Working with academics: A primer for U.S. government agencies

Collaboration between federal agencies and academic researchers is an important tool for public policy. By facilitating the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and talent, these partnerships can help address pressing societal challenges. But because it is rarely in either party’s job description to conduct outreach and build relationships with the other, many important dynamics are often hidden from view. This primer provides an initial set of questions and topics for agencies to consider when exploring academic partnership.

Why should agencies consider working with academics?

What considerations may arise when working with academics?

Table (Of Contents)
Characteristics of discussed collaborative structures
StructurePrimary needPotential mechanismsStructural complexityLevel of effort
Informal advisingKnowledge >> CapacityAd-hoc engagement; formal consulting agreementLowOccasional work, over the short- to long-term
Study groupsKnowledge > CapacityInformal working group; formal extramural awardModerateOccasional to part-time work, over the short- to medium-term
Collaborative researchCapacity ~= KnowledgeInformal research partnership, formal grant, or cooperative agreement / contractVariablePart-time work, over the medium- to long-term
Short-term placementsCapacity > KnowledgeIPA, OPM Schedule A(r), or expert contract; either ad-hoc or through a formal programModeratePart- to full-time work, over a short- to medium-term
Long-term rotationsCapacity >> KnowledgeIPA, OPM Schedule A(r), or SGE designation; typically through a formal programHighFull-time work, over a medium- to long-term
BOX 1. Key academic considerations
Academic career stages.

Academic faculty progress through different stages of professorship — typically assistant, associate, and full — that affect their research and teaching expectations and opportunities. Assistant professors are tenure-track faculty who need to secure funding, publish papers, and meet the standards for tenure. Associate professors have job security and academic freedom, but also more mentoring and leadership responsibilities; associate professors are typically tenured, though this is not always the case. Full professors are senior faculty who have a high reputation and recognition in their field, but also more demands for service and supervision. The nature of agency-academic collaboration may depend on the seniority of the academic. For example, junior faculty may be more available to work with agencies, but primarily in contexts that will lead to traditional academic outputs; while senior faculty may be more selective, but their academic freedom will allow for less formal and more impact-oriented work.

Soft vs. hard money positions.

Soft money positions are those that depend largely or entirely on external funding sources, typically research grants, to support the salary and expenses of the faculty. Hard money positions are those that are supported by the academic institution’s central funds, typically tied to more explicit (and more expansive) expectations for teaching and service than soft-money positions. Faculty in soft money positions may face more pressure to secure funding for research, while faculty in hard money positions may have more autonomy in their research agenda but more competing academic activities. Federal agencies should be aware of the funding situation of the academic faculty they collaborate with, as it may affect their incentives and expectations for agency engagement.

Sabbatical credits.

A sabbatical is a period of leave from regular academic duties, usually for one or two semesters, that allows faculty to pursue an intensive and unstructured scope of work — this can include research in their own field or others, as well as external engagements or tours of service with non-academic institutions . Faculty accrue sabbatical credits based on their length and type of service at the university, and may apply for a sabbatical once they have enough credits. The amount of salary received during a sabbatical depends on the number of credits and the duration of the leave. Federal agencies may benefit from collaborating with academic faculty who are on sabbatical, as they may have more time and interest to devote to impact-focused work.

Consulting/outside activity limits.

Consulting limits & outside activity limits are policies that regulate the amount of time that academic faculty can spend on professional activities outside their university employment. These policies are intended to prevent conflicts of commitment or interest that may interfere with the faculty’s primary obligations to the university, such as teaching, research, and service, and the specific limits vary by university. Federal agencies may need to consider these limits when engaging academic faculty in ongoing or high-commitment collaborations.

9 vs. 12 month salaries.

Some academic faculty are paid on a 9-month basis, meaning that they receive their annual salary over nine months and have the option to supplement their income with external funding or other activities during the summer months. Other faculty are paid on a 12-month basis, meaning that they receive their annual salary over twelve months and have less flexibility to pursue outside opportunities. Federal agencies may need to consider the salary structure of the academic faculty they work with, as it may affect their availability to engage on projects and the optimal timing with which they can do so.

Advisory relationships consist of an academic providing occasional or periodic guidance to a federal agency on a specific topic or issue, without being formally contracted or compensated. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need access to cutting-edge expertise or perspectives, but do not have a formal deliverable in mind.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Box 2. Key structural considerations
Regulatory guidance.

Federal agencies and academic institutions are subject to various laws and regulations that affect their research collaboration, and the ownership and use of the research outputs. Key legislation includes the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs advisory committees and ensures transparency and accountability; the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which controls the acquisition of supplies and services with appropriated funds; and the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act (FGCAA), which provides criteria for distinguishing between grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts. Agencies should ensure that collaborations are structured in accordance with these and other laws.

Contracting mechanisms.

Federal agencies may use various contracting mechanisms to engage researchers from non-federal entities in collaborative roles. These mechanisms include the IPA Mobility Program, which allows the temporary assignment of personnel between federal and non-federal organizations; the Experts & Consultants authority, which allows the appointment of qualified experts and consultants to positions that require only intermittent and/or temporary employment; and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), which allow agencies to enter into collaborative agreements with non-federal partners to conduct research and development projects of mutual interest.

University Office of Sponsored Programs.

Offices of Sponsored Programs are units within universities that provide administrative support and oversight for externally funded research projects. OSPs are responsible for reviewing and approving proposals, negotiating and accepting awards, ensuring compliance with sponsor and university policies and regulations, and managing post-award activities such as reporting, invoicing, and auditing. Federal agencies typically interact with OSPs as the authorized representative of the university in matters related to sponsored research.

Non-disclosure agreements.

When engaging with academics, federal agencies may use NDAs to safeguard sensitive information. Agencies each have their own rules and procedures for using and enforcing NDAs involving their grantees and contractors. These rules and procedures vary, but generally require researchers to sign an NDA outlining rights and obligations relating to classified information, data, and research findings shared during collaborations.

A study group is a type of collaboration where an academic participates in a group of experts convened by a federal agency to conduct analysis or education on a specific topic or issue. The study group may produce a report or hold meetings to present their findings to the agency or other stakeholders. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to gather evidence or insights from multiple sources and disciplines with expertise relevant to their work.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case study

In 2022, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) a grant to create the EAGER: Place-Based Innovation Policy Study Group. This group, led by two economists with expertise in entrepreneurship, innovation, and regional development — Jorge Guzman from Columbia University and Scott Stern from MIT — aimed to provide “timely insight for the NSF Regional Innovation Engines program.” During Fall 2022, the group met regularly with NSF staff to i) provide an assessment of the “state of knowledge” of place-based innovation ecosystems, ii) identify the insights of this research to inform NSF staff on design of their policies, and iii) surface potential means by which to measure and evaluate place-based innovation ecosystems on a rigorous and ongoing basis. Several of the academic leads then completed a paper synthesizing the opportunities and design considerations of the regional innovation engine model, based on the collaborative exploration and insights developed throughout the year. In this case, the study group was structured as a grant, with funding provided to the organizing institution (NBER) for personnel and convening costs. Yet other approaches are possible; for example, NSF recently launched a broader study group with the Institute for Progress, which is structured as a no-cost Other Transaction Authority contract.

Active collaboration covers scenarios in which an academic engages in joint research with a federal agency, either as a co-investigator, a subrecipient, a contractor, or a consultant. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to leverage the expertise, facilities, data, or networks of academics to conduct research that advances their mission, goals, or priorities.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case studies

External collaboration between academic researchers and government agencies has repeatedly proven fruitful for both parties. For example, in May 2020, the Rhode Island Department of Health partnered with researchers at Brown University’s Policy Lab to conduct a randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of different letter designs in encouraging COVID-19 testing. This study identified design principles that improved uptake of testing by 25–60% without increasing cost, and led to follow-on collaborations between the institutions. The North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships provides a prime example of how government agencies can take steps to facilitate these collaborations. The office recently launched the North Carolina Project Portal, which serves as a platform for the agency to share their research needs, and for external partners — including academics — to express interest in collaborating. Researchers are encouraged to contact the relevant project leads, who then assess interested parties on their expertise and capacity, extend an offer for a formal research partnership, and initiate the project.

Short-term placements allow for an academic researcher to work at a federal agency for a limited period of time (typically one year or less), either as a fellow, a scholar, a detailee, or a special government employee. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to fill temporary gaps in expertise, capacity, or leadership, or to foster cross-sector exchange and learning.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case studies

Various programs exist throughout government to facilitate short-term rotations of outside experts into federal agencies and offices. One of the most well-known examples is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program, which places scientists and engineers from various disciplines and career stages in federal agencies for one year to apply their scientific knowledge and skills to inform policy making and implementation. The Schedule A(r) hiring authority tends to be well-suited for these kinds of fellowships; it is used, for example, by the Bureau of Economic Analysis to bring on early career fellows through the American Economic Association’s Summer Economics Fellows Program. In some circumstances, outside experts are brought into government “on loan” from their home institution to do a tour of service in a federal office or agency; in these cases, the IPA program can be a useful mechanism. IPAs are used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in its Rotator Program, which brings outside scientists into the agency to serve as temporary Program Directors and bring cutting-edge knowledge to the agency’s grantmaking and priority-setting. IPA is also used for more ad-hoc talent needs; for example, the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) at GSA often uses it to bring in fellows and academic affiliates.

Long-term rotations allow an academic to work at a federal agency for an extended period of time (more than one year), either as a fellow, a scholar, a detailee, or a special government employee. This type of collaboration can be useful for agencies that need to recruit and retain expertise, capacity, or leadership in areas that are critical to their mission, goals, or priorities.

