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SIAM Committee on Science Policy Discusses Impact of Incoming U.S. Presidential Administration

By Karthika Swamy Cohen, Miriam Quintal, and Eliana Perlmutter

The SIAM Committee on Science Policy meets biannually to monitor developments in federal and/or state governments, as well as new policy directions of interest to SIAM and its members. The committee also helps increase visibility of applied mathematics and SIAM in the federal government and scientific community.

At its fall 2016 meeting last November, the committee met with key decision-makers at federal agencies to better understand the environment for research funding related to applied mathematics and computational science, especially in regards to the new U.S. presidential administration and its potential impact on federal research priorities.

Representatives from the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and Office of Integrative Activities presented updates on new research initiatives, personnel changes, and the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget.

The historic election of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president will have significant implications for scientific funding and research. The Republican Party’s retention of majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate will also have a major impact, as the U.S. will see one-party governance for the first time since former President Barack Obama’s first two years in office.

The extent of the White House’s potential involvement with setting the legislative agenda isn’t clear, except in a few key areas emphasized by Trump, such as tax reform, infrastructure, and healthcare. Neither Trump’s campaign nor his transition team have offered specifics with regard to proposed policies in education, research, science, or technology. Hence, it is hard to assess the amount of emphasis (or lack thereof) that a Trump administration will place on universities and the research community.

As a result, as the Trump transition team and new administration refine their policy agenda and prioritize actions for early legislative activities in the coming months, it will be critical for universities, scientific societies, and organizations to carefully assess Trump’s positions as more details emerge, and define strategies to best concentrate energy with respect to key priorities. Opportunities for engagement will likely arise once science officials and lower-level agency leadership are chosen.

Based on information from policy advisors and the Trump team’s responses to questionnaires such as Science Debate, it seems that a Trump administration will likely value investment in basic academic research. Past Republican administrations have also placed a higher priority on basic research, rather than applied research, environmental sciences, and social and behavioral sciences.

On November 18, 2016, Trump’s transition team and congressional Republican leaders came to an agreement to extend the current Continuing Resolution (CR), which would prolong present funding levels for most governmental agencies to fund government operations through the end of March 2017. The extension includes certain funding increases or anomalies, such as $872 million to boost medical research and drug approval efforts, $10 billion in additional war funding for military and diplomatic efforts, $4.1 billion in disaster relief, $170 million to help repair the lead-contaminated water system of Flint, Mich., and $45 million for continued healthcare benefits for retired coal miners.

With regard to committees, Congress’s composition has remained largely the same, except for a few key leadership positions and the loss of some science champions in the Senate. It is thus imperative to identify and nucleate new champions. While it is hard to know who the science liaisons will be in the new administration, we can assume that they will report to those without a technical background. Hence, it is important to craft a message in a way that will be understandable to laypersons.

Additionally, with some knowledge of the new administration’s priorities—such as defense, cybersecurity, and infrastructure—mathematicians can begin to focus on advocacy in those areas.

Dr. Steven Binkley, Deputy Director for Science Programs in the Office of Science at the DOE, offered an overview of research initiatives, programs, and personnel changes at the department. He described the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program’s exascale computing focus, with large scientific data as a central theme. Binkley also mentioned that the open position for director of the Advanced Computing Technologies Division could have great impact.

Dr. Steven Lee, a physical scientist at the DOE, broke down the ASCR’s three main research themes: algorithms, models, and data. He noted that the shift of some applied math activities to the Exascale Computing Project had left an opening for new ideas and directions. Lee discussed ideas to reinvigorate the applied math program, including organizing workshops, soliciting input from the community on ASCR research themes, and hosting a SIAM event to increase community involvement.

Dr. Michael Vogelius, director of the DMS, talked about recently-introduced DMS programs, including Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) and Algorithms for Modern Power Systems (AMPS). He also provided details on two joint programs: Algorithms for Threat Detection (ATD), with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the joint NSF/NIH initiative on Quantitative Approaches to Biomedical Big Data (QuBBD). Other initiatives include public-private partnerships in centers for quantitative biology and DMS-funded internship opportunities for mathematical sciences graduate students at national labs. Vogelius also gave an update on the Mathematical Sciences Research Institutes, for which an open competition is planned, with proposals likely due in 2019. The DMS will put forward a solicitation in 2017 to call for new centers of mathematical biology.

Dr. Suzi Iacono, head of the NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities, gave an overview of the 10 “big ideas” for future NSF investments, defining a set of research agendas and processes that will require collaborations with industry, agencies, scientific societies, research institutions, and universities. The six research ideas include harnessing data for 21st-century science and engineering; shaping the human-technology frontier; understanding the rules of life (i.e., predicting phenotypes from genotypes); recognizing the next quantum revolution (physics); navigating the new Arctic (including a fixed and mobile observing network); and exploring windows on the universe: multimessenger astrophysics. The three process ideas include more convergent research; support for midscale infrastructure (instruments or facilities that cost between $10 million and $100 million); and NSF 2050, a common fund to seed large, ambitious projects. The tenth idea is NSF’s Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) program, which aims to transform science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and career pathways to make them more widely inclusive and more reflective of the diversity of U.S. society.

Dr. Susan Gregurick, division director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB) at the NIH, spoke about NIH programs related to computation and mathematics, including the Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative (BISTI) and the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA). The NIH also has many interagency partnerships involving computing, such as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), the Interagency Modeling and Analysis Group (IMAG), and the-DMS collaboration with the NSF. The NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) program has created an NIH Commons pilot to test a virtual platform for sharing data, using computing services, and accessing large public data sets. The goal is to make the Commons available to any researcher with an NIH grant by the fall of 2017.  Gregurick also noted that NIH priorities for FY 2017 include “Applying Big Data and Technology to Improve Health.”

Drs. Fariba Fahroo, Carey Schwartz, and Hava Siegelmann, program managers at DARPA, summarized the role and structure of their agency. They highlighted DARPA’s long history of applied math and emphasized that conducted research is targeted to improve national security. Fahroo remarked that Stefanie Tompkins, director of the Defense Sciences Office (DSO), has been tremendously supportive of math as a foundation of programs within the DSO, and that this office has a specified focus area in “Mathematics/Modeling/Design.” The panel also remarked that the Information Innovation Office (I2O) uses a significant amount of mathematics. Siegelmann highlighted a new program that she is developing intended to support efforts to create a continuously learning and evolutionary computer.

While much is still unknown regarding Congressional research and funding priorities at this time, the goal of SIAM and other scientific societies remains the same: raise visibility of applied mathematics in the federal government, define policy agendas, and conduct outreach and advocacy to influence congressional legislation and federal programs.

 Karthika Swamy Cohen is the managing editor of SIAM News
  Miriam Quintal is SIAM’s Washington liaison at Lewis-Burke Associates LLC. Eliana Perlmutter is a Legislative Research Assistant at Lewis-Burke Associates LLC.