By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Washington, D.C. – President Obama signed the “SPACE Act of 2015” into law, providing a framework for commercializing space resource extraction like asteroid mining.

The “SPACE Act,” short for “Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act,” also goes by H.R.2262, the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.” The bill nurtures the budding commercial space industry “by encouraging private sector investment and creating more stable and predictable regulatory conditions,” among other goals, according to the text of the bill.


A comet captured by the Philae Lander on the Rosetta Mission. Credit: European Space Agency/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

The bill was introduced by Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) on May 12, 2015 and signed into law on November 25, 2015. The Space Act “helps ensure America remains the leader in space exploration and innovation in the 21st Century,” McCarthy said in a statement.

The bill allows private companies to own, use, move and sell resources they mine from an asteroid. An “asteroid resource” is a “space resource” found on or within a single asteroid, and a “space resource” is an abiotic resource in situ in outer space and includes water and minerals.

The bill encourages companies to develop economically viable, safe and stable industries to explore and recover space resources. Federal agencies will “promote the right of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference, in accordance with the international obligations of the United States and subject to authorization and continuing supervision by the Federal Government,” according to the bill.

In addition to provisions on space mining, the bill guides the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator of NASA, along with heads of other Federal agencies, to “assess current, and proposed near-term, commercial non-governmental activities conducted in space,” and suggest ways to prioritize safety while easing burdens on the industry to encourage the U.S. commercial space sector.

House Science Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said that although she supports the commercial space launch industry, “Nearly every provision in this bill, in every conceivable way, gives preference to the priorities of the commercial space launch industry – whether in matters pertaining to the safety of the general public, or in matters pertaining to the safety of the future customers of this very industry, and it does so at the expense of the American taxpayers,” she said in a statement.

The bill lessens insurance liabilities for launch companies, calls for space traffic management, requires safety-related space situational awareness data, streamlines commercial space launch requirements and approvals, ensures the International Space Station remains viable and productive through at least September 30, 2024 and maintains state involvement, development, ownership and operation of launch facilities, among other requirements.

The bill “keeps America at the forefront of aerospace technology, promotes American jobs, reduces red tape, promotes safety, and inspires the next generation of explorers,” House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a statement. “It provides the boost America’s private space partners need as they lead the world into the future.”


Update: Washington, D.C. – The Senate held a business meeting on November 19, 2015 to favorably record the nomination for Suzette Kimball to be Director of the USGS.

Washington, D.C. – The Senate held a hearing to consider the pending nomination of Dr. Suzette Kimball to be Director of the United States Geological Survey, among other nominations, on October 20.

Kimball, who has been serving as the Acting Director of the USGS since 2013 and working at the USGS since 1998, said that “it is an honor to be offered the opportunity to lead this outstanding organization,” in her official statement. During the hearing, Kimball fielded questions from Senators about USGS’s climate, oil, mapping, natural disaster and water research, among other topics.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chaired the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing and Senators Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced Kimball, who currently resides in West Virginia. “She’s been at this for a while – it’s time to move on, if you will,” Manchin said in his introduction, reminding the committee that Kimball attended a hearing for the same nomination in May 2014. “She’ll serve us very ably and capably.”

Preparing for natural disasters

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the committee, asked Kimball about implementing effective earthquake monitoring along the Cascadia Fault in the Pacific Northwest. Kimball said that the USGS is committed to providing information necessary to protect public health and safety, especially through early warning systems.

Kimball thanked Cantwell and Murkowski for introducing legislation to establish an early volcano warning system and said that “[She] look[s] forward, if confirmed, to working closely with [Murkowski and Cantwell] to ensure that we do have those kinds of systems in place.”

The Kanaga Volcano, on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, captured during Western Aleutian field work in September 2015. Credit: Michelle Coombs and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey

The Kanaga Volcano, on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, captured during Western Aleutian field work in September 2015. Credit: Michelle Coombs and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey

Murkowski said she wants Congress to work with USGS to continue high resolution mapping of the U.S., especially with LiDAR and IfSAR, which are remote-sensing technologies. Senator Angus King (D-ME) was optimistic about USGS’s 3D Elevation Program and said, “It’s very useful and I think will become more useful in the future and I hope that’s one you will continue.” Kimball assured King that the program is one of USGS’s priorities. “We see that good elevation data is absolutely a foundation for understanding a lot of the other scientific issues that we face today, whether that’s landslides and debris flows or whether that’s riparian systems and food systems,” Kimball said.