Academic considerations

Regulatory & structural considerations

Case study

One example of a long-term rotation that draws experts from academia into federal agency work is the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) Program Manager (PM) role. ARPA PMs — across DARPA, IARPA, ARPA-E, and now ARPA-H — are responsible for leading high-risk, high-reward research programs, and have considerable autonomy and authority in defining their research vision, selecting research performers, managing their research budget, and overseeing their research outcomes. PMs are typically recruited from academia, industry, or government for a term of three to five years, and are expected to return to their academic institutions or pursue other career opportunities after their term at the agency. PMs coming from academia or nonprofit organizations are often brought on through the IPA mobility program, and some entities also have unique term-limited, hiring authorities for this purpose. PMs can also be hired as full government employees; this mechanism is primarily used for candidates coming from the private sector.

Unlocking American Competitiveness: Understanding the Reshaped Visa Policies under the AI Executive Order

The looming competition for global talent has brought forth a necessity to evaluate and update the policies concerning international visa holders in the United States. Recognizing this, President Biden has directed various agencies to consider policy changes aimed at improving processes and conditions for legal foreign workers, students, researchers, and scholars through the upcoming AI Executive Order (EO). The EO recognizes that attracting global talent is vital for continued U.S. economic growth and enhancing competitiveness. 

Here we offer a comprehensive analysis of potential impacts and beneficiaries under several key provisions brought to attention by this EO. The provisions considered herein are categorized under six paramount categories: domestic revalidation for J-1 and F-1 Visas; modernization of H-1B Visa Rules; updates to J-1 Exchange Visitor Skills List; the introduction of Global AI Talent Attraction Program; issuing an RFI to seek updates to DOL’s Schedule A; and policy manual updates for O-1A, EB-1, EB-2 and International Entrepreneur Rule. Each policy change carries the potential to advance America’s ability to draw in international experts that hugely contribute to our innovation-driven economy.

Domestic Revalidation for J-1 and F-1 Visas

The EO directive on expanding domestic revalidation for J-1 research scholars and F-1 STEM visa students simplifies and streamlines the renewal process for a large number of visa holders. 

There are currently approximately 900,000 international students in the US, nearly half of whom are enrolled in STEM fields. This policy change has the potential to impact almost 450,000 international students, including those who partake in optional practical training (OPT). The group of affected individuals consists greatly of scholars with advanced degrees as nearly half of all STEM PhDs are awarded to international students.

One of the significant benefits offered by this EO directive is the reduction in processing times and associated costs. In addition, it improves convenience for these students and scholars. For example, many among the several hundreds of thousands of STEM students will no longer be obligated to spend excessive amounts on travel to their home country for a 10-minute interview at an Embassy.

Aside from saving costs, this directive also allows students to attend international conferences more easily and enjoy hassle-free travel without being worried about having to spend a month away from their vital research waiting for visa renewal back home.

Expanding domestic revalidation to F and J visa holders was initially suggested by the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee in January 2008, indicating its long-standing relevance and importance. By implementing it, we not only enhance efficiency but also foster a more supportive environment for international students contributing significantly to our scientific research community.

Modernization of H-1B Visa Rules

The EO directive to update the rules surrounding H-1B visas would positively impact the over 500k H-1B visa holders. The Department of Homeland Security recently released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to reform the H-1B visa rules. It would allow these visa holders to easily transition into new jobs, have more predictability and certainty in the renewal process and more flexibility or better opportunities to apply their skills, and allow entrepreneurs to more effectively access the H-1B visa. Last year, 206,002 initial and continuing H-1Bs were issued. The new rules would apply to similar numbers in FY2025. But what amplifies this modification’s impact is its potential crossover with EB-1 and EB-2 petitioners waiting on green cards—currently at over 400k petitions. 

Additionally, the modernization would address the issue of multiple applications per applicant. This has been a controversial issue in the H-1B visa program as companies would often file multiple registrations for the same employee, thus increasing the exhaustion rate of yearly quotas, thereby reducing chances for others. This modernization could potentially address this problem by introducing clear rules or restrictions on the number of applications per applicant. USCIS recently launched fraud investigations into several companies engaging in this practice.

Updates to J-1 Exchange Visitor Skills List

The EO directive to revamp the skills list will synchronize with evolving global labor market needs. Nearly 37k of the J-1s issued in 2022 went to professors, research scholars and short term scholars, hailing from mainly China and India (nearly 40% of all). Therefore, this update not only expands opportunities available to these participants but also tackles critical skill gaps within fields like AI in the U.S. Once the J-1 skills list is updated to meet the realities of the global labor market today, it will allow thousands of additional high skilled J-1 visa holders to apply for other visa categories immediately, without spending 2-years in their countries of origin, as laid out in this recent brief by the Federation of American Scientists.

Global AI Talent Attraction Program

Recognizing AI talent is global, the EO directive on using the State Department’s public diplomacy function becomes strategically important. By hosting overseas events to appeal to such crucial talent bases abroad, we can effectively fuel the U.S. tech industry’s unmet demand that has seen a steep incline over recent years. While 59% of the top-tier AI researchers work in the U.S., only 20% of them received their undergraduate degree in the U.S. Only 35% of the most elite (top 0.5%) of AI researchers received their undergraduate degree in the U.S., but 65% of them work in the U.S. The establishment of a Global AI Talent Attraction program by the State Department will double down on this uniquely American advantage.

Schedule A Update & DOL’s RFI

Schedule A is a list of occupations for which the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has determined there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available. Foreign workers in these occupations can therefore have a faster process to receive a Green Card because the employer does not need to go through the Labor Certification process. Schedule A Group I was created in 1965 and has remained unchanged since 1991. If the DOL were to update Schedule A, it would impact foreign workers and employers in several ways depending on how the list changes:

Foreign workers with occupations that are on Schedule A do not have to go through the PERM (Program Electronic Review Management) labor certification process, a process that otherwise takes on average 300 days to complete. This is because Schedule A lists occupations for which the Department of Labor has already determined there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available. An updated Schedule A could cut PERM applications filed significantly down from current high volumes (over 86,000 already filed by the end of FY23 Q3). While the EO only calls for an RFI seeking information on the Schedule A List, this is a critical first step to an eventual update that is badly needed.

Policy Manual Updates for O-1A, EB-1, EB-2 and International Entrepreneur Rule

The EO’s directive to DHS to modernize pathways for experts in AI and other emerging technologies will have profound effects on the U.S. tech industry. Fields such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Quantum computing, Biotechnology, etc., are increasingly crucial in defining global technology leadership and national security. As per the NSCAI report, the U.S. significantly lags behind in terms of AI expertise due to severe immigration challenges.

The modernization would likely include clarification and updates to the criteria of defining ‘extraordinary ability’ and ‘exceptional ability’ under O-1A, EB-1 and EB-2 visas, becoming more inclusive towards talents in emerging tech fields. For instance, the current ‘extraordinary ability’ category is restrictive towards researchers as it preferentially favors those who have received significant international awards or recognitions—a rarity in most early-stage research careers. Similarly, despite O-1A and EB-1 both designed for aliens with extraordinary ability, the criteria for EB-1 is more restrictive than O-1A and bringing both in line would allow a more predictable path for an O-1A holder to transition to an EB-1. Such updates also extend to the International Entrepreneur Rule, facilitating startup founders from critical technology backgrounds more straightforward access into the U.S. landscape.

Altogether, these updates could lead to a surge in visa applications under O-1A, EB-1, EB-2 categories and increase entrepreneurship within emerging tech sectors. In turn, this provision would bolster the U.S.’ competitive advantage globally by attracting top-performing individuals working on critical technologies worldwide.

Enhanced Informational Resources and Transparency

The directives in Section 4 instruct an array of senior officials to create informational resources that demystify options for experts in critical technologies intending to work in the U.S. The provision’s ramifications include:

Streamlining Visa Services 

This area of the order directly addresses immigration policy with a view to accelerating access for talented individuals in emerging tech fields. 

Using Discretionary Authorities to Support and Attract AI Talent

The EO’s directive to the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security to use discretionary authorities—consistent with applicable law and implementing regulations—to support and attract foreign nationals with special skills in AI seeking to work, study, or conduct research in the U.S. could have enormous implications. 

One way this provision could be implemented is through the use of public benefit parole. Offering parole to elite AI researchers who may otherwise be stuck in decades long backlogs (or are trying to evade authoritarian regimes) could see a significant increase in the inflow of intellectual prowess into the U.S. Public benefit parole is also the basis for the International Entrepreneur Rule. Given how other countries are actively poaching talent from the U.S. because of our decades long visa backlogs, creating a public benefit parole program for researchers in AI and other emerging technology areas could prove extremely valuable. These researchers could then be allowed to stay and work in the U.S. provided they are able to demonstrate (on an individual basis) that their stay in the U.S. would provide a significant public benefit through their AI research and development efforts.

Another potential utilization of this discretionary authority could be in the way of the Department of State issuing a memo announcing a one‐​time recapture of certain immigrant visa cap numbers to redress prior agency failures to issue visas. There is precedence for this as when the government openly acknowledged its errors that made immigrants from Western Hemisphere countries face longer wait times between 1968 and 1976 as it incorrectly charged Cuban refugees to the Western Hemisphere limitation. To remedy the situation, the government recaptured over 140,000 visas from prior fiscal years on its own authority, and issued them to other immigrants who were caught in the Western Hemisphere backlog. 

In the past, considerable quantities of green cards have gone unused due to administrative factors. Recapturing these missed opportunities could immediately benefit a sizable volume of immigrants, including those possessing AI skills and waiting for green card availability. For instance, if a hypothetical 300,000 green cards that were not allocated due to administrative failures are recaptured, it could potentially expedite the immigration process for a similar number of individuals. 

Finally, as a brief from the Federation of American Scientists stated earlier, it is essential that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security extend the visa interview waivers indefinitely, considering the significant backlogs faced by the State Department at several consular posts that are preventing researchers from traveling to the U.S. 

