Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's Happening Now?

To be honest I didn't plan on updating this blog, but things are rather interesting at the moment.

I'm not going to discuss the health care debate, because others are doing a better job of that, especially in terms of evaluating its prospects; I am not a political scientist of any sort, and the outcome is not obvious to me. The fact that I'm not in the United States right now may be contributing to my ignorance of what's happening here, as nuanced discussions of American politics evade me olde daily discourse. I give the issue mention here, in this blog, because changing our health care system will certainly change prioritization of research; if I remember what I've read right, guys like Dan Sarewitz have referred to the American health care system as a particularly contentious place for the linear model of science. We pour heaps of dollars into research and development, yet the benefits (especially in the short term) are unclear; the cutting edge treatments that we discover are prohibitively expensive for most people, who cannot access older treatments that could be of great benefit them.

I also want to point out that the House just passed H.R. 1622, the bill providing for a R&D + demonstration of a natural gas vehicle. I previously presumed that the bill wouldn't go anywhere, but it actually was voted on and passed with wide bipartisan support (393-35-5 Y-N-NV).

I still stand by my eariler analysis of what this bill means, and will hold out to see what becomes of it in the Senate and beyond.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where We've Been, and Where We're Going

The AAAS has a nice list of science and technology relevant legislation from the 111th congress here.  The "legislation to watch" that's been referenced is this blog is available to see there; as predicted, the majority of legislation that's been tracked here hasn't made it through.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed, and with it came significant funds for the NIH, NSF, and others.  Ultimately, the funds that were provided will be doled out by the particular institutions that fund science directly.  This blog took a look at the NIH and NSF's statements concerning allocation priorities; it seems that for the most part, projects that are already in-house are likely to receive funding.  Not much has been said about additional areas of science and technology that will be funded, and in all likelihood a highly incremental and long-term view of science in this country will be required to ascertain exactly how priorities are changing.

Nevertheless, we have seen significant emphasis on energy policy, including renewable energy.  The Waxman-Markey draft for clean energy and security contains several important provisions that were examined in detail previously.  The draft is respectable in its intention, but omits any mention of nuclear power interestingly, and relies rather heavily on problematic offsets.  Complementing this, the EPA did declare greenhouse gases to be pollutants deserving of regulation.  The extent to which these changes represent a sea change in attitude towards GHG emission reduction remains to be seen; the Waxman-Markey draft has yet to survive even preliminary debate in the house, and stands to be largely emasculated prior to passing the House.  The EPA's new policy may lead to more regulation, but any such regulation will have to contend with economic realities.  Against the backdrop of a recession (really, against the more invariable backdrop of people desiring economic growth), high carbon taxes, or punitive cap-and-trade levels are likely to remain politically untenable through the medium term.  Viability of such moves are predicated on technological advances in alternative enery production or increased scarcity of traditional fuels.  To this end, Steven Chu has recently promised more funds to develop renewable energy.

So there have been changes in the 111th congress; plenty of science legislation has been introduced, and some of it (funding for water research, for example) has passed.  Energy has been the focus of debate.  The public continues to support science, as revealed through polls, but their enthusiasm for funding science has not yet been comprehensively weighed against the economic impacts of implementing relevant policies.  The Waxman-Markey bill, when debated in full, will be instructive as to exactly where our energy policy is headed.  Other scientific agencies, such as the NSF, NIH, and NASA have been provided with additional funds, and have ambitions into the future.  The mechanics of their goals being actualized also remain to be seen, but additional baseline funding for such institutions has already increased in this administration.

The rhetoric of the energy debate remains variable, with the need for renewable energy being framed differently by different sides.  Is it a security issue or a climate issue, predominantly?  Which frame will Americans ultimately accept more readily?  At what economic cost are Americans willing to work towards alternative sources of energy?  How much basic research are Americans going to want in the future, and how much will Congress support - how much does it matter the extent to which research can be ultimately applied for economic growth?

These fundamental questions remain largely unanswered, and in spite of the incremental changes that have occured in the new Congress, there has been nothing resembling an overarching prescription for how science, society and government ought to interact.  As was pointed out earlier in this blog, the status quo indeed does appear to reconcile conflicting interests, albeit not always in a perfectly elegant way.  Competing interest groups are represented through congress; those who have more direct interests in maintaining cheap fossil fuel energy (coal states, for example) contribute to a discourse in Congress that ultimately must include these interests.  On the flip side, champions for basic research and NASA also exist in Congress, and they exist because there is public support for basic research.  The political process that is currently in place does ensure that peoples' preferences are accounted for in balance, to a degree.  

Does this system accurately weigh future harms against present costs?  Does it properly value expert opinion?  This blog does not have answers to these questions, but it is unlikely that the fundamental dynamic that interprets these complex relationships and leads to decisions that reflect them is going to change any time soon.  The future of science and technology in the United States will continue to change in its particular priorities; gradual changes in attitude from the government will undoubtedly occur, and the relationship between science and the world it studies will continue to evolve.

