ESA Policy News May 17

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.


On May 8, six former officials who headed the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science Board during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations sent a letter to the leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee expressing concern with the High Quality Research Act. The draft bill would require the NSF Director to provide Congress with information certifying research projects meet certain national interest requirements before they can be funded, which has been interpreted as negating NSF’s existing scientific peer-review process for funding research.

“We believe that this draft legislation would replace the current merit-based system used to evaluate research and education proposals with a cumbersome and unrealistic certification process that rather than improving the quality of research would do just the opposite,” the letter states. “The history of science and technology has shown that truly basic research often yields breakthroughs – including new technologies, markets and jobs – but that it is impossible to predict which projects (and which fields) will do that.”

The High Quality Research Act, proposed by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), has yet to be introduced and there is no indication yet whether or when the committee will move on the bill. The draft legislation has already met strong opposition from scientific societies and universities as well as House Science, Space and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) who asserted that the bill would “undermine NSF’s core mission as a basic research agency.”

View the directors’ letter here.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have peaked above 400 parts per million (ppm), the first time since measurements began in 1958.

According to NOAA, the global carbon dioxide average was 280 ppm in the 19th century preceding the industrial revolution and has fluctuated between 180-280 ppm over the past 800,000 years. The agency asserts that a concentration this great has not been seen in at least three million years. The news got very little reaction from key leaders on Capitol Hill, on either side of the aisle in both the House and Senate. The exceptions were Democratic leaders on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“We know that the Earth is warming, sea ice is disappearing, the glaciers are receding, the oceans are acidifying, and sea levels are rising. We know all of this from climate science research and monitoring,” stated House Science, Space and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).  “And, we now know that we have reached this carbon dioxide milestone of 400 parts per million thanks to a NOAA observatory on top of the volcano Mauna Loa in Hawaii that has been continuously monitoring and collecting data related to atmospheric change since the 1950s. The research being done at NASA, NOAA and other agencies is providing the crucial data that will enable us to assess, adapt to, and move forward on this critical issue.  We must continue investing in this work.”

View the full NOAA release here.


On May 9, Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee announced the formation of a working group to review potential changes to the Endangered Species Act.

Since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives after the 2010 mid-term elections, the House Natural Resources Committee has held numerous hearings that question the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act, raising questions about whether the law is transparent, economically burdensome or overly regulatory as well as whether new species should continue to be listed under its protection.

For additional information click here.


On May 7, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittees on Energy and Environment held a joint hearing weighing potential economic and environmental impacts of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Republican majority members emphasized the amount of time the administration has spent studying the proposal and touted its potential for job creation. Ultimately, there are two major concerns in this debate: 1) whether we have the ability to construct and operate the pipeline safely, and 2) whether the pipeline’s construction will contribute significantly to climate change. On both of these questions, extensive analysis undertaken by the State Department has affirmed the safety and environmental soundness of the project,” iterated Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) in his opening statement. “The Keystone Pipeline creates jobs and enhances our energy independence with minimal impact to the environment. This project, which has been thoroughly evaluated, should be approved immediately.”

“Although it has taken four years to look at this project, it could take only a matter of seconds to cause devastating consequences to our environment, our earth and people around the pipeline,” contended Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA). “I think it is worth making sure that we get it right.”

View the full hearing here.


On May 9, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittees on Space and Research convened for a joint hearing to discuss exoplanet research, the continued discovery of earth-like planets.

There was bipartisan support for continued investment in exoplanet research among the committee leadership.  “Scientists are discovering new kinds of solar systems in our own galaxy that we never knew existed,” noted Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).  “In the universe, is there another place like home? Because of NASA’s Kepler mission, we know the likely answer is yes.  Imagine how the discovery of life outside our solar system would alter our priorities for space exploration and how we view our place in the universe.”

“The search for habitable planets outside of our own solar system was identified as a scientific priority in the 2010 National Academies Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics,” noted Research Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL). “And no wonder. This is exactly the type of scientific pursuit that expands our understanding of the world, or worlds, around us and grips the imagination of scientists and the public at large, even though we have no idea what we will find.”

To view the full hearing, click here.


On May 16, the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management released a new draft rule for hydraulic fracturing.

BLM maintains that current regulations governing hydraulic fracturing operations on public lands are more than 30 years old and do not adequately address modern fracturing activities. The rule would require disclosure of chemicals injected underground on roughly 700 million acres of federal mineral estate, including about 60 million acres underlying private lands. The rule would allow states to propose their own standards for the controversial oil and gas production technique if they can prove their regulations are as strong as federal rules. The new rule would not require companies to disclose fracking chemicals until after the technique has been performed.

For additional information on the rule, including how to comment, click here.


A report recently made public from the General Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that “infrastructure such as roads and bridges, wastewater systems, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) centers are vulnerable to changes in the climate” and calls upon the federal government to work with local governments to mitigate the impacts of these changes.

The report notes that the federal government spends billions of dollars annually on infrastructure, which is affected by climate change. The report notes that sea-level rise and increased extreme weather events put this infrastructure at greater risk. It identifies several federal efforts underway to help improve adaptive decision-making at the local level, yet asserts that this effort is presently uncoordinated.

GAO recommends the president designate a federal entity to work with federal agencies to help local decision makers identify the best available climate information for infrastructure planning. View the full report, here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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