Once More Unto The Breach With Critical Minerals Legislation

The American Institute of Physics noted in the latest edition of FYI that another bill has been introduced concerning so-called critical minerals, elements that are important for the role they play in important technologies.  Introduced by Senator Murkowski, S. 1600 currently has 16 co-sponsors, and is waiting a hearing in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  Both the Chair and Ranking Member (Senator Murkowski) of the Committee have sponsored the bill, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t moved faster.

While I can appreciate the consistency of the effort, the latest bill introduced to help address the supply chain problems with critical minerals is another reminder of what Congress seems incapable of doing (at least most of the time) – making laws.  This bill strongly resembles legislation introduced in 2011, and 2009.  These bills went nowhere, which is now my default expectation for such legislation.

It’s too bad, because it’s a well-thought out bit of legislative business (of course, the third time around, one would hope so).  It outlines a program of efficient production, extraction and recycling of these materials.  It provides flexibility in designation of critical minerals, providing the ability to adjust programs in light of changes in demand (and absent new legislation).  It would modernize existing policies in this area, improve coordination across agencies, and has bipartisan support.  It’s hard not to think that the lack of contention over the bill is a reason for it’s low chance of passage.  But that’s just too depressing for me to dwell on it.

Google Books Ruled Fair Use; Likely To Be Appealed

I had fallen off posting about the Google Books settlement process a few years ago.  But recently there was some serious action.  The federal judge who had been monitoring the settlement process (before rejecting it) ruled recently that the Google Books effort does not violate copyright law.

The major legal issue behind Google Books, which makes books available for search (with limitations), is whether or not making this content available online without compensating authors violated their copyright interests.  Part of the reason that the judge ruled no is that Google Books will only return clips of books if the service does not have permission from the authors.  (The ruling provides more details about how Google Books works.)  Additionally, the service was found not to be a replacement for the original works, but a service for finding and locating copies of the works.

The ruling follows a lengthy effort to try and settle the case, which was initiated by the Authors Guild and other parties concerned with infringement of their copyright interests.  The settlement efforts attempted to set up a system to find and then compensate the authors of so-called ‘orphan works’ – works for which the rights holders have been difficult to find.  Those efforts failed, which led to the ruling today.  The plaintiffs in the case will likely appeal.

PCAST Has Some New Faces, And A New Report

On November 22, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology issued a letter report on cybersecurity.  It is concerned with providing cybersecurity in a frequently changing threat environment.  As the overarching recommendation reads:

Cybersecurity will not be achieved by a collection of static precautions that, if taken by Government and industry organizations, will make them secure. Rather, it requires a set of processes that continuously couple information about an evolving threat to defensive reactions and responses.

The other recommendations address government’s own information technology practices, information sharing across the private sector and the government, and auditing cybersecurity practices in the private sector.  This report follows up on a Feburary 2013 classified briefing provided by PCAST, so the recommendations are perhaps more for public consumption at this point

Also of note are two new faces on PCAST.  Ernest Moniz had to step down when he became Secretary of Energy, and David Shaw and Ahmed Zewail are no longer on the Council.  The new members recently appointed by the President to replace them are Susan Graham, an emerita professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley; and Michale McQuade, vice president at United Technologies Corporation.  McQuade has also worked for 3M and Eastman Kodak and has a physics background.

Some Energy For New Science And Technology Nominations

The Departure of former Energy Secretary Steven Chu earlier this year was one of several departures from the Energy Department, primarily amongst science and technology positions.  While we have a new Energy Secretary and a nominee for the Advanced Research Projects Administration – Energy, there are still two positions currently unfilled.

One is the Director of the Office of Science, which has been empty since William Brinkman left in April of this year.  Marc Kastner, a physicist involved in semiconductor research at MIT, will be nominated to take over the office, which supervises the agency’s research portfolio and its research labs.  He would take leave from the institution where he serves as Dean of the School of Science (and where Secretary Moniz directed the Laboratory for Energy and Environment before re-joining the Department).

The Undersecretary of Science position has been vacant for over two years.  The President will nominate Franklin Orr to the position, which is responsible for the Office of Science along with the Department’s programs in education and training, research and development, and functions as the Secretary’s science and technology adviser.  Orr is a chemical engineer at Stanford, where he directs the Precourt Institute for Energy.

