SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND RESEARCH

A Resilient U.S. Electrical Grid

©iStock/Hayri ErAmericans depend on the reliable supply of electricity for their safety, productivity, comfort, and convenience. But the nation’s electrical grid — a complex system of physical infrastructure and computer networks that transmits electricity from power plants to homes and businesses — is at risk from natural disasters and a potential target for malicious acts.

Diverse threats could cause extensive damage, loss of life, and prolonged, large-area power outages costing billions of dollars, says . The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should work closely with utility operators and other stakeholders to improve the cyber and physical security and resilience of the nation’s electricity system.

The report focuses on reducing the nation’s vulnerability to large blackouts that extend over several service areas or states and last three days or longer. Events that can lead to such outages include hurricanes, earthquakes, solar storms, cyber and physical attacks, and major operational errors.

To prepare for the impact of disruptive events, the electricity industry — in coordination with regional and state agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. — should expand its efforts to convene regional emergency preparedness exercises. These exercises should include simulations of accidental failures, outages caused by natural disasters, coordinated cyber and physical attacks, and other damage that results in large-scale loss of power. Although it is difficult to foresee the numerous consequences of a large grid failure, these exercises should go beyond recreating historical failures and challenge all parties with previously unimagined events.

The report also calls for increased public and private investment in physical resources to ensure that critical electric infrastructure is robust and that society is able to cope when the grid fails. The report includes specific recommendations for federal, state, and regulatory agencies detailing actions that different groups can undertake to improve grid resilience.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Future Biotechnology Products

©iStock/SvitDenThe United States’ rapidly growing biotechnology economy is on track to see an explosion of new products in the near future, from familiar applications, such as modified agricultural crops, to products that are entirely new, like micro-organisms developed to perform bioremediation of contaminated soil or groundwater.

The number and diversity of new biotechnology products in the next five to 10 years have the potential to overwhelm the U.S. regulatory system, hindering its efforts to ensure public safety, protect the environment, build public confidence, and support innovation. recommends the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other agencies involved in regulating biotechnology products increase their scientific capabilities, tools, and expertise in key areas of expected growth.

Regulatory agencies should build their capacity to rapidly determine the type of risk-analysis approaches most appropriate for new products entering the regulatory system. For products that are similar to ones already in use, agencies can apply or modify established risk-analysis methods, expediting the evaluation process. New risk-analysis methods may need to be developed for products with less-familiar characteristics or more complex risk.

EPA, FDA, and USDA should also identify products that could serve as pilot projects to develop new approaches to assess risk and benefits and inform regulatory decisions, the report says. The projects could also be used to evaluate future products as they move from laboratory to field- or prototype-scale to full-scale operation.

The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, a collection of statutes and regulations that provide the basis for agencies’ oversight, appears to have considerable flexibility to cover a wide range of biotechnology products, the report says. However, in some cases, the agencies’ jurisdiction has been defined in ways that could leave gaps or overlaps in regulatory oversight. At times, FDA, EPA, and USDA may need to make use of the flexibility under their statutes to minimize gaps in jurisdiction.

The report urges the federal government to develop a strategy that scans the horizon for new biotechnology products, identifying and prioritizing those products that are less familiar or that present a need for more complex risk analysis. Federal support for sustained multiyear research will be crucial to protect consumer and occupational safety and the environment, and to develop the necessary advances in regulatory science, for which the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and other agencies that fund biotechnology research should increase their investments.

As a direct outcome of this report, the USDA commissioned the Environmental Law Institute to undertake a feasibility study for development of a horizon-scanning process for future products of biotechnology, including but not limited to future biotechnology products of interest to the USDA.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

U.S. Flagship Space Missions

NGC 1559, a small galaxy roughly 50 million light years away, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, credit European Space Agency/Hubble and NASANASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) operates dozens of spacecraft performing many different missions. The highest profile of these are the large strategic space science missions often referred to as “flagship” missions. Examples of such missions include the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Curiosity rover, Magnetospheric Multiscale, and the Terra Earth observation satellite.

These large strategic missions are essential to maintaining the United States’ global leadership in space exploration and should continue to be a primary component of a balanced space science program that includes large, medium, and smaller missions, says . However, controlling the costs of these large missions remains vital in order to preserve the overall stability of the program.

