Cases Made For and Against CHIPS Funding at House Hearing
At a House Intelligence Committee hearing on microelectronics last week, witnesses expressed a range of opinions on the proposal the Senate passed in June to provide $52 billion to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry. Most of the funding would subsidize the construction and upgrading of fabrication facilities, while about a quarter would fund R&D activities, as authorized in the CHIPS for America Act. Two witnesses at the hearing, David Isaacs of the Semiconductor Industry Association and Will Hunt of Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, endorsed the funding proposal as well as additional measures. However, former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Lisa Porter suggested that if the aim is to resolve security issues in the microelectronics supply chain, it would be better to adopt a “zero trust” approach that emphasizes technical standards and system resilience rather than rely on a secure “enclave” of domestic manufacturing. She also warned that subsidies might not accomplish the goal of boosting the U.S. position in the industry because they could create supplies that do not match demands. “Any subsidy targeting a specific part of such a complex value chain, or, even worse, specific companies within the chain, will weaken the competitive forces of a free market that correct for poor performance and poor alignment with the market demand,” she said.
Radio Spectrum Disputes Probed by House Science Committee
At a hearing last week, the House Science Committee revisited a conflict over radio spectrum allocation that in spring 2019 pitted NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration against the Federal Communications Commission. At that time, the two agencies alleged that an impending auction of the 24 gigahertz spectrum band, close to a band used for water vapor observations, threatened to undermine the quality of weather forecasts. FCC dismissed the agencies’ concerns and the auction went ahead as planned, and later that year the Science Committee’s Democratic and Republican leaders asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate how effectively federal agencies coordinate efforts to identify and mediate conflicting uses of the spectrum. At the hearing, GAO presented its final report, which concludes that coordination mechanisms are inadequate and notes that interagency disagreements can also put the U.S. at a disadvantage in international negotiations, as when the U.S. submitted no technical studies on the 24 gigahertz band prior to the 2019 World Radiocommunications Conference. Other witnesses urged the development of better mechanisms for engaging the scientific community in spectrum allocation deliberations and the improvement of methods for projecting the impact of proposed spectrum uses on scientific observations.
Senate Confirms NNSA Administrator and DOD R&D Head
On July 22, the Senate confirmed Jill Hruby as head of the National Nuclear Security Administration on a vote of 79 to 16, with Republicans casting all the votes against confirmation. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Hruby spent the bulk of her career at Sandia National Labs and served as its director from 2015 to 2017. President Biden nominated her to lead NNSA in April, and shortly afterward selected arms control expert Frank Rose to be the agency’s deputy head. Rose is still awaiting a final confirmation vote. The Senate also confirmed Heidi Shyu by unanimous consent last week as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Shyu previously served as assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology from 2012 to 2016 and has also worked as an executive in the aerospace industry and mostly recently as a private consultant.
Senate Advances Nomination of Energy Justice Advocate
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved by voice vote last week three nominees for positions in the Department of Energy, including Shalanda Baker, President Biden’s nominee to lead DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Baker is currently serving as the office’s deputy director for energy justice, a new position created by the Biden administration. Biden has prioritized energy and environmental justice through his Justice40 initiative, which aims to deliver “at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.” The White House issued preliminary guidelines for Justice40 implementation last week and identified 21 federal programs that will “immediately begin enhancing benefits for disadvantaged communities.” Five are DOE programs: the Weatherization Assistance Program, the National Community Solar Partnership, the Clean Cities program in the Vehicle Technologies Office, environmental management at Los Alamos National Lab, and the Industrial Assessment Centers in the Advanced Manufacturing Office. The other DOE nominations advancing to the Senate floor are those of Samuel Walsh to be general counsel and Andrew Light to be assistant secretary for international affairs.