Introduced Legislation

Several pieces of relevant legislation have been introduced recently.  Again, the majority of these will probably not go anywhere.  In the first round of introduced legislation noted at the beginning of this blog, one bill was pushed through - the water research bill - in large part because of the explicit attention given to it in the committee hearings.

HR 21912:  the Climate Change and Natural Resource Conservation Act
This bill, introduced by Raul Grivalja [D-AZ], provides a federal policy to preserve natural resources threatened by climate change (water resources and snowpack in particular)

H. Res 387:  a Resolution supporting the ideals of National Hurricane Awareness Week

HR 2212:  This bill, by Jay Inslee [D-WA] looks to shore up funds for the DOE's energy deployment prorams.

HR 2148:  Another bill by Inslee, this legislation is to "promote the development and use of marine renewable energy technologies, and for other purposes." 

HR 2120:  Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2009.  By Sue Myrick [R-NC], this legislation seeks to grant leases to mine energy resources from the continental shelf.  This ain't gonna happen.

New York Times on NASA

The New York Times put out an article highlighting Obama's inaction in appointing a new administrator for NASA.

The author, Kenneth Chang, highlights the challenges NASA will face, and the goals is intends to pursue, in the context of not having an administrator 100 days into Obama's term.  It is interesting ot note that stories concerning NASA are so often dominant in various publications' science and technology sections.  While NASA and space exploration can be thought of as quintessentially "basic research," with uncertain prospects for economically productive applications through at least the medium term, as recently as 2007, the job that NASA is doing polled fairly well.

Whie Gallup's methods don't delve into details of why people support NASA; in other words, it is unclear exactly why people support space exploration, whether they expect "results" or are just supportive of efforts to understand the mysterious universe that we are floating through.  In all likelihood, it is a combination of the two, and indeed peoples' reasons are likely to be complex.  Nevertheless, general support for NASA does not necessarily equate with a high willingness to pay, or incur opportunity costs in government spending, for the work that NASA is doing.

Obama displayed some implicit understanding of this during his speech to the National Academy of Sciences last week, and this was duly noted by the New York Times:

The Times points out that Obama avoided explicitly espousing the future of space exploration, focusing instead on NASA's relevance to climate change; there was of course an undercurrent of respect for scientific inquiry throughout Obama's speech.  

This coverage appeals to a public support for space exploration in particular.  

The implications of Obama's delay in selecting an administrator for NASA are uncertain, and it is still unclear when he will select one.  NASA continues to push an ambitious short to medium term agenda, and its ability to achieve its goals will shape space exploration.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Strategy for Passing Climate Change Legislation

This blog will soon turn to some of the media coverage of science policy; in particular, the cap-and-trade bill because it is just so critical to the direction that energy science, research and development take in coming years - over the medium term, really.

Nate Silver of the election season fame just made a post adapting this image:

From this survey.  Silver calls for Democrats to "personalize" the debate in order to have a better shot a pushing legislation, and he is absolutely right.  As he points out, general polling on climate change indicates support for legislation to mitigate.  At the same time, in situations where economic growth is in conflict with emissions reductions, economic growth will almost always win because people never oppose economic growth (as Roger Pielke Jr., puts it: do you have a job and want a keep it?  do you not have a job but want a job at some point?  then you are a big fan of economic growth).  

In the context of expensive energy, and a flat demand for energy in the developed world (indeed, growing to the extent that immigration drives population growth in countries like America), it is unlikely that people will vote for climate legislation over economic productivity over time. 

How might Waxman, Markey, and the Democrats make the debate seem more personalized?  As is often the case, the political process is more comprehensive than many like to think, and is addressing this issue in subtle ways.  For example, Rick Boucher [D-VA] has proposed moderating amendments to the bill.  To coal state democrats, such a move may garner support, and make the bill seem like it is addressing the climate issue, while also not taxing the bottom of the pyramid - "you," "your family," and "your community."  While somewhat variable based on one's personal ethics, it can be generally argued that people care more about the bottom of the pyramid than the top of it; barring fringe deep ecologists, people (evidenced by their consumption behavior and voting behavior) do prioritize themselves and their families over distant, developing countries, and certainly plant species.  

What more migh the Democrats do?  It's a fine balance, making a cap-and-trade bill pass a majority's personal and informal cost-benefit analysis.  The pyramid at the top of this post, as Silver points out, isn't necessarily irrational; indeed, developing countries are likely to be most affected by climate change, and species are going extinct already, before the wealthy world is feeling the punch of climate change.  Nevertheless, what may be irrational is that people are discounting the future damages to their families and communities.  Framing the issue in terms of childrens' future is an effective tactic, but must still not appeal to excessive fear.

Sadly, in the absence of fear, discounting prevails and economic growth will remain hard pressed to see compromise in the name of climate change mitigation.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Water Research Bill Passes House

Broad bipartisan support for the bill was displayed on Thursday.  The bill now awaits a vote in the Senate.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Water Research Bill Out of Committee

H.R. 1145, the National Water Research and Development Initiative Act of 2009, was reported by the committee for consideration by the House.