In August 2020, Secretary Pompeo announced that applicants seeking a visa in the same category they previously held would be allowed to get an interview waiver if their visa expired in the last 24 months. Before this, the expiration period for an interview waiver was only 12 months. In December 2020, just two days before this policy was set to expire, DOS extended it through the end of March 2021. In March, the expiration period was doubled again, from 24 months to 48 months and the policy extended through December 31, 2021. In September of 2021, DOS also approved waivers through the remainder of 2021 for applicants of F, M, and academic J visas from Visa Waiver Program countries who were previously issued a visa.

In December 2021, DOS extended its then-existing policies (with some minor modifications) through December 2022. Moreover, the interview waiver policy that individuals renewing a visa in the same category as a visa that expired in the preceding 48 months may be eligible for issuance without an interview was announced as a standing policy of the State Department, and added to the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual for consular officers.  In December 2022, DOS announced another extension of these policies, which are set to expire at the end of 2023. 

As the State Department recently noted: “These interview waiver authorities have reduced visa appointment wait times at many embassies and consulates by freeing up in-person interview appointments for other applicants who require an interview. Nearly half of the almost seven million nonimmigrant visas the Department issued in Fiscal Year 2022 were adjudicated without an in-person interview. We are successfully lowering visa wait times worldwide, following closures during the pandemic, and making every effort to further reduce those wait times as quickly as possible, including for first-time tourist visa applicants. Embassies and consulates may still require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis and dependent upon local conditions.”

These changes would also benefit U.S. companies and research institutions, who often struggle to retain and attract international AI talent due to the lengthy immigration process and uncertain outcomes. In addition, exercising parole authority can open a new gateway for attracting highly skilled AI talent that might have otherwise chosen other countries due to the rigid U.S. immigration system. 

The use of such authorities can result in a transformational change for AI research and development in the U.S. However, all these outcomes entirely depend upon the actual changes made to existing policies—a task that many acknowledge will require serious thoughtfulness for walking a balance between remaining advantageously selective yet inclusive enough.

In summary, these provisions would carry massive impacts—enabling us to retain foreign talent vital across sectors including but not limited to education, technology and healthcare; all fuelling our national economic growth in turn.

Increasing Students Opportunity-to-Learn Through Better Data Systems

Research shows that giving students equitable opportunities to learn requires access to key inputs. These include, at a minimum: access to qualified, experienced, in-field, and effective teachers; a rich curriculum; adequate funding; support staff; up-to-date facilities; standards-based materials; and technology. Since the 1960s education scholars have argued that federal, state, and local policymakers should use evidence-based opportunity-to-learn (OTL) indicators to inform education improvement processes and decisions about educator recruitment and retention, targeted student-centered programming, and equitable resource allocation. The current availability of district-level relief funds, the restarting of state accountability systems, and a possible reauthorization of the federal Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), are unique policy openings for education leaders to innovate using OTL indicators, incorporate promising practices from existing reporting systems, and establish place-based measures that fit local needs.

Challenge and Opportunity

COVID-19 placed an enormous burden on our education system. Lost instruction, student absences, teacher shortages, school discipline, and the wavering mental health of our nation’s youth have all made headlines since the pandemic began. To address these challenges, policymakers, educators, parents, and community members need multiple data points—in addition to test scores—to both identify achievement and opportunity gaps and spotlight successful models. 

Luckily, a 2019 National Academies of Sciences study, in addition to several resources from the Department of Education and policy experts, demonstrate how OTL indicators can inform school, district, and systems-wide improvement. According to Stephen Elliot and Brendan Bartlett, OTL indicators “generally refer to inputs and processes within a school context necessary for producing student achievement of intended outcomes.” Such indicators can include those identified by the National Academies of Sciences in Table 1 and may also incorporate other indicators of school conditions and outcomes. When states, districts, and schools use various combinations of OTL indicators and disaggregate them by student subgroup, they can more accurately gauge and purposefully increase students’ opportunities to learn.

Table 1. OTL Indicators shared by the National Academies of Sciences
Academic readinessSelf-regulation skills
School engagementCourse performance
Test performanceOn-time graduation
Postsecondary readinessRacial, ethnic, and economic segregation
Access to high-quality pre-K programsEffective teaching
Rigorous courseworkCurricular breadth
Academic supportsSchool climate
Non-exlusionary discipline practicesIntegrated student support services
Source: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Monitoring Educational Equity. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25389.

OTL indicators can also provide information about the nature of the teaching and learning opportunities states, districts, and schools make available to students across the country. For example, if a state’s curriculum frameworks and assessments outline standards for science or career and technical education that requires laboratory work, computers, specialized courses, and teaching expertise—states and districts should know whether students have access to these resources.

Federal and Expert Support for OTL Indicators

Over the past two years the Department of Education (ED) released two key resources supporting OTL implementation:

Table 2. OTL Indicators shared by the Department of Education
Student chronic absenteeism ratesStudent discipline rates (e.g., in-and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions)
Data from student, staff and family surveysAccess to integrated support services (e.g., ratio of students to nurses, counselors, social workers)
Educator certification (e.g., National Board Certification) Educator experience
Educator effectiveness Educator chronic absenteeism and turnover rates
Educator supports (e.g., mentors, induction programs, professional development) Home and school Internet access and student device ratios (e.g., 1:1)
Quality of remote learning Educator access to PD for the effective use of technology
Advanced course participation and completion Culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum designs
Using diagnostic assessments Access to project-based, experiential learning opportunities
Source: U.S. Department of Education. (2021) ED COVID-19 Handbook Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs.

In addition, several organizations released OTL-related resources describing different indicators and how they are being used to support student achievement. For example:

Ideas to Use Data to Increase Opportunities to Learn

Taken together, the resources above from ED and policy experts can facilitate the following local, state, and federal actions to increase the use of OTL indicators.

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through Local Data Systems

States and districts have broad flexibility to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to support student achievement—including “developing and implementing procedures and systems to improve the preparedness and response efforts of local educational agencies.” These systems could arguably include building data collection and reporting infrastructure to track OTL indicators, monitor student progress, and respond with evidence-based interventions. Instead of starting from scratch, states and districts can pull best practices from existing cradle-to-career models such as the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index, or StriveTogether which track various forms of OTL data from a student’s early years (e.g., kindergarten readiness) through their entry into career paths (e.g., postsecondary enrollment).  School Systems can also adapt aspects of OTL indicators to show how they are meeting the needs of their students. For example, Houston Independent School District has an ESSER Spending Dashboard showing how much funding has been spent on educators, support staff, tutors, devices, programming, and physical health

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through State Accountability and Improvement and Reporting Systems  

At the state level, policymakers can help advance OTL indicators by using flexibility included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and further described by ED’s 2022 accountability guidance. For example, ESSA requires states to add at least one indicator of “school quality or student success” to their accountability systems. A number of states have responded by adding indicators of college and career readiness, extended-year graduation rates, suspension rates, school climate, and chronic absenteeism, which all provide information about the broader set of outcomes and opportunities that shape student achievement. For example, the District of Columbia amended its ESSA plan in 2022 to include academic growth, access to dual enrollment courses, and a five-year graduation rate. Many states also represent OTL data in accessible formats such as the school data dashboard in California, a parent dashboard in New York, School and District Profiles in Oregon, and school climate survey reports in Illinois

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through State and Federal Grant Programs

State and federal governments can also incorporate OTL indicators into reporting metrics for grantees. Specifically, state and federal government can solicit feedback on which indicators are most helpful to each program through public notices. By developing equity-centered measures with researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, federal agencies can help grantees build lasting data systems for reporting and continuous improvement. For example, the Full-Service Community School grant program went through negotiated rulemaking to reshape the program’s priorities and drew from suggestions submitted by policy experts to incorporate 13 reporting metrics for new grantees. To help make the collection less burdensome, agencies can also provide technical assistance and release guidance with existing data sources, best practices, and examples.

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) Implementation and Reauthorization 

The federal government can help states and districts close opportunity gaps by assisting in the collection, reporting, validation, disaggregation, and analysis of OTL data through ESRA-funded programs. For example, states and districts can leverage technical assistance and research dissemination through the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs), creating resources and providing further support through the Comprehensive Centers Program, and equipping the Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) program to aid in building state and local capacity in measuring students’ opportunity to learn. Officials at the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) can also point states and districts to existing models such as Kentucky’s Longitudinal Data System and Washington’s Indicators of Education System Health, which incorporate data across a student’s academic continuum to inform policy and practice. 

Conclusion

If state and local leaders are committed to supporting the “whole child,” then they need more than just outcome-based measures such as test scores or graduation rates (i.e., outputs). So much happens before students take a test or graduate. To improve outcomes, students, parents, teachers, and education stakeholders need better information about factors that contribute to student learning (i.e., inputs). For years federal, state, and local leaders have been assessing our students mainly to find the same persistent achievement gaps, which correlate heavily with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Expanding the use of OTL indicators also assess our federal, state, and local systems so they can find new opportunities for students to learn. 

Moving the Nation: The Role of Federal Policy in Promoting Physical Activity

Physical activity is one of the most powerful tools for promoting health and wellbeing. Movement is not only medicine—effective at treating a range of physical and mental health conditions—but it is also preventive medicine, because movement reduces the risk for many conditions ranging from cancer and heart disease to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. But rates of physical inactivity and sedentary behavior have remained high in the U.S. and worldwide for decades.

Engagement in physical activity is impacted by myriad factors that can be viewed from a social ecological perspective. This model views health and health behavior within the context of a complex interplay between different levels of influence, including individual, interpersonal, institutional, community, and policy levels. When it comes to healthy behavior such as physical activity, sustainable change is considered most likely when these levels of influence are aligned to support change. Every level of influence on physical activity within a social-ecological framework is directly or indirectly affected by federal policy, suggesting physical activity policy has the potential to bring about substantial changes in the physical activity habits of Americans. 

