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CONGRESS, THE PRESIDENT AND THE S-WORD (SCIENCE)

TWO ARTICLES on the same two-page spread of Science, May 5, 2017, suggest the turmoil taking place in scientific communities funded at least in part by the federal government. One headline reads, “Congress Trumps President in Backing Science.” Across from it is another that reads, “DOE Freezes Millions in Awards.”

Science is published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The magazine had hitherto been largely apolitical in summarizing developments in a wide variety of scientific fields. This editorial stance has changed in response to the Trump administration’s apparent ignorance of, if not disdain for, science.

As one example, Scott Pruitt now heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Hardly one with any environmental sensitivity, Pruitt’s own website describes him as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”

DOE-head-to-be dances a mean paso doble. Image from chron.com.

As another example, Dancing with the Stars contestant/Texas ex-governor Rick Perry now heads the Department of Energy, one of three departments he suggested eliminating during his own abortive presidential campaign. Indeed, he needed to be reminded of the department’s name.

By contrast, AAAS Science writes, “A new U.S. budget deal makes it clear that scientists have enough friends in Congress to counter the chill from the White House—at least for now.”

As its name suggests, the Executive Branch executes the laws, though the Legislative Branch, the Congress, controls the purse strings. Or at least this is what’s in the U.S. Constitution.

Highlights from the 2017 omnibus spending bill. Data from Science, May 5, 2017.

An omnibus spending bill, delivered to Trump on May 5, 2017, was Congress’s stopgap measure to ensure money for the federal government to function through September 30, the end of the 2017 fiscal year. Big winners in the bill include a 13.2 percent boost for NASA’s Planetary Science operations. A loser is DOE’s barely 0.8 percent increase, including a 13.2 percent drop in Fusion funding, essentially the U.S. contribution to the ITER, a multinational fusion experiment under construction near Cadarache, France.

The second Science article carries the subhead, “Scientists furious over ARPA-E funding hiatus, gag order.” ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, is part of Perry’s Department of Energy.

According to Science, “DOE officials aren’t saying why they took the unusual ‘no-contract action,’ first reported by Politico Pro, last month. But more than a dozen projects across four new ARPA-E programs are now in limbo—and researchers fear the freeze could be a prelude to more drastic steps.”

The actions here are more than scientific or ideological: ARPA-E was created during the Obama era to develop clean energy technologies.

“DOE,” Science continues, “has also imposed a gag order on ARPA-E program managers, leaving investigators unaware of the status of their grants.” In at least one program cited by Science, timing is particularly crucial: The program involves growing maize in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. One of the researchers notes that if a May planting window is missed, “you lose an entire season.”

As for the legality of it all, Science references Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the Committee on Science, Space, & Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives. The freeze could violate federal laws that require agencies to spend appropriations from Congress.

A good civics class example. There’s that danged Constitution again. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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