What scientists want… and what may be in the Christmas stocking.

Recent LOTRW posts have focused on what scientists want – occasions and means to take their science to the next level – to use their research to build a better world.

New opportunities may be in the offing. Here are a couple of examples – just a few of the many being floated.

A Schumer proposal for a new research funding entity

According to an American Institute of Physics (AIP)/FYI report: at a conference held by the… National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, [Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY] said the entity would focus on funding research related to emerging technologies such as AI, quantum computing, robotics, and 5G telecommunications.

Referring to the proposal as in a “discussion draft” stage, Schumer said it has not yet been “firmed up” and that its proponents have not settled on how to structure the entity. However, he said the current idea is for it to be a “subsidiary” of the National Science Foundation that would work “in concert” with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and be governed by a board of directors.

According to Schumer, the objective would be for the entity to spend $100 billion over five years, with funding flowing to universities, companies, and other government agencies. For comparison, NSF’s annual budget is currently $8.1 billion while DARPA’s is $3.4 billion.

Schumer did not indicate whether the entity is intended to be permanent or if it would expire at the end of the five-year period he mentioned

Lofty, both in aspiration and in dollar amount. 

Meanwhile, a bit closer to earth, Ernest Moniz is arguing for an $11B carbon removal initiative. Again, as reported by AIP/FYI: 

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is working to build support for a 10 year, $11 billion plan to drive down the cost of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The effort would span 10 federal agencies and explore a broad range of technologies and associated carbon storage methods.

The Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), a research nonprofit Moniz founded in 2017, released the proposal in September. Calling for swift action, it argues mitigation measures alone will be insufficient to reach net-zero global carbon emissions by midcentury, a target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded is necessary to keep the rise in global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

For its part, Congress has recently shown interest in directing funding to carbon removal technology development. Next week, Moniz is testifying at a hearing on DOE’s role in addressing climate change held by the House Appropriations Committee, which has proposed to launch a carbon removal initiative within the department.

Speaking about the proposed initiative at an event held last month by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Moniz explained the intent is to fund a portfolio of research, development, and demonstration projects to assess the commercial scalability of candidate technologies.

He noted there are three main approaches to carbon removal: “natural techniques,” such as afforestation; “technologically enhanced natural processes,” such as the uptake of carbon in rocks through accelerated mineralization; and purely technological approaches, such as direct air capture, which uses chemical processes to absorb carbon from ambient air. Some removal techniques also require associated storage solutions, such as incorporating the carbon into new products or sequestering it underground. Justifying a broad approach, the EFI report argues it is “too soon to declare a ‘winner’” among the techniques.

An initiative surfacing just as the world realizes limiting global warming to a couple of degrees Centigrade can’t be accomplished by transition to renewable energy sources and emissions reductions alone. Definitely timely.

The White House is piling on. This (also from AIP/FYI):

Within the next year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology plans to recommend ways to jumpstart progress in areas such as quantum information science, artificial intelligence, and advanced manufacturing. The council will also consider options to bolster the U.S. STEM workforce and deepen federal laboratories’ engagement in the U.S. R&D enterprise.

Meeting for the first time on Nov. 18, the newly reconstituted President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology received its marching orders along with the message it has little time to waste. Observing there is only one year left in the current presidential term, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier told it to keep a tight focus on “important policy achievements and policy actions to make a difference.”  

Droegemeier, who chairs the council, explained that for now the current iteration of PCAST will not follow its predecessors in producing detailed reports. Instead, he said it should make “actionable” recommendations to advance existing efforts in three “priority workstreams”: advancing “Industries of the Future,” bolstering the U.S. STEM workforce, and better engaging federal laboratories in the U.S. research enterprise.

As the council discussed its agenda, it became clear that its efforts will be tightly anchored to the Industries of the Future rubric. First articulated by OSTP earlier this year, the term originally encompassed four areas: artificial intelligence, quantum information science, 5G telecommunications, and advanced manufacturing. However, Droegemeier indicated that number now stands at five, with synthetic biology added to the roster.

Three concluding remarks. First, speaking of biology, the Congress is also proposing plus-ups for the NIH budget in the 4-7% range. Political leaders are clearly signaling their desire for help from the R&D community with respect to a number of national challenges – not a mere handful of parochial interest to LOTRW readers. Even in the face of many competing budget claims directed at urgent, short-term needs, Congress is working to fence off and protect funding that will provide researchers with the tools to accelerate and sustain needed innovation[1]across the board. 

Second, some might note that much of the emphasis in these budget initiatives is on technology– especially IT – as much or more than science. But if the goal is to make science more useful, to harness science for societal benefit, then initiatives in artificial intelligence, next-generation computing and the like promise to break new ground as much or more than a Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope[2].To start, they should actually extend the power and value of these extraordinary tools. But they’ll do more than foster advances in particle physics and cosmology (with associated societal benefits, to be sure, but likely visible only over the longer term). They’ll foster new and relatively immediate breakthroughs across the whole of the human endeavor and improve prospects for every human aspiration.

Third, as for that Christmas stocking, these funding initiatives, and all that past, present, and future support for science isn’t intended as a gift. There are strings attached. With every dollar comes responsibility. It’s incumbent on us, individually and as a community, to be good stewards of this vote of confidence. We need to earn the trust that Congress and the American people they represent have conferred.

 Let’s keep at it.


[1]Based on recent reports, in the past few days, even against the background of impeachment proceedings, the Congress and the White House have reached basic agreement on $1.3 trillion of 2020 budget that will likely prevent a repeat of the previous cycle’s government shutdown.

[2]Or, for that matter, a permanent human presence on the Moon.

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