Neil deGrasse Tyson to Headline First Meeting of House Science & National Labs Caucus

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Headline First Meeting of House Science & National Labs Caucus

The new House Science & National Labs Caucus will kick off its activities next week with a lecture by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium.

The caucus was created last month by a bipartisan group of four Congressmen:  Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS).  Its purpose is “reinforcing federal investment in research and the national laboratories, as well as raise awareness in and out of Congress about the role they play in long term economic growth.”

Choosing Tyson as its inaugural speaker suggests that the space program will be one focus of the caucus’s efforts.   Tyson is an avid NASA supporter and instigated the “penny4NASA” movement last year when he told Senator Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) Senate Commerce subcommittee that “Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar.  For twice that — a penny on a dollar — we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”

The U.S. government supports dozens of national labs, many of which are funded through the Department of Energy (DOE) or Department of Defense (DOD).  Among the best known are DOE’s three nuclear weapons labs — Los Alamos (NM), Lawrence Livermore (CA), and Sandia (NM) — as well its Oak Ridge (TN), Lawrence Berkeley (CA), Brookhaven (NY), Argonne (IL) and Fermilab (IL) national labs.  The definition of a “national lab” is not straightforward, so what facilities are captured by that term can be debated. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, probably qualifies, but some count NASA’s nine civil service field centers as national labs, too.  The one unequivocal NASA national lab is the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS), which was legally designated as a national laboratory in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act.   NASA selected the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in Florida to manage the ISS National Lab and find non-NASA users for it.

The four founders of the caucus have varying interests in the national labs.   Hultgren represents the Illlinois congressional district that includes Fermilab and is close to Argonne National Lab. Luján’s district includes Los Alamos. Nunnelee’s district includes the University of Mississippi that, along with the state’s other research universities, is seeking to expand cooperation with national labs, a topic that was the focus of a meeting with Nunnelee in November.

Fattah, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommitee that funds NASA (as well as NOAA and the National Science Foundation), has visited six national labs over the past two years with a particular focus on neuroscience research, although the list also includes JPL and meeting with a CASIS official earlier this week.  He plans to re-introduce legislation to declare 2013 “The Year of the Federal Lab” to highlight that federal labs “remain at the cutting edge of scientific and technological advancement.”  There are “over 100” federal labs according to his count.

Tyson will speak at the first caucus meeting on Wednesday, January 23, 2013, in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress from 12:00-1:00 pm ET.  It is open to the public, but seating is limited and Members of Congress and their staff get priority.  An RSVP is requested to Rep. Hultgren’s office (link to the announcement) by January 22.

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