May 27, 2016

Washington’s Week in Science

Policy News and Selected Funding Opportunities

Top Stories of the Week

  • Congress: House Panel Clears Commerce, Justice, Science Bill
  • NSF: Proposals Solicited to Improve Cyberinfrastructure
  • NASA: Funding Opportunity Announced for Dusty Plasma Studies on Space Station
  • DOE: Secretary Recommends Continued US Participation in ITER
  • NIH: Diabetes Research Centers to be Established
  • Agriculture Research: Grants Available for Water for Agriculture Challenge Area
  • National Research Council: Study Released on Achieving Science with CubeSats
  • Department of Labor: Final Rule on Overtime Released


The House Committee on Appropriations approved the FY 17 Commerce, Justice, Science Bill in preparation for floor action.  The Committee also released the accompanying report which details specific funding actions and policy directions.

For NASA, the bill zeroes out the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, and includes language suggesting an ambitious return to the lunar surface and a crewed mission to Mars. Within space science, the bill would reduce earth science by 14% and increase planetary science by 32% relative to the discretionary request level. The major planetary change is attributable to the Europa mission.

For NSF, the bill provides a single line item appropriation of $6.08 billion for Research and Related Activities (rather than specific directorate level funding). This reflects the Administration’s discretionary request level. The bill restores funding for the BRAIN initiative at the FY16 level of $146.9 million. For construction, the bill eliminates requested funding for the Regional Class Research Vessel, but provides full funding for other construction efforts.


Proposals are now being solicited for the Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC) program (a modified version of the former Campus Cyberinfrastructure – Data, Networking, and Innovation Program). The CC program provides an opportunity for universities, non-profit entities, independent museums, observatories, research labs, and professional societies to improve cyberinfrastructure capabilities for data, networking, and computing infrastructure.

Proposals emphasizing science-driven requirements may address seven specific award categories ranging from multi-institution model implementation at $3 million over four years, to integrated storage awards at $200 K over four years. All of these should involve partnerships among institution-level cyberinfrastructure experts.


The Plasma Krystall-4 (PK-4) experimental facility, installed on the International Space Station in 2015, allows the study of complex plasmas–low temperature gaseous mixtures composed of ionized gas, neutral gas, and micron-sized particles. Understanding how such unique plasmas behave is important in astrophysics, materials science, thermodynamics, and in understanding transport properties. Research on complex fluids and “soft matter” has become a prime objective in exploiting the microgravity environment on the Space Station.

NASA and NSF have released a solicitation entitled NASA/NSF Partnership on Science of Dusty Plasmas Utilizing the PK-4 Facility on board the International Space Station.  The solicitation requests proposals for flight experiments and related ground research that may also lead to new microgravity science and instrumentation beyond PK-4.  Preference will be given to flight experiments.

In other NASA news, comments are now being solicited for the establishment of Space Technology Research Institutes.  These are envisioned to be university-led, multidisciplinary distributed institutes that focus a wide range of expertise on areas of strong interest to NASA.  Comments on the draft solicitation are due June 10, with a solicitation release date anticipated to be July 1.  Full proposals, by invitation, will be due on October 24.

Read More: NRC Report Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration


The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is world’s most significant investment in seeking to demonstrate sustained plasma burning and ultimately fusion energy. The US has been a member since its establishment in 2007. The estimated costs to the US have increased fivefold since 2003 rising from $1.1 billion to as much as $6.5 billion, while the schedule for “first plasma” has slipped from 2020 to no sooner than 2025. A major management change was made in March 2015. This significant cost and schedule overrun has resulted in a recommendation contained in Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Bill to terminate US participation.

Now, at the direction of the FY16 Omnibus Appropriations bill, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has submitted a report on US participation. The report recommends limited continued participation in the project through FY18 at which time the US role would be reassessed as part of the FY19 budget preparation. Without additional funds for the DOE Office of Science, other priorities, including US domestic fusion research, would be significantly impacted. Secretary Moniz has indicated he will ask the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a review of the overall fusion energy research program in the US.

Read More: Science Insider


Responding to the growing national burden of morbidity, mortality, and health care expenditures due to diabetes in the US, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) has issued solicitation RFA-DK-16-020 for the establishment of Diabetes Research Centers. The overall aim is to to develop new therapies and improve the health of Americans with diabetes and related endocrine and metabolic disorders. Centers are expected to promote new discoveries and enhance scientific progress in diabetes basic and clinical research. Center funding is intended to augment individual investigator research grants and provide support for core facilities, pilot and feasibility studies, and program enrichment activities such as educational activities.

Agriculture Research

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) was established by Congress to address specific strategic research areas in agriculture through competitive extramural grants.  One of these is the Water for Agriculture Challenge Area which seeks to understand the linkages between food, water, climate, energy, and the environment.

AFRI has released a solicitation (USDA-NIFA-AFRI-005822) for FY16 grant applications. Priority areas include: water availability for diverse agricultural uses (e.g. the right water for the right place and time); understanding decisions and behaviors connected with agriculture and post-harvest processing water use; and, understanding the human health impacts from exposure to nontraditional water used in agriculture.

National Research Council

CubeSats are small deployable satellites made up of cubical units measuring 10 cm per side and are normally aggregated in multiple units. They constitute an important means of conducting a university class space science missions for NASA and NSF. Since their introduction in 1999, 425 such spacecraft have been launched, most occurring over the past four years. They have evolved rapidly from their original purpose as student teaching tools to highly capable science mission opportunities and an emerging commercial sector.

At the request of NSF and NASA, the National Research Council carried out an assessment of the science return from CubeSats and some of the programmatic changes within NSF and NASA that could enhance the utility of CubeSat. The report, entitled Achieving Science with CubeSats: Thinking Inside the Box, characterizes the impact of CubeSats as a disruptive innovation which has established a niche far beyond what was originally envisioned.

Among the recommendations, the report urges the NSF to expand the scope of the CubeSat program beyond the present focus on space weather, space physics and student training to encompass other disciplines such as astronomy, and earth science. The report recommends that NASA establish a coordinated program based on a clearly articulated vision and agency wide strategic plan. The report also suggests that many high-priority science objectives could be achieved by constellations or swarms of 10 to 100 spacecraft in orbit.

Department of Labor

On May 17, the Administration released a final rule updating the salary level salary threshold under which most salaried workers are entitled to overtime compensation. The salary threshold would increase from $23,660 to $47,476. For institutions of higher education, the rule would affect many classes of employees, such as post docs, who have not been eligible for overtime pay in the past.

Funding agencies will be obligated to increase allowable stipends. During rulemaking, comments from the higher education community have expressed concerns about the capacity of research intuitions to absorb these costs and the possibility that these will cut into overall research grant funding and increase tuition costs. The final rule will become effective December 1.

Read More: Inside Higher Ed, American Council on Education


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