The bill will direct research into consumption of water, for use in developing water regimes into the future.  Sounds interesting, and not all that expensive.  It may be opposed as by some nonetheless as needless spending, but the majority party may be able to steamroll it through as more important matters demand attention; or it will be tabled indefinitely.

Earlier in this blog, this piece of legislation was mentioned among several others; however, there was a committee hearing in which the expert panel strongly pushed for the passage of this bill, and called for federal funds for water research.  Apparently, the committee itself was convinced enough to recommend the bill for debate; it remains to be seen how far it makes it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Waxman Markey Draft Part IV: Transitioning to a Clean Energy Future

                Transitioning is in the title of the fourth title, and it’s absolutely critical to making any of this work – in terms of mitigation of climate change, and adaptation to it.  This title is unique in that it calls for significant development of groups focused on adaptation to climate change, and being aware of what policies will be necessary as the climate does change. 

                The first subtitle of the draft works to assuage fears of America losing its competitive edge as producers have to pay for their carbon emissions.  Ideas that are floated include rebates for producers in the short term, to make up some of their increased costs; the exact source of these funds – and indeed, the amount that it will really cost – is rather unclear, and likely to be opposed by Boehner and Cantors’ people.  Additionally, a “border adjustment” is proposed by which products imported to the United States must be charged for their carbon emissions.  This provision will be called protectionist by some, and is likely to lead to legal conundrums and the development of loopholes, as free-trade continues to try to persist.  China is the obvious loser from such a policy, insofar as the United States provides a large market for Chinese products; having to pay the costs of the carbon associated with their products will disadvantage Chinese companies, and may lead to international tension.  At the same time, this is an assurance that American companies cannot simply shift production overseas where carbon is still perfectly externalized, and sell their product back to Americans.  Of course, as throughout this bill, the consumer remains as a stakeholder and will feel a shock from the draft in terms of prices, despite these efforts to ease the transition.

                While consumers are left rather out of the transition loop from the last sub-title, the second sub-title focuses on workers.  In advocating bailing out the auto industry, the threat to thousands of American jobs was used as a primary argument.  The President has been fairly honest in his rhetoric, about the state of American jobs.  He has expressed in interviews and town hall meetings the understanding that many (most?) outsourced jobs are not coming back – and that new jobs need to be created.  To this end, the draft authorizes extensive training in green jobs, via the secretary of labor.  It remains to be seen what such training might entail, because we aren’t yet sure what green industries will be the “winners” when the costs of carbon are internalized; naturally, the bill stops short of picking winners (save for the loser that is nuclear). 

                Finally, the draft gets to adaptation.  The adaptation/mitigation debate is an interesting one, the ethical and practical subtexts of which this blog will not fully explore.   While the effects of climate change are uncertain but surely dependent on our actions now and into the future, there is also data to suggest that climate changes have been initiated in an irreversible way, and adaptation to these changes will be necessary.  The draft takes this up by directing NOAA to form a National Climate Service.  This organization will evaluate the actual changes to the climate, and from their impacts can be assessed and policy alternatives can be considered.  The draft goes on to outline a variety of organizations relevant to adaptive policy in some detail; there are groups set up to investigate vulnerability, some set up to examine health impacts, and others made to consider the impact of climate changes on natural resource use.

                All of these effects of climate change are real, and it is commendable that adaptation has a place in climate change rhetoric.  To the extent that we are obligated to avert a full upheaval of Earth’s climatic systems in the medium term, mitigation must be pursued; however, it is important that the most vulnerable people on Earth are not sacrificed in the name of future generations.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Waxman Markey Draft Part III: Reducing Global Warming Pollution

It is in Title III of the draft that cap-and-trade, and other market based mechanisms for mitigation are introduced.  Before looking at the details, a note about cap-and-trade:  in order to be an effective tool for reducing reductions, the actual “cap” part of the cap-and-trade needs to be substantially lower than current emissions, it needs to be ratcheted down over time, and it needs to avoid excessive grandfathering.   Additionally, and I will argue to an emasculating extent, this title leans very heavily on offsets to reduce global warming pollution.

The draft takes steps towards meeting these criteria, but the immediate economic implications of cap-and-trade are likely to favor growth and sustained affordable prices or consumers.  The companies – including oil and utilities – that are responsible for 85% of American GHG emissions are mentioned particularly by the draft.  Federal allowances are provided for each ton of CO2 emitted, and companies emitting over 25,000 tons of CO2 (apparently, only companies emitting over that amount) must obtain credits from the federal government for each ton of CO2 that they emit.  The particulars of the initial allocation of credits are unclear, but it seems inevitable that some sort of grandfathering in of allowances will occur; to the extent that the cost of reducing emissions is lower when overall emissions from a firm are higher (to the “left” of a marginal control cost curve), the heaviest emitters should indeed cut their emissions quickly if this bill is enacted.  The draft calls for a ratcheting down of the cap such that by 2050, emissions are 83% below 2005 levels (3% below ’05 levels by 2012, 20% by 2020, and 42% by 2030).  As expected, the most severe shocks that will occur from legitimate emissions reductions are left to the medium term.

