A Periodic Federal Science Update

FY17 Appropriations Update -- Work continues behind the scenes on a fiscal 2017 spending wrap-up, despite the October recess that has mostly emptied the halls of Congress.  The House and Senate’s top appropriators are putting together legislation, but what that package will look like remains unclear. Congressional leaders have voiced support for a process that would bundle bills into so-called “minibuses" for votes after the November elections.  Committee staff, in consultation with Members, are currently working to complete the technical legwork to enable the completion of these bills when Congress returns.  Whether the Congress will be able to complete the FY17 appropriations process during the lame duck session remains to be seen.

NSF and the UK Announce Joint Research Initiative on West Antarctic Ice Sheet -- Considerable uncertainty remains in projections of future ice loss from West Antarctica. Reducing this uncertainty is an international priority that was recently underscored by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research in its “Horizon Scan 2020” (SCAR, 2015). The recent U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report (A Strategic Vision for NSF Investments in Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research, 2015) places prediction of ice mass loss from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) as the top priority for Antarctic research, and singles out Thwaites Glacier as a “region of particular concern”.  Building on this community priority, and recognizing that such research is becoming an increasingly global endeavor with demands that exceed the capacities of any one nation, NSF and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have developed a joint program with the objective to substantially improve both decadal and longer-term (century-to-multi-century) projections of ice loss and sea-level rise originating from Thwaites Glacier.  The program will have a direct and significant impact on understanding the stability of marine ice sheets and specifically the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the vicinity of Thwaites Glacier, and will contribute to the ice-sheet modeling community capability to simulate ice sheets and to reduce the uncertainties in sea-level projections. In addition, the program will contribute to improving risk assessments that coastal communities need for decisions about adaptation and long-range planning.  Up to $25 million is expected to be available for this joint research program.  More information can be found here.

Administration Announces the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” Initiative -- the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is announcing the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative, building on a growing wave of private sector interest in miniaturized spacecraft for applications ranging from communications and remote sensing to satellite inspection and repair.  Working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Commerce, Defense, and other Federal agencies, OSTP has identified the following opportunities promoting the use of small satellites (“smallsats”) for a variety of uses:

·      NASA will purchase up to $30 million of Earth observation data obtained commercially from small satellites, and will create a new Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute based out of the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley one-stop shop” for best practices, lessons learned, and standards for all phases of smallsat development. 

·      The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is partnering with the General Services Administration on the Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG) initiative to develop an efficient, single point of access for Federal agencies to purchase commercially-provided imagery data and associated analytical capabilities.   NGA has also awarded a $20 million contract to startup Planet to purchasing large quantities of imagery Planet collects from its network of “Dove” smallsats. 

·      The Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded contracts to GeoOptics, Inc., and Spire Global, Inc., two startups using smallsat constellations to collect radio-occultation data from global positioning system satellites, improving NOAA’s storm forecasting.  The Department of Commerce is also elevating the role of the Director of its Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to reflect commercial space’s increasing importance for increasing economic growth, productivity, and job creation. 

·      The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is releasing satellite datasets as part of two prize-driven challenges to achieve breakthroughs in the analysis of overhead imagery. 

Administration Issues New Executive Order on Space Weather – On October 13, President Obama signed a new executive order that seeks to coordinate efforts to prepare the Nation for space weather events.  Space weather is a natural hazard that can significantly affect critical infrastructure essential to the economy, social wellbeing, and national security, such as electrical power, water supply, health care, and transportation.  These emissions can interact with Earth, potentially degrading, disrupting, or damaging the technology that forms the Nation’s backbone of critical infrastructure. Because it poses a significant risk to the Nation’s security, space weather is included in the Department of Homeland Security’s Strategic National Risk Assessment, which outlines threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the Nation and that, therefore, the Nation should be prepared.

Reducing vulnerability to space weather requires collaboration across governments, the emergency-management community, academia, the media, the insurance industry, non-profits, and the private sector. Over the past 6 years, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Security Council (NSC) have worked together to coordinate interagency efforts to improve understanding, prediction, and preparedness for potentially devastating space-weather events. These efforts combined the national- and homeland-security enterprise with the science and technology enterprise to create the 2015 National Space Weather Strategy and accompanying Action Plan. Those reports describe how the Federal Government will coordinate the efforts of Federal agencies towards space-weather preparedness, and how the Federal Government will engage academia, the private sector, and State, local, tribal, and foreign governments.  The Executive Order builds on the significant progress of the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan by:

  • Establishing a national policy for space weather;
  • Establishing an enduring interagency coordination body within the National Science and Technology Council to implement the national space-weather policy;
  • Articulating department and agency roles and responsibilities with respect to space- weather research, operations, and planning;
  • Ordering the implementation of necessary, high-level activities that were not included in the Action Plan; and
  • Reinforcing the need to work with non-Federal entities, including international partners, to achieve national preparedness for space weather.

New National Academies’ Report on Urban Sustainability -- A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers a road map and recommendations to help U.S. cities work toward sustainability, measurably improving their residents’ economic, social, and environmental well-being. The report draws upon lessons learned from nine cities’ efforts to improve sustainability – Los Angeles; New York City; Vancouver, B.C.; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Grand Rapids and Flint, Michigan. The cities were chosen to span a range of sizes, regions, histories, and economies.  The report recommends that every U.S. city develop a sustainability plan that not only accounts for its own unique characteristics but also adapts strategies that have led to measurable improvements in other cities with similar economic, environmental, and social contexts.

The report examines the nine cities’ experiences and extracts lessons from them that should be applied in other cities, such as:


·      Sustainability planning should take a city’s regional and national context into account. Actions in support of sustainability in one area should not be taken at the expense of another; urban leaders should integrate sustainability policies and strategies across scales, from block to neighborhood to city, region, state, and nation.

·      Cities’ efforts to improve sustainability should include policies to reduce inequality. This aspect of sustainability planning is often overlooked but is essential to improving quality of life both for those with the fewest resources and opportunities and for a city’s entire population.

·      City planners should be aware of the rapid pace of factors working against sustainability – such as climate change, scarce resources, and economic shifts -- and prioritize sustainability initiatives with appropriate urgency.


The report also offers a road map that cities can use to guide their efforts, walking planners through the process from planning and adopting principles, to design and implementation, to assessing impacts and learning from outcomes.  More information is available here.