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Asteroid Deflection Going International

There’s a draft resolution at the United Nations General Assembly concerning space (reports indicate it may have been approved, but I cannot find a final version on the UN website as of this posting).  This isn’t unusual, as the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been around almost as long as the U.N. itself.  What a lot of writers picked up on is in paragraph 8:

Welcomes with satisfaction the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and endorsed by the Committee at its fifty-sixth session;”
The recommendations by the committee were augmented by a recent presentation at the Association of Space Explorers.  Members of the B612 Foundation were out in force at the presentation, but it’s too early to say whether or not its Sentinel mission will play a part in a U.N. effort to coordinate asteroid detection and deflection efforts.
Details on what these coordination efforts might look at can be found in the Scientific and Technical Committee’s latest report to COPOUS, specifically Section X starting on page 29 and Annex III starting on page 45.  The main recommendations are to develop two groups – an international warning network (which might have the components outlined in this presentation from February) and a space mission planning group.  The recommendations reflect the end of a six-year process by the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects, but the United Nations has been active on the matter of near-Earth objects since 1995.

Congress Is At Least Feinting At Science Legislation

Color me skeptical of any of these bills being passed, but Congress has at least three major bills in the offing related to science and technology research and development.  Two of them should seem familiar.

The Senate is working on a reauthorization of the COMPETES legislation initially passed in the Bush Administration (Chris Mooney is covering his eyes and pretending I’m not typing this right now).  The bill addresses research and development programs and investment at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  The Committee’s first hearing will take place on November 6 at 2:30 Eastern time.  If you check the website of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the 6th, you should be able to access a webcast of the hearing.

The House is also working on the next version of COMPETES legislation, but like so many things, they are taking a different approach from the Senate.  House Democrats have circulated a discussion draft of a reauthorization of the COMPETES legislation, while Republicans have opted to separate the bill into one focused on energy programs and another focused on the other agencies covered in COMPETES legislation.  This differs from the approach taken for the initial COMPETES bill and the 2010 reauthorization, and given the increasingly tense atmosphere in Congress, makes it harder for a final compromise bill to emerge from the House, much less the full Congress.  It also marks, in my opinion, the final nail in the coffin of House bipartisan comity with respect to science and technology legislation.  It has been teetering ever since Rep. Sherwood Boehlert retired in 2007, but the lack of committee unity on foundational legislation makes be think it has fallen away.  Combine this with the reactions earlier in the year to a draft bill from Science Committee Chairman Smith and the job for science and technology research advocates is now notably harder than it was even last year.

Another bill worth noting is the GRANT Act, recently reintroduced into the current Congress by Rep. Lankford of Oklahoma.  The act is focused on government grants in general, and is intended to improve the transparency of government grants as an additional means of reducing waste, fraud and abuse.  Scientific interests have been concerned with the legislation (last introduced in 2011) because they are worried the reporting processes would remove the anonymity of scientific peer and/or expert review.  There is also concern that the disclosure of information like the full research grant application would expose the intellectual property of the research without allowing the researcher(s) to gain from it.  Rep. Lankford is, according to ScienceInsider, working on language to address these concerns from the scientific community.  Lankford appear focused on other grant programs, and is making an effort to address how effectively science research programs already address his concerns.

Mileage-Based Taxes – Not Just For Oregon

A recent update on the Oregon pilot program for a mileage-based transportation tax ended up not being much of an update.  It simply noted that the American Civil Liberties Union was on board with the program, mainly because the program will ensure that drivers have a choice to monitor just the mileage or to include a GPS that will help track when drivers are out of state (an important matter, as other states would not assess mileage-based taxes, at least right now).

However, the press around this non-announcement has pointed me toward other pilot programs exploring alternatives to the gas tax that include some kind of automobile monitoring.  According to the Los Angeles Times, The Southern California Association of Governments is taking steps for having the mileage of all California drivers tracked by 2025.  Minnesota is testing a pay-by-mile system on 500 cars.  Illinois is working on a pilot for trucks.  Nevada has already completed a pilot and is looking at other alternative taxation plans.  Both New York City and a coalition of 17 state transportation departments along the Eastern Seaboard are determining how such a taxation scheme could be implemented.

Most programs are considering devices that collect a limited amount of information with an eye toward addressing drivers’ privacy concerns.  Insurance companies, like Progressive, may be pushing for more extensive data collection in order to reduce their exposure to risky driving behaviors.  And other jurisdictions may bet on more extensive data collection by selling the possible convenience to drivers from having the ability to handle other transportation services (like parking) and information (real-time traffic data) in the same device.