In any event, reducing emissions to 20% of 2005 levels by 2020 is an ambitious enough call that opposition will be fierce.  There will be a fairly substantial coalition of both republicans and blue dog & coal state democrats that will be pushing to loosen the cap, should the bill pass at all.  John Boehner (who called the threat of  climate change "comical") and Eric Cantor are already working to rally what political capital they have to stop this bill from doing what it's intended to do.  

The draft then goes on to call for carbon offsets and other means of reducing emissions through mechanisms that do not directly operate on American soil.  Two billion tons of emissions reductions are called for in just the “prevention of international deforestation.”  To account for some of the shortcomings of offsets – including the potential for them to not be permanent – the draft requires 5 tons  worth of credits for 4 tons worth of CO2 that is offset.  The limitations remain, and 2 billion tons is a large portion of emissions to ascribe to the somewhat nebulous black box of offsets.

An interesting quasi-loophole is written into the draft: 2.5 billion tons of “strategic reserve” allowances will be created, that can be auctioned off if prices rise unexpectedly high.  It’s interesting that although the “free market” character of cap-and-trade is what makes it politically palatable to many, there is an implicit mechanism to actually disrupt the mechanics of the system should they yield consequences that are, essentially, unpopular.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Americans and Nuclear Power: Did the Dems Blow It?

Reading the Waxman-Markey draft, and noting the exclusion of nuclear power from the clean energy title, I questioned why there was such an omission.

According to Gallup, support for nuclear power among Americans is growing. 

(click for big; the blog layout precludes fully embedding the image in the context of my relative technical incompetence)

 It would be useful to look at more polls, and as the debate gains importance in the news headlines, my hope is that someone like Nate Silver will pull out some useful analysis about where the debate is headed (Silver's ability to interpret statistics - including uncertainty! - in an accessible way is absolutely incredible, and I hope his career didn't end with the election.  It's a rare talent that he has, and moreover, he has a relatively large audience, albeit some of which is academics, that are willing to listen and learn about statistics and uncertainty)

I'm no Silver, but it is interesting to note that Republicans favor nuclear power to much higher degree than Democrats: 71% support in the GOP versus 52% among Dems.  To the extent that Waxman and Markey's new bill will require bipartisan support to pass, it is possible that they have rather dropped the ball on a great opportunity to rally support for policy that will lead to climate change mitigation - and indeed energy security.

Waxman Markey Draft Part II: Efficiency

It is good to see energy efficiency featured prominently in the draft, as Title II.  Energy efficiency has been a large part of the mitigation strategy of countries like Japan, where buildings and households have been rather efficient.  The extent to which this can take a bite out of global emissions remains to be seen; however, to the extent that we are uncertain about how effectively the world can meet emissions and climate targets globally, energy efficiency is a promising way to move in the direction of climate mitigation, with deliberate certitude.

                In particular, the draft provides incentives for states to make more stringent building codes, authorizes retrofit funds, and calls for the development of a new rating system for buildings; there is no federal code that is imposed directly by the bill, unsurprisingly.  Building efficiency could perhaps have an impact with respect to mitigation if taken very seriously; it was touted as a “wedge” in 2004.  It’s strange, but for some reason 2004 seemed like a popular time to make overly optimistic predictions about the climate, and our trajectory in mitigating emissions.  To this end, the draft proposes rebates for poor families living in old homes who wish to move into more efficient, newer homes.  This sounds well and good, but its feasibility will be entirely dependent on the housing market, at least to a degree. 

                This title also asks the DOE (who’s rhetoric has been similar to this bill in other areas such as  coal) to impose appliance efficiency standards.  It is unclear what sort of impact this would have, although it does appear to mesh synergistically with the draft’s advocacy for further deployment of smart grid technology in Title I.

                A commendable move by the draft is its call for the Obama administration to reconcile federal automobile standards with those of California.  By having the EPA simplify its code for transportation efficiency, loopholes can be reduced and the mitigation impact can be amplified in a (again synergistic) way.

                Next, the draft asks for utility efficiency.  It calls for utility companies to increase efficiency such that consumers will cut their natural gas and coal consumption by roughly 1% by 2012%, and well over 10% by 2020.  While I do not feel qualified to comment on how appropriate this time scale is, my sense is that it would be more productive to focus on particular mechanisms by which this could be done.  At the same time, should such a regulation pass with teeth, then the buck would be passed to utility companies; given the already intense opposition to this bill, and the considerable clout that industries affected by this provision has, this section does not seem likely to prevail.  At best, perhaps, the target will move before the teeth of regulation have an opportunity to leave a sufficiently painful bite mark.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Congress not in session this week

The House will meet again on April 21, and the Senate April 20th.

There should be plenty of discussion in the next week about the Waxman-Markey draft, among othe things.

Waxman Markey Draft Part 1: Clean Energy

The new American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 draft version has been released – it’s quite a beast, at 648 pages.  I was pouring through the actual draft itself, attempting to tease out some more interesting tidbits – this was rather daunting, and fortunately a summary is now available!