Reaching out to communities

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Kimball to highlight some of the ways Congress can help USGS complete the federal open water data initiative – a modernized system to communicate water data. Kimball spoke about asking Congress to provide authorizations that allow USGS to collect water data and bring government, industry and local efforts together to gather and exchange information, especially through citizen science outreach in communities.

Communities are also crucial in efforts to combat climate change, Kimball said. The USGS will continue to look at climate change effects on events like droughts, reduced snow packs, coastal changes and storm pattern shifts, and determine how communities can build resiliency, Kimball said. The agency “is in a unique position because we can examine the geologic record and look for those changes that are associated with natural processes versus changes that are exacerbated by other activates,” she said in response to Senator Al Franken (D-MN), who asked about climate research at USGS.

Estimating oil and coal reserves

Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) asked Kimball if the agency has plans to update its estimates of the recoverable oil reserves in the Williston Basin, which partially sits in western North Dakota. Hoeven said that USGS estimates of oil in the basin were higher in 2011 than they were in 2000, and he wants to drill in the basin to stimulate economic growth in the area. Kimball said that she did not know the assessment timeframe but would work with Hoeven to plan the next update.

Manchin, from West Virginia, asked Kimball about the dramatic rise in shale gas resource estimates. Kimball said that the USGS, state geological surveys and industry are increasing their numbers of surveys examining subsurface conditions and revealing more resources. Furthermore, technology is increasingly effective in extracting resources, Kimball said.

Manchin asked, “Is there anything else out there that we might have under our feet that we don’t know about that could really give us another boost?” Kimball laughingly replied, “Probably, but I couldn’t tell you what it is today.”

Fellow Nominees

The committee also examined other pending nominations at the hearing, which included Cherry Ann Murray to be Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy; Victoria Marie Baecher Wassmer to be Under Secretary of Energy; Mary Kendall to be Inspector General at the Department of the Interior; Kristen Joan Sarri to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Policy, Management and Budget; and John Frances Kotek to be an Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at DOE.

Washington, D.C. – A bipartisan act that requires the National Science Foundation to justify, in nontechnical writing, how each awarded research grant supports the national interest was approved by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on October 8.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded too many grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest,” Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a statement. The “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act,” H.R.3293, “will add transparency, accountability and credibility to the NSF and its grant process, which will help the NSF earn the public’s support,” Smith continued.

Much of the language in the bill reflects that of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” or H.R.1806. Like the COMPETES act, the new bill asks NSF to be more transparent in how it awards grants and accountable for providing public statements that explain how each grant serves the national interest.

Research that serves the national interest is defined by Congress as having the potential to increase economic competitiveness, advance health and welfare, develop a competitive STEM workforce, increase public scientific literacy, increase partnerships between academia and industry, support national defense or promote scientific progress, according to the recently passed act.

Under the new act, NSF would determine whether a grant proposal serves the national interest after the proposal has passed its reviews for merit and broader impacts. “Nothing in this section [of the bill] shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications,” the act states.

Dissenters to the bill

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member of the committee, asked why the bill was necessary, since the current process of awarding grants hasn’t been problematic. The bill ignores input from the scientific community and sets the stage for a kind of “witch hunt,” Johnson said. Provisions in the bill will squash creativity and inhibit high-risk high reward research, she continued.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) echoed Johnson’s sentiments, and emphasized the scientific community’s opposition to the legislation, including John Holdren, Senior Science Advisor to President Barack Obama. In a hearing two years ago with a similar agenda, Holdren said, “I think it’s a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.”

A computer generated image of a rapidly spinning star. The star is similar to the Earth's sun in mass and composition but spinning five times faster. The star visualization is part of research supported in part by NSF. Credit: Greg Foss and Greg Abram, Texas Advanced Computing Center; Ben Brown, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Mark Miesch, NCAR

A computer generated image of a rapidly spinning star. The star is similar to the Earth’s sun in mass and composition but spinning five times faster. This research is supported in part by NSF. Credit: Greg Foss and Greg Abram, Texas Advanced Computing Center; Ben Brown, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Mark Miesch, NCAR

The bill could impose a political agenda on the NSF review process – substituting political review for peer review is a bad thing, especially since NSF has already taken steps to be more transparent in how it awards grants, Lofgren said. The agency revised its proposal and award policies in December 2014 to include non-technical descriptions of research grants that link scientific research to the national interest.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), a physicist and elected fellow of the American Physical Society, said, “the NSF merit review process is known as the gold standard for a reason.” Foster said that as a scientist who observed peer review and merit review process, he does not think the system is lacking in accountability.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) shared a story about the unexpected practicability of seemingly impractical science. “Back in 1961, a scientist from Japan who was studying at Princeton got a little bit of money to study why jellyfish glow green. Under this proposed legislation many of us might have said, ‘Why do we care why jellyfish glow green?’” However, from that research scientists have a better understanding of genetics, biology and diseases three decades later, Edwards said.

