the research community through the Brain Observatory concept.

The NSF intends to issue further funding opportunities that would promote the sharing of research infrastructure resources and promote large scale national and international collaborative research networks.

Read More: Science

NIH

In the brain, the tau protein performs a major function in cell transport and structure.  However, when it collapses into twisted tangles, it is known to lead to a major cause in Alzheimer’s.  A central objective in understanding and addressing Alzheimer’s Disease is the identification of molecular processes by which the tau protein becomes non-functional and contributes to degeneration in the brain.  In order to focus resources on this important problem, and marshal expertise in diverse fields, such as data science and computational science, and other fields of biology, the NIH has released a solicitation entitled: Center without Walls for the Identification and Validation of Molecular Mechanisms Contributing to Tau Pathogenesis and Associated Neurodegeneration in Frontotemporal Degeneration.

The aim of the solicitation is to establish a multi-center, interdisciplinary approach to identify and validate the molecular mechanisms contributing to tau toxicity. Led by an internationally recognized neuroscientist, the center is intended to incorporate scientific expertise in an array of related synergistic research projects focused on the tau problem. Awards up to $1.5 million for five years are contemplated.

EPA

The EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) has carried out a program aimed at promoting sustainable and healthy communities by providing scientific information and tools for decision makers at all levels. Various ecosystem services, now becoming widely available, could allow communities to integrate environmental, societal, and economic information to mitigate stressors which may impact quality of life at the local level. However, the actual relationship between the ecosystem services and decision-making on personal health and well-being is often unclear, and a great deal of scientific information on pollutant exposure, clean air and water, soil quality, and flood control, etc. is underutilized.

The NCER program has now released a solicitation entitled Integrating Human Health and Well-Being with Ecosystem Services. The solicitation aims to assess, quantify and incorporate the cumulative impacts of chemical and non-chemical stressors to foster better integration of ecosystem services with local decision-making. The research should lead to greater insight into what limits the ability of communities to integrate human health and well-being with ecosystem services.

NIST

Authorized by the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation (RAMI) Act of 2014, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) is a proposed network of public-private sector institutes aimed at developing and commercializing manufacturing technologies.  The Administration’s stated goal this year is to add to the present nine institutes bringing the total network up to 45 institutes by 2025.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has issued a solicitation to fund its initial complement of institutes, establishing one in FY16, and one in FY17.  The solicitation allows a consortium to propose any manufacturing technology not already addressed by an existing institute.  Like other NNMI institutes, these will serve as regional hubs for advanced manufacturing and provide shared facilities to participating members.

Funding for the expansion of NIST Manufacturing Centers is proposed as $1.89 billion in mandatory spending beginning in FY17 and carried through to 2025. Thus far, the Appropriations Committees have not expressed a willingness to approve such mandatory spending. NNMI would be a key test of the political support for an expansion in use of mandatory spending for research in NIST and other science agencies.

Read More: American Institute of Physics FYI , SpacePolicyOnline

Climate Science

Over the past several years, climate scientists have focused on the apparent slowing in the rate of global warming beginning in the late 1990’s, despite the continued emission of greenhouse gases.  Although plausible explanations have been offered, including natural variability, solar cycle influences, and volcanic eruptions, more recently the existence of the “pause” itself was called into question by NOAA scientists.  That study, released in June 2015, argued that the apparent pause was an artifact of data set limitations.  When correcting for temperature readings from ships and buoys, the long term warming trends overcome the apparent hiatus.

Now, that conclusion has been called into question by Canadian scientists who have reanalyzed the data once again.  The study, entitled Making sense of the early 2000s warming slowdown argues that when models fully account for the effects of volcanic eruptions and solar cycles, the hiatus appears real.  Whether this hiatus is actually inconsistent with long term trends is unclear and may simply suggest complex behavior by the climate on different time scales.

Read More: Scientific American

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