The debate on this bill is already fierce, even among Democrats.  Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill has told the press his intention to seek more modest goals for reductions in emissions, especially in the short term.  Many Republicans, as well as Democrats who are tied rather strongly to particular industries (coal)are likely to move debate in a similar direction to Boucher.  It remains to be seen whether or not the final draft that moves through Congress will have substantial regulatory teeth, or will be a largely emasculated symbolic piece of paper.  All this, of course, before the bill actually comes to a vote; my sense is that if the bill were to go to a vote now in its present form, it would have roughly a snowball’s chance in hell of being passed.

The draft is divided into four titles: clean energy, energy efficiency, global warming (mitigation), and transition, which focuses on easing shocks to consumers en route to our ostensibly sustainable future. 

The clean energy title promotes a variety of technologies – primarily through development and deployment.  Renewable energies like wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy are promoted with fairly ambitious requirements: 6% renewable (nationally) by 2012, and 25% renewable by 2025.  This is more ambitious than Obama’s own calls, but considerably less ambitious than the suggestions of some others (Al Gore, who calls for zero reliance on fossil fuels in the short - medium term).  It is interesting to note that nuclear power does not fit into the “clean energy” title, in spite of being “clean” in terms of carbon emissions.  The extent to which nuclear power will ultimately fit into future plans is questionable.  Also, it is unclear exactly why it was omitted.  Nuclear power is politically problematic, as people are concerned about many salient related issues: storage of waste, prevention of weapons proliferation, and potential creation of terrorist targets. 

Waxman himself has been skeptical of nuclear power before.  According to his website, he voted to bar a website promoting the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.  Waxman calls Yucca Mountain a mistake, an decries the website in question’s failure to present potential dangers associated with waste storage.

The next part of the clean energy title is Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or "clean coal."  Without explicitly putting any additional funds into research, the draft calls for development and deployment of the technology.  This is interesting, because clean coal does not exist.  In spite of this, clean coal continues to occupy a very prominent position in the climate and energy discourse.  Still, congressmembers who are linked to coal are not satisifed; in addition to seeking to play up the potential for coal fired power plants to co-exist with climate legislation through carbon capture and storage, they will push for easier regulations in general that do not require much substantive action in the short term.  

Third, the clean energy title calls for more efficient vehicles.  Included are financial incentives for battery powered cars, municipalities that work towards efficient vehicles, and further incorporation of biofuel into the existing liquid fuel supply.

The rest of the title includes some interesting provisions: federal purchase of renewable energy contracts, credits for increased distributed renewable energy generation, and of course expansion of smart grid technology!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Climate & Energy Bill Revealed!

And the ugly politics begin!

As described in the New York Times, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey revealed their climate and energy bill draft.  The bear of a bill sets relatively  aggressive targets for cutting emissions.  It requires a 20% cut from 2005 levels by 2020.  

Some are already calling these early targets too aggressive. Rick Boucher [D-VA], a democrat (or if not him, someone - no question) will try to ease up on the urgency imposed by the bill.  

As the debate unfolds, this will be an extremely hot topic!

Introduced legislation

H.R. 141, the Acid Rain and Mercury Control Act was introduced by John McHugh [R-NY].

The act calls for cuts in powerplant sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide of 75% by 2012.

McHugh is from a region in the northeast affected by acid rain, which explains his interest in the issue.  

The reason this is a noteworthy introduction is that further reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions would ultimately come down on the coal industry.  It will be interesting if this bill does actually go anywhere, as that could be informative as to the political status of coal.

Coming up:  a glance at how the story so far looks, and how it's been represented in the media.

Enacted Legislation

H.R. 146, the Omnibus Public Land Management Bill, has been enacted.

This large bill designated a lot of land, in a lot of places, as federally protected.  The bill directly protects areas, and directs federal agencies to work towards the ecological restoration of other areas.  

It's worth a glance!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Introduced Legislation

More legislation introduced.  As usual, the odds of anything getting out of committee and through congress is low, but new bills are still of interest because their language modifies the discourse relevant to science policy.

H.R. 1794, a bill To Provide Incentives to Reduce Dependence on Foreign Oil 
Introduced by Dan Lungren [R-CA]

Lungren doesn't have much of a history of leadership in this area, so it is interesting that the Sacramento suburb rep decided to introduce this bill.  Energy issues are very salient to his constituency (along with many, many others of course), and this bill clearly frames the matter in terms of energy security - as opposed to climate issues. 

That said, the bill is fairly broad in scope.  It calls for a tax credit for any facility (electrical generation) that pratcies climate neutral combustion.  'Clean coal' is directly alluded to, as the bill mentions that climate neutral combustion includes combustion in which CO2 is recaptured and used to extract hydrocarbon energy from below ground.

Largely, the bill seeks to extend Internal Revenue Code of 1986, which interestingly provided clean energy credits.  Carbon neutrality is emphasized, and the bill further proposes to extend tax credits for solar energy.

Also, examine these sections:  


The Secretary of Energy shall establish a program to award a prize in the amount of $1,000,000,000 to the first automobile manufacturer incorporated in the United States to manufacture and sell in the United States 60,000 midsized sedan automobiles which operate on gasoline and can travel 100 miles per gallon.