Every level of influence on physical activity within a social-ecological framework is directly or indirectly affected by federal policy, suggesting physical activity policy has the potential to bring about substantial changes in the physical activity habits of Americans.
FIGURE 1. Adapted from Heise, L., Elisberg, M., & Gottemoeller, M. (1999)

Why are federal physical activity policies needed?

Physical inactivity is recognized as a public health issue, having widespread impacts on health, longevity, and even the economy. Similar to other public health issues over past decades such as sanitation and tobacco use, federal policies may be the best way to coordinate large-scale changes involving cooperation between diverse sectors, including health care, transportation, environment, education, workplace, and urban planning. An active society requires the infrastructure, environment, and resources that promote physical activity. Federal policies can meet those needs by improving access, providing funding, establishing regulations, and developing programs to empower all Americans to move more. Policies also play an important role in removing barriers to physical activity, such as financial constraints and lack of safe spaces to move, that contribute to health disparities. With such a variety of factors impacting active lifestyles, physical activity policies must have inter-agency involvement to be effective.

What physical activity initiatives exist currently?

Analysis of publicly available information revealed that there are a variety of initiatives currently in place at the federal level, across several departments and agencies, aimed at increasing physical activity levels in the U.S. Information about each initiative was evaluated for their correspondence with levels of the social-ecological model, as summarized in the table. Note that it is possible the search that was conducted did not identify every relevant effort, thus there could be additional initiatives that are not included below.

Given the large number of groups with the shared goal of increasing physical activity in the nation, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) may help to promote coordination of goals and implementation strategies.

FIGURE 2. Agency roles
Department or AgencyExisting or Potential Role
Administration for Children and Families (ACF)ACF’s strategic goals include taking a “preventative and proactive approach to ensuring child, youth, family, and individual well-being.” Physical activity is a powerful preventative and proactive approach.
Administration for Community Living (ACL)ACL’s Health, Wellness, and Nutrition program addresses behavioral health, prevention of injuries and illness, and chronic disease self-management for aging and disability populations, all of which relate to physical activity, though physical activity is not directly addressed in the program’s goals.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)AHRQ moves scientific evidence into practice to help healthcare systems and professionals deliver care that is high quality, safe, accessible, equitable, and affordable, and works to ensure that the scientific evidence is understood and used. AHRQ provides support to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which makes recommendations about clinical preventive services including physical activity.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)The CDC conducts research and provides health information to tackle health problems causing death and disability for Americans, put science into action to prevent disease, and promote healthy and safe behaviors, communities and environment. The CDC has several programs focused on physical activity, partnering with other government agencies and departments as well as other organizations, including the Active People, Healthy Nation program and funding initiatives such as the State Physical Activity and Nutrition Program (SPAN 2023), which supports state-level programs to implement evidence-based strategies to address health disparities related to poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and/or obesity.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)CMS’ Behavioral Health Strategy is aimed at increasing access to equitable and high-quality behavioral health services and improving outcomes for people covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance. CMS could play an important role in providing access to gym memberships and exercise prescriptions for both intervention and prevention. Currently, gym memberships or fitness programs may be included in the extra coverage offered by Medicare Advantage Plans depending on the person’s location. Less commonly, coverage is provided by Medicare Supplement (Medigap) plans. For Medicaid, some states cover gym memberships as part of weight loss initiatives or partner with YMCAs or other community organizations to run health programs.
Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)CEQ and EPA coordinate federal environmental activities and the development of environmental policy, which has a reciprocal beneficial relationship with physical activity. For example, to reduce emission and energy use, climate change policies have been introduced to encourage cycling, walking and other forms of sustainable, active transport. Parks and other green spaces that sequester carbon dioxide also provide space for people to be active. Policies that reduce air pollution help to reduce a barrier to exercising outside.
Department of Agriculture (USDA)The USDA’s strategic priorities include addressing climate change via climate smart agriculture, forestry, and clean energy. Climate, clean air, and spaces for outdoor recreation and camping such as forests are all related to physical activity. The USDA works with the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and others to increase physical activity on federal land (hiking, rafting, biking, etc.), and also provides funding for urban forestry, which promotes physical activity in urban areas.
Department of Education (DE)The DE sets guidelines for physical education in schools and has provided funding for research on physical activity in schools, such as the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, which awarded grants from 2001-2015 to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) to initiate, expand, or enhance physical education programs. The DE could also designate physical education as a core subject and ensure that physical activity is not assigned or withheld as punishment.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)HUD has an important role in community building and infrastructure. The built environment can support physical activity (e.g., by providing safe spaces for movement). For example, HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development develops communities by promoting decent housing, suitable living environments, and expanded economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income people. Research shows that receiving HUD housing assistance is associated with higher physical activity levels in low-income Americans. HUD is also involved in the climate action plan.
Department of the Interior (DOI)The DOI manages public lands and minerals, national parks, and wildlife refuges. Within the DOI, the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service maximize land use, including recreational activities that involve physical activity in outdoor spaces. The National Park Service promotes health and wellness through the Healthy Parks Healthy People initiative, which involves a collaboration with partners and interdisciplinary teams in the sectors of public health, medicine, conservation, and recreation to put a spotlight on the role of parks as social determinant of health.
Department of Transportation (DOT)The DOT promotes physical activity in the public sector through building and maintaining sidewalks or trails, as well as connecting them; reducing car dependency; provide increased opportunities for walking and bicycling; encouraging the creation and implementation of policies to support alternate modes of transportation; providing direct investments to supportive infrastructure such as bicycle lanes, greenways, multi use paths, sidewalks and trails; reducing distances between key destinations and providing and improving bicycle and pedestrian facilities; and installing streetlights. For example, the Safe Routes to School Programs, which promotes safe ways for youth to walk or bike to and from school through the funding of infrastructure (e.g., sidewalks) and educational programs, grew out of these federal funding programs. The DOT and its partner agencies also work to address air and noise pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to improve opportunities for safe, active, multimodal transportation and reduce dependence on vehicles, such as the Clean Air Act and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program.
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)The VA’s Veterans Health Administration is America’s largest integrated health care system. Their National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention includes talking to one’s doctor about physical activity as one of their recommended preventive services. The integrated nature of medical care through the VA would promote the implementation of exercise prescriptions to a large and vulnerable population and could serve as a model for more widespread implementation.
Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)HRSA offers programs to improve access to health care for people who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable, and funds grants and cooperative agreements related to its mission. Funding related to physical activity is directly related to its strategic goal to “Take actionable steps to achieve health equity and improve public health.”
National Institutes of Health (NIH)As the federal government’s medical research agency, NIH supports physical activity related research in its intramural laboratories and through research funding to scientists at other organizations. Requests for applications (RFAs) and Notices of Special Interest (NOSIs) for exercise-focused research grants can promote continued research on the impacts of physical activity on health.
Office of Minority Health (OMH)The OMH promotes the health of racial and ethnic minority populations through the development of health policies and programs that will help eliminate health disparities. Prevention through physical activity and nutrition is one of OMH’s focus areas, as are clinical conditions including diabetes and hypertension that can be prevented or treated with physical activity.
Office of Personnel Management (OPM)One role of OPM, which oversees human resources for federal employees, is to help federal agencies integrate prevention strategies into their workplace through worksite health and wellness programs and organizational and employee benefits. Examples include encouraging employees to use flexible work schedules (non-duty time) to participate in health promotion activities, allowing employees to request annual leave, leave without pay, or sick leave (as appropriate) to participate in health promotion programs, and providing short periods of excused absence for health promotion programs and activities officially sponsored and administered by the agency.

The work of several agencies and departments within the federal government relates to physical activity promotion. Current initiatives are in place, but there are also opportunities for additional efforts that could further the goal of creating a more active nation.

FIGURE 3. Agency interactions
Department, Agency, or DivisionIndividualInterpersonalOrganizationalCommunityPolicy
Administration for Children and Families (ACF)XX
Administration for Community Living (ACL)XX
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)XXX
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)XX
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)XX
Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)XX
Department of Agriculture (USDA)XX
Department of Education (DE)XX
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)XX
Department of the Interior (DOI)XX
Department of Transportation (DOT)XX
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)X
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)XX
Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)XX
National Institutes of Health (NIH)XX
Office of Minority Health (OMH)XXX
Office of Personnel Management (OPM)XX

These and other federal departments and agencies can coordinate action with state and local partners, for example in healthcare, business and industry, education, mass media, and faith-based settings, to implement physical activity policies. 

The CDC’s Active People, Healthy Nation initiative provides an example of this approach. This campaign, launched in 2020, has the goal of helping 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. By taking action steps focused on program delivery, partnership engagement, communication, training, and continuous monitoring and evaluation, the campaign seeks to help communities implement evidence-based strategies across sectors and settings to provide equitable and inclusive access to safe spaces for physical activity. According to our analysis, the strategies of the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative are aligned with the social-ecological model. The Physical Activity Policy Research and Evaluation Network, a research partner of the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative, provides an example of coordinating with partners in other sectors to promote physical activity. Through collaboration across sectors, the network brings together diverse partners to put into practice research on environments that maximize physical activity. The network includes work groups focused on equity and inclusion, parks and green space, rural active living, school wellness, transportation policy and planning, and business/industry.

The Biden-Harris Administration National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, announced in September 2022, also includes strategies that are consistent with a social-ecological model. The strategy outlines steps toward the goal of ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so that fewer Americans will experience diet-related diseases. Pillar 4 of the strategy is to “make it easier for people to be more physically active—in part by ensuring that everyone has access to safe places to be active—increase awareness of the benefits of physical activity, and conduct research on and measure physical activity.” The strategy specifies goals such as building environments that promote physical activity (e.g., connecting people to parks; promoting active transportation and land use policies to support physical activity) and includes a call to action for a whole-of-society response involving the private sector, state, local, and territory governments, schools, and workplaces.