NASA’s large space science missions play critical roles in each of the agency’s four science divisions — astrophysics, Earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science — and are needed to pursue compelling scientific questions, the report says. When faced with determining how to weigh the development and operation of the largest flagship missions as part of a balanced program, NASA should seek guidance from the relevant AffiliateMarketIngtools decadal surveys and midterm reviews, as well as from other research-community based advisory bodies.

Mission advocates should describe ranges of scientific scope such as minimum science goals and maximum budgets for the largest missions, as well as identify in decadal surveys what goals are most desirable at different budget levels. This approach will allow NASA to develop, if needed, less expensive implementation strategies (known as “de-scoping”) for missions so that they do not exceed budget constraints, and it could also identify opportunities to “up-scope” such missions to perform more scientific research, should budgets and the program balance allow. To better assess and control costs, NASA should continue to use its various cost estimation and management tools and support the development of new, improved cost estimation tools.

The Academies’ study was funded by NASA.

Assessing ARPA-E’s Progress

In 2005, the AffiliateMarketIngtools recommended the establishment of an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) within the U.S. Department of Energy with the mission “to overcome the long-term and high-risk technological barriers in the development of energy technologies.” With the same legislation that authorized ARPA-E’s creation — the 2007 America COMPETES Act — Congress requested that DOE ask the Academies to conduct an early assessment of ARPA-E’s progress following six years of operation.

concludes that ARPA-E is making progress toward achieving its statutory mission and goals. The agency has funded research that no other funding source was supporting at the time, and the results of some of these projects have received follow-on funding from private and other public sources for various technologies. While the full market impacts of ARPA-E-funded technologies will not be seen for years, some intermediate outcomes are evident now. A quarter of the supported project teams or technologies have received follow-on funding for continued work; roughly half of supported projects have published the results of their research in peer-reviewed journals; and about 13 percent have obtained patents. All of these are positive indicators for technologies on a trajectory toward commercialized products.

The agency cannot reasonably be expected to have completely fulfilled its goals given so few years of operation and the size of its budget, the report says. The development of new energy technologies usually requires decades of effort, and decades also must usually elapse before there is evidence that innovations are truly transformative.

Importantly at this early stage, there are no signs that ARPA-E is failing to deliver on its mission and goals, on a path to failing, or in need of reform, the report says. In fact, attempts to reform the agency — such as applying pressure for ARPA-E to show short-term successes rather than focusing on its long-term mission and goals — would pose a significant risk of harming its efforts and chances of achieving its mission and goals.

The report offers recommendations to guide ARPA-E in building upon its early success, urging the agency to continue its flexible management approach and risk-taking culture, to develop a framework for measuring its impacts, and to streamline its reporting processes.

The Academies’ study was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

A U.S. Strategy for Ultrafast Lasers

©iStock/DWithersIntense, ultrafast lasers originated in the U.S. and have broad applications in manufacturing, medicine, and national security. Such laser sources create conditions that can accelerate and collide intense beams of elementary particles, drive nuclear reactions, or heat matter to conditions found in stars. Recognizing their promise for broad areas of science, research-funding agencies in Europe and Asia began in the last decade to invest heavily in ultrafast laser R&D.

As a result, the U.S. has lost its dominance in this technology, says . About 80 percent to 90 percent of the high-intensity laser systems are overseas, and all of the highest power research lasers in construction or already built are also abroad. To improve the nation’s position in the field, the U.S. Department of Energy should create a broad network to support laser science, applications, and technology.

Currently, U.S. programs are carried out under sponsorship of several different federal agencies according to their various missions and without the overall coordination that exists in Europe. As the cornerstone of a strategy to boost intense and ultrafast U.S. laser R&D, DOE should form a coalition of universities, industry, and government laboratories, in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the research arms of the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and other federal research organizations.