There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary of Energy $30,000,000 for fiscal year 2010 for the development of advanced lithium ion battery technology."

The bill is calling for direct monetary incentives for improved gas mileage($1bn is significant even to a major auto company), and a "reward" for creating an advanced lithium battery - similar to what John McCain proposed during his 2008 presidential campaign.  The effectiveness of such a strategy is debatable; aside from the limited supply of lithium, production of a commercially viable battery doesn't really require a reward incentive.  

Finally, the bill offers to treat any property used to produce biofuels (ethanol and methanol, specifically) as not chargeable to a capital account.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

NIH Information

The National Institutes of Health received far more money than the NSF from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  Again, it's not entirely clear where that money will go.

The NIH will likely fund projects that are already in house, but previously were not supported because resources were unavailable.  At the same time, purport to prioritize an investment in education, and training teachers.  This sounds like a good goal for the "reinvestment" portion of "recovery and reinvestment" - given that so much money has so far gone to recovery, and not reinvestment, this is could be a good thing if the money is spent wisely.

More Bills Introduced

More bills relevant to science policy have been introduced; their significance and potential to ultimately get out of comittee, put to vote, and ultimately made into law is highly questionable, but nonetheless important in shaping the rhetoric of the science policy debate in congress.

H.R. 1622, introduced by Oklahoma's Republican John Sullivan.  

The bill generally calls for the Secretary of Energy to direct a 5 year investigation into the natural gas vehicles.  Sullivan is one of the most conservative members of congress, and voted with the Bush administration 100% of the time.  While it is unlikely that this bill will go anywhere in congress, it is a testament further bipartisan initiative to explore energy alternatives - whether or not environmental concerns are part of the language used in defining relevant problems.  On the one hand, natural gas vehicles could permit Americans to reduce their overall emissions, and cut dependence on foreign oil (the United States is relatively well endowed in natural gas, compared to oil).  

On the other hand, this may represent a problem for environmentalists as a whole.  As Shellenberger and Nordhaus famously argued in their piece the Death of Environmentalism, environmental concerns will only be addressed through federal legislation if the issues are framed as everyone's problem, rather than the special interest of a fringe group.  The economics of oil have made this a reality to some extent: oil is becoming increasingly scarce, so people want alternatives - regardless of whether they care about climate change or not.  Sullivan's bill is indicative of this phemonemon (though by no means is it the first or even a particularly early indication of it).  However, the precedent it sets could be problematic for environmentalists because bipartisan support for economical alternatives to foreign oil could open the door to less environmentally friendly alternatives, such as oil shale.

Oil shale, a form of oil mixed with rock, is extremely abundant in the Rocky Mountains, but it is currently very expensive to extract.  Environmental groups should perhaps be weary of how broad the scope of scientific inquiry into viable energy sources becomes.

H.R. 1689, introduced by Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher.  

This bill calls for increased development and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS)  technologies for existing fossil fuel electrical generation plants (in other words an exploration of "clean coal").  It is interesting to note that, although existing CCS technologies are widely decried as imperfect, incomplete and indeed imaginary, the bill does not call for additional scientific research.  Rather, it calls for deployment of technologies which already "exist."  

Looking at Boucher's voting history, he has been among the Democrats opposed to any restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.  This bill is clearly an attempt to promote coal, and to resist its replacement by natural gas.  Interestingly, rather than outright opposing restrictions on GHG emissions, Boucher is attempting to make coal more competitive with natural gas in an environment (no pun intended) of taxed emissions.  Does he see such a state of affairs as inevitable, then?  Maybe so - he has been rather explicit in his intentions.  

Boucher's house website contains (select) statements from various legislators on the issue.  This statement summarizes the position of Boucher's office: 

Today 58% of U.S. homes are heated with natural gas, and numerous industries are heavily reliant on it. If large scale switching by utilities from coal to natural gas occurs, tens of millions of Americans would experience deep economic pain, and many domestic industries would be dislocated. The early arrival of CCS is essential to prevent this economic disruption in a carbon constrained economy

The argument against fuel switching is on economic grounds - but does CCS really solve this?  If we fiat that a cap and trade bill with some regulatory teeth is enacted in the near future, then coal would have to actually demonstrate significantly reduced emissions in order to be competitive with natural gas.  Given that technology is currently inadequate to make this happen, why didn't Boucher call for research, rather than deployment?  It's hard to believe that his staffers simply failed to do their homework and crunch the numbers properly.  Much more likely, Boucher (along with many others) is attempting to distort the debate by presenting this technology as more viable than it is, keeping coal firmly entrenched in the landscape of America's energy future.

NSF Information

The NSF issued a not-so-informative statement about where some of their $3 billion from the stimulus package is going to go.  

Of the $2 billion that's been allotted to Research and Related Activities, most if it will be going towards funding projects that are already in house, but haven't been supported due to insufficient funds.  This could be good news for recent applicants - it doesn't offer any guidance as to which academic projects in particular will receive attention, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, an ostensible purpose of the NSF is to fund basic research.  It was not founded with any explicit obligation to report upon the "usefulness" of the projects it selects to support.  