The Congressional Physical Activity Caucus has been active in introducing legislation that can help realize the goals of the current physical activity initiatives. For example, in February 2023, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), co-chair of the Caucus, introduced the Promoting Physical Activity for Americans Act, a bill that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to continue issuing evidence-based physical-activity guidelines and detailed reports at least every 10 years, including recommendations for population subgroups (e.g., children or individuals with disabilities). In addition, members of the Caucus, along with other members of congress, reintroduced the bipartisan, bicameral Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act in March 2023. This legislation seeks to encourage physical activity by allowing Americans to use a portion of the money saved in their pre-tax health savings account (HSA) and flexible spending account (FSA) toward qualified sports and fitness purchases, such as gym memberships, fitness equipment, physical exercise or activity programs and youth sports league fees. The bill would also allow a medical care tax deduction for up to $1,000 ($2,000 for a joint return or a head of household) of qualified sports and fitness expenses per year.

What progress has been made?

There are signs that some of the national campaigns are leading to changes at other levels of society. For example, 46 cities, towns, and states have passed an Active People, Healthy Nation Proclamation as of September 2023. According to the State Routes Partnership, which develops “report cards” for states based on their policies supporting walking, bicycling, and active kids and communities, many states have shown movement in their policies between 2020 and 2022, such as implementing new policies to support walking and biking and increasing state funding for active transportation. However, more time is needed to determine the extent to which recent initiatives are helping to create a more active country, since most were initiated in the past two or three years. Predating the current initiatives, the overall physical activity level of Americans increased from 2008 to 2018, but there has been little change since that time, and only about one-quarter of adults meet the physical activity guidelines established by the CDC.

Clearly, there is a critical need for concerted effort to implement the strategies outlined in current physical activity initiatives so that national policies have the intended impacts on communities and on individuals. Leveraging provisions in existing legislation related to the social-ecological model of physical activity promotion will also help with implementation. For example, title III-D of the Older Americans Act supports healthy lifestyles and promotes healthy behaviors amongst older adults (age 60 and older), providing funding for evidence-based programs that have been proven to improve health and well-being and reduce disease and injury. Physical activity programs are prime candidates for such funding. In addition, programs under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act are helping to change the current car-dependent transportation network, providing healthier and more sustainable transportation options, including walking, biking, and using public transportation, and are providing investments in environmental programs to improve public health and reduce pollution. For example, states can use funds from the Highway Safety Improvement Program for bicycle and pedestrian highway safety improvement projects, and funding is available through the Carbon Reduction Program for programs that help reduce dependence on single-occupancy vehicles, such as public transportation projects and the construction, planning, and design of facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorized forms of transportation.

Partnering with non-governmental groups working towards common goals, such as the Physical Activity Alliance, can also help with implementation. The Alliance’s National Physical Activity Plan is based on the socio-ecological model and includes recommendations for evidence-based actions for 10 societal sectors at the national, state, local and institutional levels, with a focus on making change at the community level. The plan shares many priorities with those of the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative, while also introducing new goals, such as establishing a CDC Office of Physical Activity and Health. 

With coordinated action based on established public health models, such as the social-ecological framework, federal policies can be successfully implemented to make the systemic changes that are needed to create a more active nation.


The work for this blog was undertaken before Dr. Dotson joined the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Dr. Dotson is solely responsible for this blog post’s contents, findings, and conclusions, which do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ. Readers should not interpret any statement as an official position of AHRQ or of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Seeing Through the Haze: How the federal government does (and doesn’t) work to reduce public exposure to wildland fire smoke

Media coverage of wildfire often focuses on the brutality of death and destruction – but alongside these horrific outcomes is the often overlooked and underestimated danger of smoke. This insidious threat isn’t localized to the fire itself but can spread across the country. Worse, we don’t have a coordinated response. This report explores what is being done at the federal level to address wildland fire smoke, what’s missing, and makes recommendations to address this national health issue. 

As the wildfire season has grown longer in the West, smoke events now sometimes stretch for weeks and across the continent. As a result, millions of people are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution on a near-annual basis. Wildland fire smoke is a chemical stew, but the component that is most well-studied and considered the most immediately threatening is fine particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter and smaller (PM2.5). These particles are small enough to bypass the body’s natural defenses, burrow deep into the lungs, and even pass into the bloodstream where they set off a systemic inflammatory response. Smoke exposure leads to increased frequency and severity of asthma attacks, worsened COPD symptoms, increased risk of stroke and heart attack, increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and increased hospital visits and deaths. Recent research finds that repeated smoke exposure may also increase the risk of developing dementia.  Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations occur each year from wildland fire smoke exposure, with most of the impacted persons living far from an active fire. Those most at risk from wildland fire smoke include children and youths under 18, older adults, pregnant people, people with heart or lung disease, outdoor workers, and persons of low socioeconomic status. 

The federal government’s efforts to protect the populace from wildland fire smoke health impacts are made difficult because exposure to wildland fire smoke is influenced by many factors, including fire and smoke characteristics; the indoor environment; time and activity levels spent outside; use of respiratory protection; and the knowledge, belief, and ability to reduce exposure. Understanding and addressing these factors requires a broad array of specialties, including atmospheric science and chemistry, forestry and fire science, building and aerosol science, epidemiology and health effects research, air quality monitoring, risk communication, and social science.

Because there is no one federal office, department or agency with the expertise to address all facets of smoke exposure, collaboration across multiple entities is necessary. However, because coordination across agencies is often not formalized or even funded, projects are scattered across the federal science agencies, often with experts from multiple offices collaborating as needed on an ad hoc basis. 

Consequently, information about how federal entities are addressing the impacts of wildland fire smoke is scattered across dozens of agency websites and hundreds of public reports. Without a comprehensive accounting of federal action on wildland fire smoke, it may be difficult for researchers, grantees, and policymakers to collaborate across the landscape, diagnose inefficiencies, and propose innovative solutions. It may also be challenging for communities to know where to turn when seeking knowledge and tools for responding to the rising smoke threat.

Importantly, federal wildland fire smoke efforts are often distinct from wildfire management strategies. The latter do not usually consider potential smoke impacts when prioritizing initial attacks or determining suppression strategies. Rather, land managers are generally more focused on addressing future wildfire smoke impacts by using beneficial fire in hopes it will reduce future wildfire smoke emissions. 

To answer the question, “What is the federal government doing about wildland fire smoke, and who’s doing it?” we conducted an analysis of public-facing materials to understand a broad suite of federal wildland fire smoke activities. Then, we grouped them into four main categories of action: research; guidance preparation and dissemination; situational awareness; and direct community assistance. Finally, we identified opportunity areas for additional federal action to improve health outcomes for the most vulnerable. Note that this analysis is based on publicly available information to the best of our knowledge at time of publication. It may not encompass all wildland fire smoke efforts at all agencies.

 More about this analysis can be found at the end of this report.

Research

The most cross-cutting federal wildland fire smoke effort is research. Numerous agencies are conducting and participating in studies dedicated to smoke composition, movement, measurement, health impacts, climate change implications, and ways to mitigate public exposure. (For a sense of scale, see “Wildland Fire Smoke in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” Published in late 2022, the assessment runs 346 pages and outlines research efforts dedicated to understanding wildland fire smoke and its impacts.)   

Scientists from land management (USFS, BLM, NPS), earth sciences (NOAA, NASA, USGS), health (CDC, EPA), and other (DOE, DoD, DHS, NIST ) agencies all take part in wildland fire smoke research, with frequent collaboration across agencies and offices (e.g. FASMEE and FIREX-AQ, below). In addition, federal agencies frequently partner with state, local, Tribal, university, international and nongovernmental partners. The federal government also sponsors wildland fire smoke research and innovation at universities and other non-governmental organizations, with federal grants coming from NSF, NIH, EPA, DoD, CDC-NIOSH, USFS and DOI (via the Joint Fire Sciences Program), HRSA, NASA, NOAA, and others.

Insights from these efforts inform public health guidance, improve smoke forecasting and communication, and may help the federal government develop meaningful policies and procedures to mitigate current and future smoke impacts.

There are far too many research efforts to summarize, even at a high level. See this table for an overview of where federal agencies and offices intersect with research topics. Below are some selected highlights:

FASMEE and FIREX-AQ

FASMEE (primary agency: USFS) and FIREX-AQ (primary agencies: NOAA and NASA) are large-scale, multi-year collaborative research efforts that combine data from satellite, aerial and ground measurements to improve our understanding of fire behavior and the resulting smoke’s movement, composition and impacts. An important end goal of these efforts is improved smoke modeling. Smoke modeling  will help alert communities to future smoke impacts and help land managers plan prescribed fires to minimize smoke impacts.

EPA

In addition to participating in the above smoke modeling projects, the EPA conducts and participates in an array of wildland fire smoke research.  EPA’s wildland fire smoke research catalog includes work on health effects, interventions, and risk communication to reduce smoke exposure, pollution monitoring, and characterizing smoke pollution chemistry and concentrations (i.e. smoke “emissions”). Some recent projects include an evaluation of DIY air cleaners, a characterization of emissions from fires in the wildland urban interface, an analysis of indoor air quality in commercial buildings during smoke events, and development of a community health vulnerability index for wildland fire smoke.

Joint Fire Science Program

The Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) is funded by DOI and USFS. Since its establishment in 1998, JFSP has invested more than $25 million in wildland fire smoke research conducted by agency and nonfederal partners. JFSP also hosts the Fire Science Exchange Network to provide “the most  relevant, current wildland fire science information to federal, state, local, tribal, and private stakeholders within ecologically similar regions.”

