January 17, 2014

Top 5 Science Policy Stories from 2013

Posted by Erik Hankin

Written by Erik Hankin, AGU Public Affairs

From extreme partisanship in Congress and a historic typhoon to political climate change battles and the search for habitable planets, 2013 was never short of science policy news.  In a year full of ups and downs for the Earth and space science research community, AGU Public Affairs has compiled a list of the top five Earth and space science policy stories from 2013.

Credit: networkingvan.com

5. The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Habitable Planets

If political parties on Earth can’t get along, then maybe there’s life on other planets with friendly, nonpartisan governments? In early November, NASA released findings from the first three years of the Kepler space telescope mission. Kepler’s mission is to determine what percentage of Sun-like stars host small planets approximately the size and temperature of Earth (i.e. potentially habitable planets).The results usher in a new era of astronomy with more than 3,500 potential planets discovered, 104 of which are in the habitable zone (temperatures mild enough to support life). Of those in the habitable zone, so far NASA has found 24 exoplanets small enough to be rocky rather than gaseous – another trait important for harboring life. In December, the Kepler project team received great news that NASA’s Astrophysics Division invited the project team to submit a proposal for a new mission concept repurposing the space telescope to continue its mission and “introduce new science observation opportunities.”

There was exciting news closer to Earth in the search for extraterrestrial life as well. At the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting in December, NASA’s Curiosity rover team announced a major discovery – no, not Marvin the Martian, but still pretty cool. Curiosity found evidence of an ancient lake with plausibly potable water. The lake was part of a long-standing, aquatic environment that could have supported simple forms of life. Curiosity’s findings have demonstrated that Mars was a habitable world. That doesn’t mean it was inhabited though. A sample-return mission will likely be needed to actually look for microfossils in the 4-billion-year-old Mars rocks.

Ok, how do I get this job? Mars Curiosity Rover (while still on Earth). Credit: NASA.

4. Bipartisan Budget Agreement

Normally passing a federal budget wouldn’t garner applause (let alone Top 5 billing), but the past few years have been anything but normal in Congress. On 18 December, Congress approved a two-year budget bill to restore some of sequestration’s drastic, across-the-board spending reductions. In an encouraging sign for 2014, the budget plan was crafted in a bipartisan manner by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI).

House and Senate appropriators have until 15 January 2014 to pass a budget for the 2014 fiscal year (FY14). However, no omnibus bill after the 15th and we’ll have another government shutdown. Now’s the time to contact your legislators and encourage them to pass a budget and restore federal investment in scientific research.

3. President Obama’s Climate Change Initiative

On 25 June, President Obama responded to numerous calls for him to take greater action on climate change by signing an Executive Order that directs Federal agencies to take steps to enable American communities to strengthen their resilience to climate change. The Order established a Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience – comprised of governors, mayors, county officials, and tribal leaders – to advise the Administration on how the Federal government can better support communities dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Why use a motorcade when you can fight climate change over the phone? Credit: White House.

Then on 1 November, the President signed another Executive Order concerning the Nation’s preparedness and resilience to climate change. The Order calls for 30+ Federal agencies to modernize, partner, and support one another to improve communities’ preparedness to extreme weather and other impacts of climate change.  The policies are an encouraging sign that this Administration is strongly concerned about climate change and willing to take action on its own to potentially save lives and billions of dollars through proactive strategy.

2. U.S. Federal Government Shutdown

The 113th Congress reached a low point 1 October when appropriators failed to pass FY14 appropriations, resulting in the first U.S. Federal government shutdown since 1995. However, unlike in 1995, zero appropriations bills were passed before the 30 September 2013 deadline. Consequently, the scope of the shutdown was much larger; more than 800,000 federal employees were furloughed (and later paid) and numerous federally-funded services halted.

Earth and space science was not immune to the crisis. With government websites shutdown, researchers and students were unable to access widely-used government databases, like LandSAT and the USGS stream gauge network. Also, some government-funded research facilities were forced to close their doors and furlough their employees. Randy Showstack’s article in the 29 October 2013 issue of Eos details many of the early impacts of the shutdown on Earth and space science.

On 16 October, Obama signed a bill, passed by both chambers of Congress, reopening the government until 15 January 2014. However, effects of the shutdown are still coming to light, and policy makers should be informed. Share your shutdown stories with AGU. A special thanks to the numerous concerned AGU members who contacted AGU already.

(insert drum roll) Credit: pbs.twimg.com

1. Sequestration

As awful as the shutdown was, at least it was short lived. A far uglier monster also born from congressional partisanship raised its head earlier in 2013 – the automatic, across-the-board, spending cuts known as sequestration. The cuts, intended to be horribly damaging and ill-advised, were supposed to force Congress’ hand to produce a deficit reduction bill with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts before 1 January 2013. Congress failed to come to a budget agreement in time, however, and after a two-month postponement by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, approximately $85.4 billion in discretionary cuts were enacted for FY13.

Defense and non-defense discretionary programs, including all federal science agencies, were the recipients of the cuts. Under sequestration, federal research and development agencies would see their budgets hacked by 5.1 to 7.3 percent in 2013, resulting in hiring freezes, suspension of travel and outreach, insufficient infrastructure investment, and fewer research grants.  For example, NSF would ultimately award 600 fewer new grants in fiscal year 2013 than in 2012, impacting approximately 8,000 researchers.

In July, AGU surveyed its members to gauge how they were being impacted by the across-the-board cuts. Over 1,600 members responded, citing travel restrictions, hiring freezes, workforce reduction, and disabling of infrastructure/equipment as the most common impacts.

With the aforementioned budget agreement (see #4, above), the sequester is temporarily suspended for the next two years, and it’s unclear if sequestration will resume after that time. Regardless, the effects of 2013’s drastic cuts to science will linger for years. Please share how you’ve been impacted by sequestration and contact your Members of Congress to encourage them to restore federal funding for Earth and space science.

But what does the future hold?

So what’s on tap science policy-wise for 2014? Well, we don’t have to worry about another government shutdown until October, but Congress seems to have learned a harsh lesson on that front. Several important authorization bills are up for renewal this year, including the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) and National Wind Hazards Reduction Program (NWHRP), NASA, and NSF. The upcoming IPCC report and National Climate Assessment may accompany further climate change adaptation and mitigation policies from the Administration.

Whatever happens, the AGU Science Policy webpage will keep you informed on the latest news, events, and action items. You can also sign up to receive AGU’s science policy alerts and receive important science policy news straight to your inbox.