Ultimate passing

Despite opposition, the bill passed by voice vote. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) spoke in support of the bill and said it “recognizes a simple fact, which is that there is such a thing as practical science,” which can “solve solvable problems” and improve people’s lives. “It’s a fact that there are limited resources, and whenever you have limited resources, you have to make choices, sometimes difficult choices,” Grayson said.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

“Geoscientists rock,” announced President Obama’s senior science advisor during a special lecture at the Geological Society of America’s conference in Baltimore, setting the tone for a speech promoting both the importance of geoscience research and the role geoscience plays in public policy.

John Holdren, the director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), spoke about “Why the Obama Administration loves geosciences and the Geological Society of America,” and the Obama Administration’s priorities and policies involving geoscience on November 3.

Holdren talked about using geoscience research to inform climate change policies and adaptations, energy, water and other natural resource management, ocean and polar science, and natural hazards including earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Unlike most people, geologists “take the long view,” Holdren said.

John Holdren at the podium during his talk on November 3 at GSA's 2015 Annual Meeting in Baltimore.

John Holdren at the podium during his talk on November 3 at GSA’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Baltimore.

GSA’s position statements and critical issues provide leadership on integrating geology and public policy, Holdren said, and give GSA members opportunities to contribute to national level decisions. He also praised the GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellowship, which places a geologist in a congressional office for a year, and said that a previous fellow is now on the OSTP staff.

The OSTP office has two major responsibilities, Holdren said. The first is to manage policy for science and technology – the office works with other White House offices, like the Office of Management and Budget, to provide recommendations on research and development budgets, science and technology education and workforce issues, among other concerns.

The second major responsibility is to provide science and technology for policy. The office offers independent advice to the President on a wide variety of policy issues, especially those involving job creation, economic competitiveness, public health and national and homeland security.

The OSTP works closely with governmental science agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Geological Survey, and seeks out the National Academies and professional societies for advice, Holdren said. “Individual scientists and engineers across the country take our calls!” he continued.

Holdren also talked about the science underlying President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The plan acknowledges that Earth’s climate is changing at a pace and pattern outside the control of natural forces, and says that human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, among other heat-trapping gases, are the dominate driver of climate change.

The Obama Administration is making progress on building public understanding and support for climate change action with a “Climate Education and Literacy Initiative,” Holdren said. The initiative aims to connect American students and citizens with science-based information about climate change.

Holdren recognized that “Appropriation bills to date reflect the apparent view of some in Congress that support for Earth observations and geosciences equates to support for the President’s climate change policies.” Funding levels for geoscience and social science research at NSF were lower than previous years in the House’s COMPETES reauthorization bill and also in House spending bills.

“This stance is misguided,” Holdren said. “This Administration will continue to oppose meat-axe cuts to Earth observations and geosciences,” and fight Congressional oversight on federal science agencies’ peer review process, Holdren elaborated.

He continued, “The geosciences community can help by telling policy makers and the public about how and why investments in these domains matter to the well-being of the nation, with concrete examples.”

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

The director of the National Science Foundation celebrated geoscience and encouraged geoscientists to forge stronger connections with the agency during a special lecture at the Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore on November 1.

France Córdova, NSF’s director since 2014, said that geoscience is important for “inspiring human capabilities and capital for the future.” Córdova acknowledged NSF’s financial hurdles with Congress, but said that NSF makes sure that young scientists, especially, are funded and able to do science. “Geology offers young students fascination with the natural world,” she said.

Córdova spoke about a new initiative, “NSF INCLUDES,” which stands for “Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners that have been Underrepresented for Diversity in Engineering and Science.” NSF wants to increase its more localized efforts to engage students and change the balance of diversity in science, Córdova said.  The program aims to better prepare traditionally underrepresented people – including minority ethnic or racial groups, women and girls and people with disabilities – for careers in science and engineering.

France Córdova at the podium during her special lecture at GSA's 2015 meeting in Baltimore.

France Córdova at the podium during her special lecture at GSA’s 2015 meeting in Baltimore.