Wildland Urban Interface Fires

Smoke from burning vegetation is composed of toxic chemicals. As more fires burn into the wildland urban interface (WUI), concern is mounting about additional harm from burning metals, plastics and other artificial components in the built environment. To better understand smoke in the WUI, NIST, NIEHS, and the CDC sponsored the 2022 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) consensus study report: The Chemistry of Fires at the Wildland Urban Interface, which “evaluates existing and needed chemistry information that decision-makers can use to mitigate WUI fires and their potential health impacts.” One of the knowledge gaps identified in the report is a characterization of the amount and type of pollutants generated when fires burn homes, vehicles, and other anthropogenic materials. To begin addressing this gap, EPA recently compiled emission factors for hazardous air pollutants that may be found in WUI fires.  And, while much of NIST’s work in fire has been focused on residential and commercial structure fires, the agency has started modeling WUI and landscape fires and researched how smoke may impact evacuations.

NASA Health Research

A (perhaps unexpected) source of wildfire smoke public health research funding is NASA. While much of NASA’s wildland fire smoke research efforts revolve around atmospheric science and the physical characteristics of smoke, NASA has been funding Health and Air Quality Applied Science Team (HAQAST) projects since 2016 as part of its Applied Science program. Not all HAQAST projects involve wildland fire smoke, but NASA recently funded a project examining the health burden of the 2017 wildfires in California. NASA also recently funded a study examining the impact of smoke from Alaska wildfires on respiratory and cardiovascular health.

Wildland Firefighter Exposure

Among those most exposed to wildland fire smoke are wildland firefighters. Recent research by CDC-NIOSH (in collaboration with USFS and DOI) aims to understand the impacts of repeated smoke exposure on wildland firefighter health. This will build on previous USFS and JSFP research on wildland firefighter smoke exposure. Because wildland firefighters often do not have access to adequate respiratory protection for their occupation, DHS is funding efforts by an industry partner to develop a respirator to meet these firefighters’ unique needs. 

Guidance preparation and dissemination

When wildland fire smoke enters a community, residents need to know about health risks and how they can limit their exposure. Federal public health agencies (EPA and CDC) have largely assumed the task of preparing wildland fire smoke guidance and providing it to the public and to state, local, and Tribal agencies. 

The following is a broad summary of the federal government’s guidance preparation and dissemination efforts at the time of publication.

Resources for Public Health Officials and Physicians

EPA’s comprehensive Wildfire Fire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials (developed in collaboration with experts from CDC, USFS, and non-federal partners) addresses health concerns, outdoor activities, indoor air quality, respirators, interpreting air quality data, protecting vulnerable persons, pets and livestock, and more. Because medical training does not typically cover air pollution health impacts, EPA and CDC have created a course for physicians and other medical professionals so they can better prepare their patients for wildland fire smoke events.  

Resources for the Public

EPA and CDC also provide fact sheets by topic that are available for public dissemination. CDC-NIOSH has guidance available for protecting outdoor workers from smoke and, as the certifying body for respirators, provides the public and workers with information about respirator selection and use. 

Resources for Communities

EPA has compiled resources for communities into their Smoke Ready Toolbox, which serves as a catchall for interested persons to learn about smoke and how they can protect themselves and their community. In addition, both EPA and CDC have created resources targeted at children to help them navigate fires and smoke.Experts from multiple federal agencies contribute to the creation of guidance; however, outside the health agencies, few federal agencies provide that guidance to the communities their programs serve. When they do, it is often buried as a blog post or news post rather than a static page. There are some limited exceptions: NPS and FEMA include information on their websites about respirators for the public in the event of wildland fire smoke; USFS provides smoke preparedness information on the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and the Wildfire Risk to Communities sites; DHS provides information about respirators and indoor air quality on Ready.gov; and the DoD provides a fact sheet for military personnel about wildland fire smoke (though it has incomplete health impact information and does not include recommendations related to clean indoor air).

A white truck drives alongside a column of smoke during the 2017 Jones Fire.

Wildland fire smoke is a chemical stew. 

Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

Situational awareness/monitoring

To prepare for and respond to wildland fire smoke, the public and decision makers need to know current and projected smoke levels. Multiple federal agencies work to provide air quality monitoring data,  smoke forecasts, and satellite imagery to the public, and their efforts rely on frequent interagency collaboration and data sharing. 

The following is a broad summary of the federal government’s situational awareness efforts. 

Air Quality Monitoring

Air quality monitoring data provides real-time information about how much smoke is currently impacting communities.

Real time air quality monitoring data allow the public to understand current conditions.  EPA, USFS, NPS and state, local and Tribal air pollution control programs deploy and maintain particulate pollution monitors that can measure the PM2.5 levels in wildland fire smoke. EPA provides access to PM2.5 air monitoring data from permanent monitors across the country via Airnow.gov and its apps. For wildfires, however, the agency directs the public to the Fire and Smoke Map. This map is a public-facing collaboration between EPA and USFS that provides near real-time data about both smoke pollution and fires based on the user’s location. The Fire and Smoke Map incorporates air quality data from permanent monitors, temporary monitors, and Purple Air sensors; heat detections from NOAA and NASA satellites; fire information from the National Interagency Fire Center; smoke forecast from the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program; and smoke plume overlays from NOAA’s Hazard Mapping System.

EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index provides the public with pollution severity indicators and associated protective measures, which allows individuals and decision makers to understand current health risks and implement exposure reduction strategies.

Satellite Imagery and Heat Detections

Satellite imagery shows current smoke conditions and smoke movement as fires burn across the landscape. Satellite-based heat detections show real time fire activity and can be used by smoke forecasters to anticipate smoke production. These data are also incorporated into smoke models discussed below.

Science agencies including NOAA and NASA provide satellite imagery and analysis to scientists and the public for near real-time pollutant monitoring, smoke plume tracking, and fire detection. 

Smoke Forecasting

Smoke forecasts in the form of models and narratives provide information about how much smoke is expected to impact an area. Multiple agencies contribute expertise or funding to smoke modeling work, including NOAA, EPA, USFS, NIST, DOE, NASA, and DoD. 

NOAA develops smoke forecasting models such as HRRR Smoke and RRFS Smoke, and provides air quality forecasting guidance. Forecasters with NOAA’s National Weather Service issue air quality alerts on behalf of air pollution control agencies and sometimes include projected smoke impacts in their narrative forecasts. 

USFS led the creation of the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, which embeds Air Resource Advisors (ARAs) into teams of officials managing active wildfires (known as incident management teams). The USFS gathers ARAs from an array of federal agencies (including USFS, NPS, and EPA), state, Tribal and local governments, and the private sector. ARAs provide daily smoke outlooks to the public and incident management teams and deploy air quality monitors. USFS also created the BlueSky smoke modeling framework, which supports ARA efforts and is available to the public. USFS incorporates EPA’s CMAQ smoke model into BlueSky’s framework to provide daily smoke projections.

Direct community assistance

With no end in sight to repeated smoke exposures and research showing that a significant amount of smoke comes indoors, there is growing recognition that communities need to prepare for smoke not only outside but also in their homes, schools, and businesses. This necessitates upgrading existing building filtration and ventilation systems, distributing air cleaners to vulnerable community members, having respirators available for outdoor workers, setting up respite cleaner air shelters, and more. 

Federal agencies such as EPA and USFS encourage the creation of smoke-ready communities, but so far, direct community assistance in the form of monetary or expert technical assistance has been limited.  Unlike hazards such as flood and fire, there are no smoke-specific community resilience grants available from FEMA, and smoke-related efforts are not explicitly included among FEMA’s eligible fire-mitigation projects. 

This section describes federal community assistance efforts currently underway to address wildland fire smoke.  

EPA

EPA has provided technical assistance to communities interested in turning schools into neighborhood cleaner air and cooling centers. They have also partnered with USFS to help two counties develop smoke preparedness plans as part of a research study. EPA recently launched the Wildfire Smoke Preparedness in Community Buildings Grant Program, which provides eligible entities a chance at a part of $10.67 million to improve public health protection against wildland fire smoke. The agency anticipates funding 13-18 projects. 

While EPA’s Environmental Justice Grant program is not specifically targeted at wildland fire smoke, some communities have successfully applied for EPA Environmental Justice Grants to implement smoke-preparedness projects. 

EPA also maintains an air sensor loan program to assist communities seeking more information about local air quality impacts, including from wildland fire smoke.

USFS

As a significant step forward in acknowledging smoke as a wildfire hazard, USFS now includes smoke-ready planning and implementation projects as eligible for Community Wildfire Defense Grants (CWDGs), which fund community wildfire fire protection plan (CWPP) development and revision as well as implementation of projects identified in existing CWPPs. However, USFS’s requirement that all implementation projects be identified in pre-existing CWPPs is a significant hurdle for accomplishing community smoke preparedness under the CWDG. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 that drove the creation of CWPPs prioritizes hazardous fuel treatments and reducing structure ignitions. HFRA makes no mention of smoke, and smoke preparedness is not included in existing CWPP guidance. Unsurprisingly, out of $197 million awarded to 100 projects in March 2023, only a single funded CWDG project mentioned smoke preparedness in its CWPP planning project summary. No funded implementation projects include smoke preparedness efforts. (It is possible successfully funded CWPP updates will result in smoke preparedness planning that was not included in the short project summaries available online.) 

CDC

The CDC provides Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) funding to state, local, and territorial public health departments. The PHEP program is designed to “strengthen national preparedness for public health emergencies including natural, biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear incidents.” While PHEP funds are not targeted specifically for wildland fire smoke response or preparedness, they are designed for flexibility and have been successfully used to purchase air purifiers and HEPA filters. In 2017, the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD) in Missoula, Montana overdrew its PHEP budget to purchase air purifiers for communities hit with hazardous smoke. The following year, MCCHD used PHEP funds to purchase replacement HEPA filters and additional air purifiers.

American Rescue Plan Funding for Schools

In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocated billions of dollars to “keep schools safely open” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can use ARPA Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which the Department of Education administers to states and school districts, can be used to support HVAC and filtration improvements in schools. In fact, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on HVAC upgrades using these funds. 

