August 5, 2016

Washington’s Week in Science

Policy News and Selected Funding Opportunities

Top Stories of the Week

  • NSF: White House Announces Lead NSF Role for Unmanned Aircraft Research
  • NOAA: Ocean Exploration Funding Opportunity Released
  • Defense Research: DARPA Plans an Explainable Artificial Intelligence Initiative
  • Research Enterprise: GAO Issues Recommendations to Streamline Research Grants
  • Higher Education: ITIF Report Recommends Separating Learning from Credentialing
  • Climate Change: State of the Climate Report Documents Impacts on Sea Life


The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has announced a set of actions aimed at promoting the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System.  This is intended to complement the “Small UAS” rule promulgated by the Department of Transportation earlier this year.  Additional rulemaking for Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People is in process and will be open for comments later this year.

The OSTP announcement assigns a lead role to the NSF in carrying out a research and applications program to develop and apply beneficial UAS applications.  With a budget of $35 million, the NSF will address monitoring and inspection of physical infrastructure, disaster response, agricultural monitoring, the study of severe storms, and other areas of intelligent sensing and man/machine interface.

The announcement also cites initiatives that will be taken by the Department of Interior for search and rescue operations, NASA for developing new detect and avoid and command and control technologies, and NOAA for developing precise gravity measurements and enhancing the observational capabilities for the NOAA fleet.

Read More: Nextgov


NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), whose mission is to investigate and document poorly known and unknown ocean areas, has released its FY 17 Ocean Exploration solicitation, NOAA-OAR-OER-2017-2004970.  Proposals for this cycle should address the following:  exploration of processes that take place in the water column below 200 meters; exploration of processes associated with seamounts, especially where ocean mining may occur; and, exploration of historically significant submerged features and artifacts associated with WWII.

Defense Research

The rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence has highlighted a critical issue for future autonomous systems that will make decisions and carry out actions on their own. To fully exploit such systems they will need to be able to explain their decisions and actions to human users. Humans will need to be able to understand, trust, and effectively manage this coming generation of AI in order to make practical use of this technology.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is planning a future solicitation for Explainable Artificial Intelligence (XAI).  By creating new machine learning methods to produce explainable models, XAI aims to develop appropriately trustable man/machine interfaces.

DARPA is planning a proposers day August 11 to outline the XAI program’s technical goals and challenges, as well as provide an opportunity for potential proposers to submit questions to DARPA.

Research Enterprise

Adding to the body of recommendations from academia and Congress to reduce research grant regulatory burdens, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report entitled Opportunities Remain for Agencies to Streamline Administrative Requirements. The GAO observed that the workload for regulatory compliance has led to increased costs for universities, which must invest in new electronic systems and in hiring and training new staff. The report concludes that the costs of regulatory compliance would be greatly reduced by: standardizing requirements for budget materials and purchase justifications; delaying some pre-award proposal requirements, such as detailed budgets, until later in the procurement process; and, allowing universities greater flexibility in handling risks.

Higher Education

The Information Technology and Information Foundation (ITIF) has released a report entitled Why It’s Time to Disrupt Higher Education by Separating Learning from Credentialing. The report argues that traditional degree granting is an outdated and an overly limited way to assess learning outcomes. New learning modes such as community college courses, massively open online courses (MOOCs), self-study and other alternative learning approaches are being strongly driven by emerging information technology, and should be established as alternative credentials. This would make higher education more efficient, less costly, and would empower students as “consumers.” Breaking the legacy connection between teaching students and certifying their academic achievements would disrupt the current academic culture and require employers to assess job qualifications differently, but it would introduce valuable new innovations.

This report adds to the overall debate over pending higher education reforms, including reducing regulatory burdens, streamlining student aid programs, and increasing affordability and accountability. The Higher Education Act has been reauthorized eight times since 1965 and is now past its 2015 extended lifetime. However Congress has not taken up a comprehensive rewrite during this election year despite the attention higher education issues have gotten during the campaigns. This may be a high priority action for the Administration and Congress in the coming year.

Read More: Inside Higher Ed

Climate Change

Each year, NOAA releases a State of the Climate report detailing changes in key indicators of climate change, and their impacts. The report, containing contributions from 450 scientists in 62 countries, finds that 2015 was the hottest year on record as a result of anthropogenic influences and a strong El Niño event. Greenhouse gases, land surface temperature, sea surface temperature, and sea level are all the highest on record.

This year’s report also details substantial impacts on sea life. These include: changing behavior of Arctic walruses as a result of loss of sea ice; declines in some Antarctic penguins species; threats to polar fish species in the Barents Sea as a result of warm water fish intrusions; and, an abnormally large toxic algal bloom in the Northwest Pacific.


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