DOE Nuclear Physics Head Spotlights Budget Tensions
At last week’s Nuclear Science Advisory Committee meeting, Tim Hallman, the head of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Physics program, broke down the office’s budget outlook for fiscal year 2022, saying research programs and facility operations would be “robustly supported” under the Biden administration’s request. However, he noted that increases proposed for most subprograms would mostly amount to “recouping” cuts from the last two fiscal years. In contrast, Hallman suggested the House budget proposal would pose a “serious challenge” for the program, saying, “If that really is the way things turn out, I can imagine that there really may have to be a significant contraction in the field.” He also pointed out that funding for construction projects is fairly constrained under both proposals, with the administration including flat funding of $30 million for the flagship Electron-Ion Collider project and the House proposing just $5 million. A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) submitted a pair of amendments to the appropriations bill covering DOE in advance of floor debate that would match the administration’s requested topline of $720 million for the Nuclear Physics program and increase funding in the bill for the collider to $15 million.
Panel Considers Future of Revived DOE Low-Dose Radiation Program
The National Academies held a kickoff meeting last week for a study that will recommend priorities for research programs across the government on the biological effects of low doses of ionizing radiation. The Department of Energy terminated its program in 2016, eliciting bipartisan pushback in Congress that led to legislation enacted in 2018 requiring the department revive it, and Congress has since funded the program at $5 million annually. House appropriators have proposed to increase that amount to at least $10 million for fiscal year 2022, and the Energy Act of 2020 recommends that Congress increase the budget to $40 million annually by fiscal year 2024. At the meeting, DOE official Todd Anderson said the program was originally phased out in favor of competing priorities within DOE’s Biological and Environmental Research program office, such as bioenergy and climate change. Asked by a study committee member whether he feels the office is an appropriate place for low-dose radiation research, Anderson responded, “I’m not sure. When I look at the way that our budget language has been structured, the priorities that have been communicated over the last couple of years, I don’t see where low-dose is a priority on the DOE side.” He later expressed concern that a lack of DOE support could threaten the program’s “long-term longevity.”
Justice Department Backs Off From Prosecutions of Chinese Scientists
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Department of Justice has dropped charges against five visiting scientists from China, whom it accused of concealing ties to the Chinese military. The Journal states, “A senior Justice Department official said the punishment for the crimes the researchers were charged with usually amounted to around a few months in prison, and the defendants had all been detained or under other restrictions in the U.S. since their arrest a year ago. That led the agency to determine that further litigation in the group of cases would unnecessarily prolong their departure from the U.S. and that their situations since their arrests amounted to sufficient punishment and deterrence.” The article further notes that an internal FBI memo that was drafted this year and filed as evidence in one of the cases questioned whether the cases, which primarily involved visa fraud charges, had any link to illicit technology transfer. However, a prosecutor in that case characterized the memo as a preliminary draft that does not reflect the federal government’s position. The Justice Department has not announced any changes in its policies about pursuing cases against researchers accused of concealing ties to Chinese institutions, but it also recently dropped wire fraud charges against a scientist at the Cleveland Clinic accused of failing to disclose participation in a Chinese talent recruitment program. In June, another fraud case involving a scientist at the University of Tennessee ended with a deadlocked jury, and the department has not said whether it will seek another trial. DOJ has faced growing criticism about its handling of cases that involve nondisclosure of funding or affiliations with no accompanying accusations of inappropriate technology transfer on the grounds they have stoked racial profiling and resulted in arrests of innocent researchers.
Universities Protest DOE Expansion of Foreign National Screening
A group of U.S. university associations wrote to the Department of Energy this month to protest how screening requirements implemented over the past year have forced universities to abruptly remove researchers who are foreign nationals from active projects. They report that the new policy has primarily affected projects funded by DOE’s renewable energy and fossil energy offices and that in many cases universities were told there was “no possibility for the researchers to be screened in time to allow them to continue with the project.” The associations state that the new requirements have “totally upended” the lives of affected researchers and that universities have often struggled to find qualified replacements. In December 2019, DOE modified the policy governing access by foreign nationals to its “sites, information, and technologies” to remove an exception for research performed at universities. DOE further updated the policy on Jan. 15 of this year, in part to incorporate the department’s new “risk matrix,” which identifies sensitive areas of research for which engagements with entities from certain countries are restricted. The university associations note that the affected researchers intended to publish their results in the open literature and that in most cases they did not need to visit DOE sites.