DOE should also lead the development of a comprehensive, interagency national strategy for high-intensity lasers that includes a program for both developing and operating large- and mid-scale laboratory projects and a technology development program with technology transfer between the public and private sectors. In addition, DOE should plan for at least one large-scale, open-access, high-intensity laser facility that leverages other major science infrastructure, such as particle accelerators, the report says.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Transportation of Hazardous Energy Shipments

BNSF train hauling a long line of tank cars carrying biofuel through central Kansas, ©iStock/BeyondImagesSince 2005, increased production of crude oil, natural gas, and corn-based ethanol in the United States has placed unforeseen demands on their safe shipment over long distances. In light of safety concerns about transporting hazardous energy liquids and gases, the AffiliateMarketIngtools conducted a study of the three major long-distance modes of energy transportation — waterways, pipelines, and railroads.

finds that the nation’s waterways and pipelines have accommodated large portions of the recent growth in domestic energy liquids and gases without major new safety problems, and within the basic framework of their longstanding regulatory and safety assurance systems.

Prior to 2005, however, railroads had little experience in transporting these flammable materials in such large quantities. Investigations of severe flammable liquids train derailments indicate track wear and defects are the common cause, which is of concern given that the newer and safer tank cars carrying these materials won’t be fully phased in for several years. In addition, these shipments often pass through rural communities that lack familiarity with responding to large-scale incidents involving trainloads of flammable liquids.

The report identifies a number of steps the railroad industry and its regulators should take to create a more robust safety assurance system that resembles that of maritime carriers, making it more anticipatory, responsive, and risk-informed. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration should undertake a comprehensive review of responses to transportation safety challenges since 2005, in order to inform the development of better safety assurance systems. In addition, PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration should take advantage of the increased experience with tank-car unit train movements, including accident experience, to systematically model the full array of factors that can give rise to and affect the severity of flammable liquids train crashes.

The study was funded by the Transportation Research Board of the AffiliateMarketIngtools of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Better Information for Safer Commercial Motor Vehicles

©iStock/Milos-MullerEach year, there are about 100,000 fatality- or injury-causing crashes involving commercial motor vehicles in the United States. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) works to reduce the number of crashes that involve these large trucks and buses, which are responsible for safely moving freight and passengers over the nation’s highways.

Approximately 3.5 million roadside inspections are conducted each year by specially trained inspectors on approximately 900 potential violations of safety regulations that fall under six categories: unsafe driving, hours of service compliance, vehicle maintenance, controlled substances/alcohol use, hazardous materials compliance, and driver fitness. Carriers with frequent violations and/or frequent crashes may be subject to interventions, which can include warnings and investigation.

FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System (SMS) uses information collected mainly during these inspections, along with crash data, to identify motor carriers that are operating unsafely and are at higher risk for future crashes. While the measurement system is conceptually sound, several aspects of its implementation need improvement, says .

Over the next two years, FMCSA should develop a more statistically principled approach based on an item response theory model, which has been shown to be very successful in other contexts, the report says. If this model performs well in identifying motor carriers needing intervention, FMCSA should use it to replace the SMS.

The report advises FMCSA to continue to collaborate with states and other agencies to improve certain input data that is used in addition to inspection data, specifically the collection of information on vehicle miles traveled and on crash circumstances. Incorporating data on the state and month of each crash will enable the system used to account for the different environments in which carriers travel. FMCSA should also support states in collecting more complete crash data as these are often missing and do not take into account certain information from police reports that could help in understanding the contributing factors in a crash.

Carrier operations could also be a contributing cause to crashes, but more information is needed in this area, the report says. For example, it is known that drivers who are better compensated, and are not compensated as a function of miles traveled, have fewer crashes. FMCSA should research ways to collect data on carrier characteristics including driver turnover rates, type of cargo carried, and method and level of compensation.

The Academies’ study was funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Performance of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes on Trains

©iStock/EmeraldRaindrops Electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes are designed to reduce the time before a train’s pneumatic brakes are fully engaged, which could potentially decrease the incidence and severity of spills of crude oil or ethanol from train derailments.

In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a rule that required ECP braking systems for 100-car unit trains transporting high-hazard flammable cargoes by January 1. In the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, Congress mandated that DOT re-examine this requirement and test ECP brake performance relative to other braking systems.

finds DOT’s test results and analysis of the emergency performance of ECP brakes for unit trains compared with other braking technologies and systems are incomplete and unconvincing in determining whether ECP brakes are more effective in decreasing the severity of derailments.