While these ESSER funds are focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19, filters recommended for the fine particles in wildland fire smoke are the same ones recommended for viruses. Consequently, schools that upgrade their filtration using these funds (and in accordance with EPA or ASHRAE guidance) will also likely be better protected from wildland fire smoke. While there are many factors beyond filtration that impact indoor air quality, HVAC maintenance and filter upgrades are important interventions.

A Note About Beneficial Fire

A growing push is underway to restore ecosystem balance and reduce hazardous fuel buildup via beneficial fire, which includes cultural fires, prescribed fires, and wildfires with ecosystem benefits that are controlled but allowed to burn. These interventions, in addition to more frequent and intense wildfires, will mean additional smoke creation for years to come. 

The drive to put more fire on the ground is aimed at reducing the severity of future fires and protecting “communities, critical infrastructure, watersheds, habitats, and recreational areas.”  Additionally, a small but growing body of research is suggesting prescribed fire may reduce future wildland fire smoke emissions. Unsurprisingly, studies project less smoke impacts from prescribed burns than would be seen from a wildfire in the same place (which generally consume more fuels and produce more smoke). 

This is a nuanced discussion, since beneficial fire creates its own smoke and there is no guarantee a wildfire will occur in a burned area before the benefits from the prescribed fire wear out and require a reburn. Prescribed fires also don’t protect communities from all future smoke impacts. An area treated with prescribed fire can still burn; even if it doesn’t, communities can still be impacted by wildfire smoke that has traveled from a fire burning thousands of miles away. In addition, questions remain about the public health impacts from prescribed fire, and much is needed to be done to protect communities from prescribed fire smoke, particularly at the scale needed to address the wildfire crisis. Recent studies from Australia have indicated health impacts from prescribed fire smoke can sometimes exceed that from wildfire smoke, and if climate change continues to worsen, the increased health burden of wildfire smoke will “undermine prescribed burning effectiveness.” 

Still, if prescribed burns can limit fire duration and severity, they will lead to less smoke overall than if they had not been conducted. Wildfires may also progress more slowly across the landscape if they encounter patches of land previously treated with prescribed fire, buying more time for response and producing less smoke overall. As a result, prescribed burning is considered a tool in the arsenal to reduce future wildland fire smoke impacts. While this may be promising, currently, reduced future smoke is more a side benefit of prescribed fire rather than an objective for the burns. Most prescribed burns are planned for community fire protections and ecosystem benefits rather than reducing the probability of long duration smoke events impacting communities. Agencies conducting prescribed burning include USFS, BLM, BIA, NPS, FWS, and DoD.

Several of the topic areas described above are conducted by the federal government in support of prescribed fire.

The federal effort to protect the populace from wildland fire smoke health impacts are made difficult because exposure to wildland fire smoke is influenced by many factors.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Opportunities

The federal government has shown interest in better understanding smoke and its potential impacts on United States residents. However, there are gaps in federal actions and resulting opportunities that, if taken, could lead to stronger protections from the known health impacts of wildland fire smoke. If the government takes a more proactive role in reducing public exposure to smoke, future fire seasons may bring less illness and death.

Policy to Protect Vulnerable Populations

Notably, policies or rules to protect workers or school children are not on the list of federal smoke-related actions. The federal government is investing heavily in smoke research, situational awareness, and hazardous fuels mitigation but has thus far not implemented rules mandating protection from unhealthy air quality. As a result, states have stepped in with piecemeal protections, and a person’s level of regulatory protection depends on their jurisdiction.

Currently, only California and Oregon mandate employers protect workers from wildland fire smoke. (Washington is in the process of finalizing a similar rulemaking to replace an emergency rule that expired in September 2022.) Protections vary among these states based on air quality, work environment, and enforcement. 

This fragmented landscape could be rectified by a federal requirement to limit worker wildland fire smoke exposure. In a 2022 consensus study report, a NASEM committee recommended OSHA set standards for wildfire smoke exposure and mandate employers protect workers. As part of that report, the committee also recommended that Congress expand OSHA’s authority to cover “unpaid volunteers, family members of farm employees, domestic workers in residential settings, gig workers, and many workers now categorized as independent contractors,” all of whom are not currently protected under OSHA authority.

While there are no EPA or OSHA indoor air quality standards for particulate matter or wildland fire smoke, ASHRAE is preparing guidance for commercial buildings that localities can adopt to better protect indoor workers and school children from smoke’s harmful effects. (Formerly known as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, ASHRAE develops and publishes standards and guidance for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry.) In 2021, ASHRAE released a framework for commercial buildings and schools to protect occupants from wildland fire smoke. At time of publication, ASHRAE’s formal guidance, Guideline 44-202x: Protecting Building Occupants from Smoke During Wildfire and Prescribed Burn Events, is available for public review. Experts from several federal agencies (EPA, NIST, CDC-NIOSH, GSA) are members of the ASHRAE committee that created the forthcoming guidance.  States and localities can adopt or encourage the adoption of this guidance to help their communities better prepare for smoke events.

Funding and Legislation for Community Assistance

While FEMA provides multiple funding opportunities for pre-and-post fire hazard mitigation work, wildland fire smoke is not identified as a hazard that can trigger a federal emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and FEMA does not currently fund wildland fire smoke mitigation projects. The S.2387 Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2023 aims to address this by authorizing the President to declare a smoke emergency and enable FEMA and other federal agencies to “provide emergency assistance to states and local communities that are or will be affected by the emergency, including grants, equipment, supplies, and personnel and resources for establishing smoke shelters, air purifiers, and additional air monitoring sites.“  

Another introduced bill, the Cleaner Air Spaces Act of 2023, would direct $30 million to air pollution control agencies via EPA grants for smoke preparedness activities.  

In fact, multiple bills have been recently introduced in Congress to address community wildland fire smoke protections and smoke forecasting. None of these bills have made it out of committee as of publication.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to analyze proposed legislation. However, effective community assistance will require additional resources. While the federal government has shown interest in helping communities, a lack of dedicated funding means state, local and Tribal governments interested in smoke-readiness must mine their own budgets, apply for competitive grants from government and nonprofit organizations, and occasionally solicit donations to protect vulnerable community members.  As a result, a community’s wildland fire smoke protection often depends on the capacity of state and local government staff and nonprofit partners to apply for grants. 

In rural areas, that capacity can be particularly hard to come by. For example, the five-person Central Montana Health District provides public health services for five counties. Also in Montana, the single public health nurse for Granite County is based out of neighboring Deer Lodge County. Communities without persons able to engage in the competitive funding environment for wildland fire smoke response will have lesser public health protections.

Local health departments and air pollution control programs receive federal funding, but it is already too little for the programs to function without additional grants and state and local support. Public health has long been chronically underfunded in the United States., and local health departments do not have the resources on hand to deal with the added threat posed by increasing wildland fire smoke. The federal government is investing billions of dollars to address fuel buildup in our forests in the hope it will lead to reduced catastrophic fire and smoke. Programmatic funding to help communities prepare now for smoke could go a long way to reducing impacts from the smoke we are currently experiencing.

Improved Respirators for the Public

Several agencies recommend the public use NIOSH-certified N95 respirators to protect themselves from the fine particulate matter in wildland fire smoke. However, these respirators are designed for workers, not the public. A 2022 NASEM consensus study report sponsored by EPA, CDC, DOS, and the CDC Foundation identified several shortcomings of N95s as the only respirator for public use, including comfort, limited sizing, incompatibility with facial hair, and incompatibility with some outdoor occupations, such as wildland firefighting.  Also, in a work environment with a respiratory protection program, workers undergo a “fit test” to ensure the respirator seals tightly to their face and, when used correctly, will provide the promised protection. The NASEM committee recommended the government establish a research and approval program to guide the development of innovative respiratory protective devices designed for a wide range of public users, including infants, children, and the frail elderly that can provide adequate protection in absence of formal fit testing.

As a positive step toward following some of the NASEM report’s recommendations, NIOSH (collaborating with NASA and Capital Consulting Corporation) recently launched a crowd-sourcing competition to improve respirator fit evaluations and make them more user-friendly for the public. However, there remain many recommendations in the NASEM report that the federal government could take on to improve the public and workers’ protections from wildland fire smoke.

Improved/Comprehensive Communication to Inform the Public About Health Risks and Mitigation Strategies

This review of publicly available information about the federal government’s engagement with wildland fire smoke took us through hundreds of websites and publications. A significant amount of work has gone into characterizing wildland fire smoke movement and identifying prescribed burning windows. Work is also being done to understand the tradeoffs of prescribed fire and wildfire smoke emissions. Meanwhile, significant efforts have been put toward understanding the health and economic burden of wildland fire smoke and how we can better protect people from its harms. 

During wildfires, smoke is treated as a hazard across agencies, and the public receives information about how to protect themselves from its impacts. During prescribed fires, the smoke is treated as more of a nuisance or a throwaway concern from land management agencies. News releases about upcoming prescribed fires may mention smoke being visible or present over roadways, but rarely include any recommendations for protective measures the public can take to minimize potential health impacts. Meanwhile, the USFS Wildfire Crisis Strategy documents lean heavily on the need for more prescribed fire, but do not mention the impact from prescribed fire smoke on the public.

In addition, there are many government sites and documents with advice for reducing wildfire risk and creating fire adapted communities (FACs), but often, this advice is limited to protection from flames. (Of note, on the USFS FAC site, the only mention of smoke states: “Fuel reduction projects often involve smoke, so its important residents understand the value of fuel treatments and tolerate the temporary inconvenience of smoke that could reduce the long-term risk of wildfire.”)