The NSF will issue solicitations for the Major Research instrumentation program (MRI), which was given $300 million by the stimulus package at some point this spring - good news for institutions who could benefit from more equipment.  Hopefully the NSF will have good oversight into where this money goes.   While the notion that "basic research" deserves funding - for reasons ranging the intrinsic value of the search for truth to the likelihood of useful serendipidous findings - isn't a bad one, there are certain problems that are especially pressing right now.  Energy comes to mind most obviously, and the people in charge of prioritizing research funding will inevitably "pick winners" to some extent.  It's above the pay grade of this blog to advise decision makers on what winners to pick, and beyond its ability to suggest how such a practice could be avoided, but it would be in everybody's interest if the system for allocating funding was reassessed in the context of our energy crisis.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

House Commends NASA

The House also passed a resolution commending NASA scientists' work on the Mars rover.  

Pi Day!

The House passed a resolution recognizing PI-day, the role of the NSF in science and math education, and encouraging teachers to celebrate PI-day with appropriate activities.


There has been some activity on relevant legislation so far in March, and it deserves attention.

However, a couple noteworthy changes in the direction of this blog.  Most of the "science" relevant legislation that has been tracked thus far has come out of the House Science & Technology Committee; some of it will make it out of the committee, less of it will be debated, and much less of it will ultimately become law.

Speaking with Science Policy experts, there is a strong sense that hearings and other work by the House S&T committee may well be irrelevant until proven otherwise.  Over the course of the last ten years or so, funding for particular projects has been authorized through a variety of legislation, some of which came from the S&T Committee.  The America COMPETES act of 2007 set out further priorities for increasing and targeting funding for science.  The stimulus bill this year (American Recovery and Reinvestment Actof 2009)  provided $20 billion to go towards science & technology research & development, and this will be by far the most significant director of science and technology policy this year.  

At this point, much of the heavy lifting lies in the hands of the congressional appropriations committees, and this blog will continue to watch them.

Two other important things to be aware of.  First, there was an omnibus appropriations bill signed into law by President Obama on March 11.  This $410 billion bill includes appropriations for a huge number of agencies, including ones relevant to science & technology policy.  In the relevant section of the bill, billions of dollars are allocated to the National Aeronautcis and Space Association.  The National Science Foundation similarly has billions allocated towards research and education.   The full text of the bill is here.

Second, there will probably be a very large omnibus appropriations bill put through congress - by either Henry Waxman or Edward Markey, in all likelihood.  The specifics of who will control the bill are uncertain, and it is going to be met with red-hot Republican opposition.  This WSJ op-ed summarizes much of the opposition.  Whether the bill will be opposed is not the question; rather, it will be interesting to see whether or not the bill is emasculated, in terms of regulatory teeth, prior to its passage.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Committee's Agenda

According to the House Science & Technology Committee's "aggressive agenda" for the 111th congress, their agenda includes:

"Energy: Developing Clean Technologies
Our dependence on foreign sources of energy, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the need for a more balanced energy portfolio, and rising energy costs will be solved by science, technology, and innovation. The Committee plans to:
• Work with the new Administration to implement the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) –based on the  successful DARPA model, ARPA-E is tasked with undertaking high-risk, high-reward energy technology development, especially research that is too cross-cutting or multi-disciplinary to fit into the current system, and partnering with the best talent in the private sector, universities, and the national labs
• Conduct oversight on the implementation of energy technology programs authorized in EISA 2007 (solar, geothermal, hydrokinetic, cellulosic biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage, smart grid, and energy efficiency programs) and recommend any necessary changes
• Review programs at the DOE Office of Science, including ways to strengthen the linkages between basic energy research, applied energy research, and technology transfer and ways to make DOE lab management more effective
• Address new energy technology challenges, including nuclear reactors and reprocessing, vehicles including heavy trucks, and pipelines for new fuels and CO2

Workforce: Creating Jobs of the Future
When half of the world’s workers earn less than $2 a day, our country needs to compete at a higher level – with better skills and higher productivity. The Committee will continue seeking to ensure not only that our nation will produce the world’s leading scientists and engineers but also that all students will have a strong grounding in math and science and are prepared for technical jobs in every sector of the economy. The Committee plans to:
• Evaluate STEM education programs across the Federal government and determine how to better coordinate these efforts to make them more effective
• Assess efforts to promote diversity in the STEM workforce and gender equity at academic institutions
• Directing investments across the economy in technologies and entities – including small manufacturers and high-tech firms - to create “green jobs” that boost economic growth

Environment: Protecting Our Natural Resources
• Address the need for accurate and reliable technologies to monitor reporting and compliance with greenhouse gas emission limits in any climate change cap-and-trade scheme
• Direct more effective coordination of Federal research on water supply, quality, and conservation and set a roadmap for technologies, such as “produced water” technologies, needed to address water issues arising from the interdependency of water and energy resources
• Direct R&D programs to address the environmental and economic implications of electronic waste (e-waste) from computers, televisions, cell phones, and other consumer goods
• Conduct a wholesale review of weather and ocean research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including work on ocean acidification and harmful algal blooms"

The rhetoric of the agenda implies at least a redirection of federal funds in R&D; given that the stimulus bill allocated some $20 bn to scientific research, this blog will watch to see if this rhetoric plays out ultimately.