Students with advanced degrees in geoscience go into a variety of fields, Córdova said, including academia, oil and gas, environmental services and mining, among others. She cited data from the American Geosciences Institute examining where geoscience graduates go after obtaining bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Córdova said that although the nation looks to NSF to further science and better prepare graduates for the working world, the organization is dependent on Congress for funding. To increase awareness of geoscience, Córdova visits at least three congressional offices each week, she said, and always makes a point to talk about jobs.

NSF seeks to enable discoveries and discoverers, Córdova said – not only is it important for people to learn how to make the planet thrive, humans have the responsibility of protecting it, she said. Córdova ended her lecture on a poetic note, quoting T.S. Eliot’s “The Little Gidding.”

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Córdova has a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology and took on a number of positions prior to joining NSF, including NASA’s chief scientist from 1993 to 1996, University of California, Riverside’s chancellor and distinguished professor of physics and astronomy from 2002 to 2007 and president of Purdue University from 2007 to 2012.

by Bob Stern, University of Texas at Dallas

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Animations are great ways to show Earth processes to students, but the quality of such animations is spotty at best (quality here refers to both the soundness of the science as well as the aesthetic quality of the animation itself). I am a university professor and I have been particularly disappointed in the quality of animations about subduction zone processes.

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Subduction is in many ways the most important solid Earth process.   Oceanic lithosphere is created at divergent plate margins (spreading ridges) and is destroyed at convergent plate margins, where it sinks back into the mantle in subduction zones. Sinking of lithosphere in subduction zones causes plate motions and is responsible for 3 great natural hazards – earthquakes, explosive volcanism, and tsunamis. Subduction also produces continental crust and important mineral deposits.

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I wanted to see if it was possible to improve on the quality of subduction zone animations, and so set about to build a team that could generate one for community college and lower division university students. The lack of high quality animations for this and other important solid Earth processes is partly because of the disparate expertise of geoscientists who know the science but have weak animation skills and digital artists and animators who have strong skills in showing objects in motion but are not experts in natural processes like plate tectonics.

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With a small 1-year grant from NSF we set about to generate a realistic subduction zone animation aimed at university undergraduate and community college student audience by first working within our university to rough out a draft animation and then contract a professional to use this to construct the final version. I teamed up with a talented geosciences graduate student and we reached out to faculty in our university’s School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC). The ATEC faculty helped us recruit a pair of talented ATEC undergraduate students to work on the project. The geoscientists assembled a storyboard and we started in October to meet weekly with ATEC undergraduates to generate a first draft of the animation. While we were doing this, we drafted and revised the accompanying narrative. In May, we handed off the draft animation and narrative to a professional animator, Jeff Windler (Archistration CG) to generate the final animation. The animation was finalized in Sept. 2015 and is freely available on YouTube. We have assessment materials that we will gladly share, just email me at

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I will be giving a talk on the animation Tuesday Nov. 3 at GSA Annual Meeting in Session 243: T90. Undergraduate Geoscience Education and Research Opportunities Supported by NSF Funding Programs,  at 2:35 pm in Room 336.


by David Patterson, George Washington University

Author in the field in Kenya

Author in the field in Kenya

My research focuses on placing Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution within a high-resolution ecological context. My dissertation focuses on the Turkana Basin of northern Kenya and Ethiopia, which can be an extremely difficult place to work. However, this region documents many of the most important events in hominin evolution. Thus, it is the perfect setting to test hypotheses that link ecological dynamics with hominin paleobiology.

Field work in the Turkana Basin, Kenya

Field work in the Turkana Basin, Kenya

These questions also take my work to the middle Pleistocene locality of Elandsfontein in South Africa. Much of my work in eastern and southern Africa focuses on understanding dietary shifts in large mammal communities and their broader implications for environmental dynamism. A comprehensive understanding of paleoecosystems requires the integration of multiple proxies, one of which is stable isotopes. I use stable isotopes extracted from mammalian enamel and fossil soils to investigate the system that drove some of the most important anatomical adaptations within our lineage. My work with stable isotopes takes place at Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with Naomi Levin, Ben Passey and Sophie Lehmann. Innovative techniques developed in the lab at Johns Hopkins promise to provide unprecedented insights into the biology of our ancestors and increase the resolution with which we understand the ecosystem in which they lived.

At this year’s GSA meeting I’ll be giving a talk on Monday, November 2nd entitled “New investigations into the stable isotope ecology of the mammal community from Elandsfontein, South Africa: implications for C4 plant distributions and hominin paleobiology in the Cape Floral Region during the Quaternary” in T195: Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction of Hominin Sites: new methods, new data and new insights. Hope to see you there!





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