Of course, these schemes are all much more complicated than the current gas tax system.  But the financial shortfall emerging from the combination of a decrease in driving and an increase in passenger car mileage has to be dealt with.  The short-term fix appears to be levies on fuel-efficient vehicles, but I think such charges would be more amenable to the public if they were connected to the relevant power source.  For instance, tax the use of charging stations (for which some of the money could be used to improve charging times?).  Designate the home outlet used for the electric car as part of the current electricity meter arrangements.  Tax compressed natural gas and other alternative fuels.  Most, if not all of these arrangements are likely less complicated than attempting to implement mileage-based taxation plans for transportation that minimize the information collected from each driver.

A Critical Element Success Story – Re-Establishing Beryllium Production

The Armed With Science blog rightly crows about the resuscitation of U.S. domestic beryllium production.  In an era where nuclear isotopes, light gases and other elements have all undergone bouts of scarcity, it’s nice to see a case where the corner has turned.

Beryllium has thermal conductivity properties that make it ideal for shedding a lot of heat.  This has clear applicability for defense applications.  A major U.S. production facility closed in 2000.  But thanks to federal legislation focused on defense production, the Defense Department in connection with industry was able to establish a reliable domestic supplier of beryllium.

Perhaps such production assistance could be legislated for other critical elements, but that presupposes an interest in passing legislation that seems absent in Washington of late.  Or legislators could become more savvy in terms of linking other elements to defense uses.  While the situation with helium is different – the country is attempting to get out of the business of maintaining a reservoir – it does serve as an example that, eventually, domestic critical element production can be better managed to mitigate hiccups in other parts of the supply chain.

Antibiotic Resistance Not Just A Probem Of Excess Demand

When I’ve posted about trends in antibiotic resistant bugs, it’s usually to join the chorus who argue that antibiotics are overused.  But this item from Gregory Daniel at the Brookings Institution helped remind me that matters of antibiotic demand are not the only economic forces at play.

Daniels uses a recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report on antibiotic resistance to outline several proposals for addressing the challenges facing antibiotic drug development.  The CDC report identifies 18 different bacteria that pose varying levels of threat due to their resistance to certain antibiotics.   Daniels focuses on two major thrusts – adjustments to the drug development process and changes in the business model.  Both were address during a February 2013 Brookings workshop on the topic.  The first is familiar to many who have followed drug development policy, and the second was new to me.

But, frankly, I should have seen it.  I’ve noted at length about how production capacity for a variety of minerals, drugs and elements dried up over the last few decades.  Similar forces appear to have been at play for antibiotics.  Whether swayed by excessive development costs, or what was falsely seen as a limitless future for certain antibiotics, I don’t know.  But we have yet another item that we are ill-equipped to manage when it comes time to either make more, or make a necessary substitute.  Advances in technology have, perhaps perversely, made us worse in certain respects, about managing resources (or at least their supply chains).

Science Committee Gets In On Open Access Legislative Dance

Last Thursday Representatives James Sensenbrenner (Wisconsin) and Eddie Berniece Johnson (Texas) introduced the Public Access to Public Science Act, H.R. 3157.  They are both members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the bill was referred to that committee for review.  Like every other public access bill I’ve followed for the last several years, I expect to go nowhere.

The bill is mostly an update of the legislation introduced earlier in the year in both the House and Senate.  But the major difference is that the bill attempts to put in place much of the guidance in the Policy Memo released by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in February.  Unlike the Policy Memo, but like the CHORUS plan advanced by scholarly publishers, H.R. 3157 focuses primarily on research publications.  While there are references to metadata and supplementary information, the bill reads to me as focused on research articles rather than research data.

Another important distinction in this new bill is that it’s narrower in scope compared to other legislation.  The standard has been to require public access policies from any agency with at least $100 million in annual research and development spending.  The new bill covers only the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Science and Technology, the National Weather Service and NASA.  I suspect this is an effort to make sure that only the science committees in each house of Congress approve the bill prior to passage.  Given the track record of public access legislation and the current legislative calendar, it feels to me like an empty gesture.

As I promised for the other open access bills introduced in this Congress, as hearings are scheduled, I will post about them here.  You may notice I haven’t made any posts about hearings this year.