As the power to make these allocations shifts to particular federal agencies, this blog will attempt track their actions in an effort to see where funds go, from legislative agenda to research project.  It probably won't be easy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tracking the Committee

As we all know, the majority of bills and resolutions (including those that seem fairly sensible and non-controversial) do not make it out of committee.  According to their website, "the House Science and Technology Committee passed 82 bills in the House – 37 resolutions passed, 27 bills were enacted into law, and 18 additional bills passed the House. In order to spearhead as many science and technology priorities and issues, the Committee has set an aggressive agenda for the 111th Congress."  

There hasn't been very much activity on any of the bills introduced by the committee so far, but hopefully there will be.  In the event that the next couple months are slow with respect to science and policy, it's important to think about why, and nevertheless examine the agenda of the committee.  They do indeed have an interesting lineup of hearings.

On February 24, the committee held a hearing entitled "How Do We Know What We Are Emitting? Monitoring, Reporting and Verifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions."  The hearing charter describes its purpose: "The purpose of the hearing is to determine the federal role in supporting research and development of monitoring technologies, emissions factors, models, and other tools necessary to support reliable accounting of baseline greenhouse gas emissions and changes in emissions relative to the baseline under a regulatory program for greenhouse gases."  

The four witnesses included John Stephenson of the Government Accountability Office, Jill Gravender of the Climate Registry, Leslie Wong of Waste Management, Inc., and Rob Ellis of Advanced Waste Management Systems, Inc.  

Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) surmised in a press release after the hearing:

  “In order to evaluate programs – either mandatory or voluntary – for controlling greenhouse gases, we must be able to track emissions accurately,” said Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA). “We need an accurate measurement of baseline emissions. We need to know the emissions levels we are starting from and we need a good baseline estimate as a benchmark to determine whether control programs are effective or not in reducing emissions.”

Will this be grounds for increased federal funding for greenhouse gas monitoring?  Maybe; ultimately, a lot of that is likely to be in the hands of particular federal agencies with funds.

Today, there was a hearing on water.  Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced  HR 1145, The National Water Research and Development Initiative Act of 2009.  The bill calls for priorities to be set for water research.  One of the witnesses, Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute made the point, "...the Bill calls for the interagency committee to 'establish the priorities for Federal water research.'  I believe that such priorities are clearly, and comprehensively, laid out in the NRC, SWAQ, and OMB reports already available. We know what we need to do; what is needed is the funding and effort to do it."

The call from the hearing was clear: federal funding for research in water.  It will be interesting to see how this bill progresses, given the attention it's received so far in committee.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Few Bills to Watch

On February 10, Rep. Michael McCaul [R-TX] introduced H.R. 957: Green Energy Education Act of 2009.  The Congressional Research Service offers the following summary:

Green Energy Education Act of 2009 - Authorizes the Secretary of Energy to contribute energy research and development funds to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program to support graduate education related to such energy projects.

Authorizes the Secretary to contribute funds for advanced energy technology research and development for high performance buildings to the NSF for curriculum development to improve undergraduate or graduate interdisciplinary engineering and architecture education related to the design and construction of such buildings.


This measure is still in the first stage of the legislative process; it has been introduced, and referred to the Committee on Science and Technology.   Interestingly, McCaul introduced the very same bill in 2007.  The bill passed the House with no opposition, but was never voted on in the Senate.  Will things be different this time?


There are several pieces of introduced legislation that relate to climate science, all of which will be tracked as they progress through the process.

H.R. 327: National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2009

H.R. 14: Federal Ocean Acidification Research And Monitoring Act of 2009

S. 173: Federal Ocean Acidification Research And Monitoring Act of 2009

H.R. 300: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Act

These bills have been introduced (the Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act, notably, in both the House and the Senate), but are still in preliminary stages.  Their fate may be instructive about this administration’s relationship with climate science.

An interesting counter-point:  H.R. 554: National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2009 , which essentially requires reporting ongoing projects to the public (assumedly in the interest of accountability) passed the House quickly, and awaits consideration by the Senate.     

Legislating for Science '09

This is an ambitious attempt to track important science policy relevant legislation as it moves through congress.  Govtrack is a great resource which I (Ashwin Ravikumar) will be using extensively to stay on top of what is happening in Congress.

Commentary will focus on the politicization of science, with frequent inclusion of analyses of congressmen and women's votes for and against bills.  In particular, it will be interesting to watch how legislation that is on the floor right now is shaping the new administration's relationship with science policy; what are the most salient considerations that shape governmental priorities for allocating funding and support?   

While the scope of science policy is very large, and I haven't selected any particular area to focus on yet, there is a very good chance that as this session of congress progresses, certain areas of policy will be more contenious, more important, and indeed more interesting than others.

Also, due to the way parliamentary procedure works, this blog may not track legislation in a way that follows any particular chronology.