In a first phase report, issued in February 2017, the study committee recommended specific field and laboratory testing of different braking systems and assessments of the model DOT used to simulate the outcomes of derailments, and statistical analysis to improve understanding of derailments and their consequences.

In the second phase, the committee reviewed DOT’s responses to its recommendations. DOT conducted the recommended field and laboratory testing, but rejected the additional validation exercises and statistical analyses. The report finds DOT’s limited efforts to validate its modeling and simulation approach do not instill sufficient confidence in DOT’s comparison of the estimated emergency performance of ECP braking systems with that of alternative braking systems for unit trains.

In consideration of the committee’s report, updated costs and benefits of the ECP brake provision based on current economic conditions, and audits conducted by the U.S. General Accountability Office, DOT withdrew the regulatory requirement for ECP brakes on freight trains transporting highly flammable liquids in December 2017.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Research to Strengthen Cybersecurity

©iStock/matejmoInformation technology is critical to operate the nation’s electric power grid, air traffic control system, financial system, communication networks, and other important infrastructure. However, as many recent high-profile incidents illustrate, these and all other key information systems are vulnerable to varied and changing attacks by hackers, criminals, terrorists, and state actors. Despite considerable investments of resources and intellect, cybersecurity threats continue to pose serious challenges to national security, business performance, and public well-being.

To make progress in strengthening cybersecurity, researchers will increasingly need to work across disciplines and with practitioners, developers, and system administrators responsible for securing real-world operational systems, says . The report identifies four foundational research strategies for organizing people, technologies, and governance to create an agile, collaborative, and effective research community capable of better linking research with practice.

Support, develop, and improve security science. A goal of security science research is to improve understanding of which aspects of a system — including its environment and users — create vulnerabilities or enable an attacker to exploit them. Clear and well-substantiated models grounded in solid computer science, mathematics, logic, and game theory could, for example, help assess and prioritize security investments and avoid poor choices.

Integrate the social, behavioral, and decision sciences into the security science research effort. Technical approaches alone will not suffice for cybersecurity, since people play key roles in systems as developers, users, operators, or adversaries. Achieving effective cybersecurity will depend on understanding and addressing human dimensions of systems, as well as overcoming psychological and institutional impediments that make effective collaboration difficult.

Integrate engineering and operations for a life-cycle understanding of systems. System administrators and other practitioners are often on the front lines of securing systems. It is important to develop mechanisms whereby researchers can learn about the real problems being experienced in the field by practitioners.

Sustain long-term support for security science research. Encouraging research to address complex cybersecurity challenges will require sustained commitments and engagements. The report identifies opportunities to improve research practices, structural approaches that can help in interdisciplinary environments, and ways to address security science in federal research programs.

The Academies’ study was funded by the National Security Agency with assistance from the National Science Foundation.

Center-Based Engineering Research

The U.S. faces many complex global challenges that will require concerted multidisciplinary research to solve. More than 30 years ago, the National Science Foundation recognized the importance of multidisciplinary research when it initiated the Engineering Research Center (ERC) program. Since then, the agency’s ERCs have produced more than 12,000 engineering graduates with interdisciplinary training and entrepreneurial skills, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of regional and national economic benefits.

©iStock/leventinceNSF should re-invigorate ERCs with a new focus on problems whose solutions offer the greatest benefit to society, says . By placing bold bets on a small number of well-funded, prestigious centers that focus on engineering solutions to society’s greatest challenges rather than on more narrow technological areas, NSF will create excitement in engineering and scientific communities that will attract the best students, faculty, and industry partners.

To improve leadership and management of the diverse research teams that this shift would require, the ERC program should adopt best practices in team research and value creation — such as those currently used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and top U.S. companies. In addition, because the proposed new centers would tackle bigger, more complex problems, they may need larger budgets than those of current ERCs. NSF should also consider a new name, such as Convergent Engineering Research Centers, to reflect the broader approach.

The report identifies three possible models for NSF to consider in structuring the centers — the Grand Challenges model, which would focus research on solutions to a problem with great societal impact; the prize model, through which NSF would encourage innovation via competitions; and the federal-state-local partnership model, which would stimulate local or regional innovation on topics such as practical approaches that coastal cities can take to deal with sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

The Academies’ study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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