These are missed communication opportunities. Anywhere we talk about fire, we should talk about smoke and how to stay protected from its impacts. The more the public sees the government treating smoke seriously and offering practical guidance for staying protected from its impacts, the more likely we can reduce harms from both wildfire and prescribed fire smoke and increase the amount of prescribed fire on the landscape. On a positive note, fireadapted.org, run by the Fire Adapted Communities Network (which counts several federal agencies and collaborations among its members), includes public health and smoke concerns as a key component to fire preparedness. 

The EPA, CDC and partner agencies have done the work to create actionable guidance for the public. Anywhere the government writes about wildland fire, it should include the health risks associated with the smoke and the steps the public can take to prepare.The government and media will often breathlessly recount the number of homes lost to fire, but data relaying the number of deaths and illnesses caused by wildland fire smoke are generally missing from public discourse. Too often, this information is relegated to estimates in academic journals and increases in odds and relative risk ratios that are not lay friendly. A recent FAS policy recommendation would see the CDC and EPA create a nationwide data dashboard showing mortality and morbidity attributed to wildland fire smoke.  This type of data, presented clearly to the public, could help policy makers and the public better understand the significant harms of wildland fire smoke, which would hopefully lead to more investment in community protections on both the federal and local level.

Conclusion

Wildland fire smoke is a health threat that will return year after year. More wildlands and more homes will burn, and residents across the country will bear that burden via smoke that pools in valleys and travels thousands of miles. The federal government has shown interest in understanding and forecasting wildland fire smoke, and many agencies are taking part in researching smoke’s health impacts and relaying guidance to the public. However, there remain significant funding gaps, both for agency actions and for community assistance. Despite annual death tolls in the thousands, smoke from wildland fires takes a backseat in many fire-oriented federal discussions (for example, EPA and CDC only recently gained seats on the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, which has been around for decades). Hopefully, this will begin to change. The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, tasked by Congress to form “federal policy recommendations and strategies on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress and recover from wildfires,” is expected to release their recommendations this fall. With a workgroup focused on public health, we look forward to seeing how the Commission recommends improving the government’s response to the wildland fire smoke crisis.


Impact Fellow Sarah Coefield contributed to this issue brief during her residency at FAS and prior to beginning her assignment at the Environmental Protection Agency.


About This Analysis

NOTE 1: This investigation did not dive into budgetary expenditures, which likely vary widely among agencies. For many agencies, wildland fire smoke work is more tangential to their overall mission. In addition, for EPA, at least, wildland fire smoke work is conducted on the side without a dedicated funding source or staff position.

NOTE 2: This is only an overview of activities by the federal United States government. State, local, Tribal, university, nonprofit and international experts are active in the wildland fire space and contribute significantly to the breadth of wildland fire smoke knowledge and efforts to protect public health.

NOTE 3: This analysis is based on publicly available information to the best of our knowledge at time of publication. It may not encompass all wildland fire smoke efforts at all agencies.

Acronyms: 

Six hot opportunity areas to beat the heat through federal policy

Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer of Americans, yet receives minimal targeted federal support and dedicated funding for planning, mitigation, and recovery.

This summer, 130 million Americans were placed under some type of heat alert. National records for heat continue to be shattered each month, with July estimated to be the hottest month recorded on Earth. This relentless heat will continue to affect millions of Americans in August and for every summer to come. 

Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer of Americans, yet receives minimal targeted federal support and dedicated funding for planning, mitigation, and recovery. Unlike other weather-related disasters, the consequences of extreme heat are hard to respond to and challenging to account for under current federal law. For starters, the Stafford Act does not consider extreme heat to be a Major Disaster (Sec. 102), barring sufficient coordinated federal action. Further, extreme heat is not only risky to infrastructure, like our power grids, roads, and homes, but also has devastating direct impacts on public health.

Prolonged exposure to extreme heat increases the risk of developing potentially fatal heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke where the human body reaches dangerously high internal temperatures. If a person cannot cool down, especially when the nights bring no relief from the heat, this high core temperature can result in organ failure, cognitive damage, and death. These human health impacts are harder to account for in benefit-cost analyses that drive disaster preparedness funding allocations. Extreme heat is a crisis that impacts everyone. However, certain populations are more vulnerable to the increased health risks from heat, including older adults, outdoor workers, those with preexisting health conditions, low income communities, and people experiencing homelessness. 

Extreme heat also creates conditions that increase the likelihood and severity of other natural hazards, such as droughts and wildfires, further threatening public health. These compounding disasters put a major strain on national and global agricultural systems and threaten food security. This is particularly true for low-income communities as “heatflation” makes staple foods more unaffordable. 

We can better prevent, manage, and recover from extreme heat. With increased federal attention towards the effects of extreme heat and climate adaptation and resilience, there is an opportunity to take action. Federal policy can be a powerful lever of systems change, ensuring better coordination across federal agencies, state and local governments, and public and private sectors to beat the heat.

Starting now, the Federation of American Scientists is launching an Open Call for Extreme Heat Policy Ideas to source policy solutions to improve how the federal government coordinates a comprehensive response to heat. FAS is collecting ideas throughout Fall 2023 to prepare effectively for the next heat season. More information can be found by following this link.

FAS has completed a preliminary diagnosis of six opportunity areas for innovative extreme heat policy ideas that can make the most substantial impact on American heat resiliency: Infrastructure, Workforce, Public Health, Food Security, Planning and Management, and Data and Indices.

Infrastructure

Many Americans offset heat through increasing their use of air conditioning. Yet, this creates many issues, including the risk of overloading our electrical grids, equity concerns surrounding who has continuous access to air conditioning, and variance in the effectiveness of different air conditioning units. 1 in 4 Americans experience energy insecurity which puts them at risk of energy shut-offs, and Americans at large hold $19.3 billion in energy debt as of March 2023.

Further, AC units fail to address fundamental issues in infrastructure, such as the poor design of buildings or lack of building codes that specify maximum temperature inside buildings. A study done by CAPA Strategies and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management on heat in public housing found that even units with AC saw observed temperatures consistently greater than 80℉, putting the health of residents at risk. Even more alarming, research has projected that in the event of a multi-day blackout during a heatwave, the heat-related mortality rate in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Detroit would increase dramatically. In Phoenix, more than 50% of the urban population would require medical attention. This calls into question an AC-only heat mitigation strategy. Rather, how we design and build our infrastructure can make our communities more heat resilient. 

Extreme heat presents multiple challenges to our current infrastructure, including concerns over grid and transportation resilience, lack of building codes for heat, lack of well-researched passive cooling technologies (i.e. non-air conditioning) to combat heat, and urban planning and design to beat the heat. Infrastructure investments, such as increasing grid resilience and creating more urban green space and nature-based solutions, can serve as preventive measures to keep communities cool as temperatures continue to rise. 

With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, several federal agencies have created programs that could address infrastructure concerns surrounding extreme heat. 

While these programs provide necessary support and funding to address infrastructure concerns, multiple gaps still persist. First, federal agencies may have capital but are not coordinated in their approach to addressing extreme heat and proactively building community resilience to heat. The Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience Interagency Working Group has found difficulties in interagency coordination of notices of funding opportunities, place-based engagement for deployment of funds, direct technical assistance to communities, and maintenance of continuous sources of funding along a project’s timeline (i.e. ensure once infrastructure is built that there are people to upkeep passive infrastructure such as green spaces or people to staff active infrastructure like cooling centers). Without strategy and clarity for how communities should proceed and what they should invest in, there will be no sustainable change in infrastructure across the nation. 

Second, nuances in specific programs and the way grants are chosen through benefit-cost analysis (i.e. greater value to property damage over harder to quantify measures like impacts on human lives) may limit funding that goes to projects specifically focused on extreme heat. For example, while communities have been told that FEMA’s BRIC can fund extreme heat resilience, BRIC grant applications have been repeatedly rejected for extreme heat-related projects, a consequence of the “cost-effective” statute for BRIC. Even if a cooling center is approved, BRIC money cannot staff the center in the event of a disaster. 

Third, many jurisdictions around the country lack building codes that specify a maximum indoor temperature inside buildings as well as required strategies to mitigate extreme heat – contributing to heightened risk for individuals developing heat-related illnesses.  

Workforce

Rising temperatures place many members of the workforce, such as farmworkers and construction workers, at increased risk for heat-related illnesses. Extreme heat also leads to immense losses in workplace productivity, with research estimating a total annual loss of $100 billion to the U.S. economy. Without any measures to address the impacts of extreme heat in the future, this figure could double to $200 billion by 2030 and $500 billion by 2050. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor recently released a heat hazard alert which provides information to employers about how they should be protecting employees in extreme heat conditions as well as information on employees’ rights. With recent direction from the White House, OSHA will also increase its inspections and enforcement of violations in industries at higher risk for extreme heat, such as agriculture. Yet, OSHA is historically under-resourced in its ability to effectively carry out inspections and enforcement, with each inspector now responsible for securing the rights of 200,000 workers. 

This under-resourcing extends to OSHA’s ability to create a national standard for protection against extreme heat which is still years off from implementation. This leaves employee protection to state-level standards. Some states, including California and Oregon, have issued heat standards to protect workers. Yet, other states, such as Texas, have eliminated the requirement for employers to provide basic safety measures like water breaks. In this current system, employees are being put at significant risk. Providing employees consistent breaks for water and shade while working in extreme heat conditions is a simple way to mitigate these risks while lowering costs of workers’ compensation for employers in the event of a work-exposure related heat illness. 

Public Health

Each summer, extreme heat can cost the healthcare industry upwards of $1 billion dollars. Exposure to extreme heat, and often accompanying high humidity, can cause multiple heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The risks of developing severe symptoms are heightened by social and environmental factors, such as lack of access to air conditioning, shade, or transportation to medical centers. Individual factors, including types of medication being taken, can also increase sensitivity towards heat. Further, rising temperatures exacerbate negative mental health outcomes, such as fatigue and aggression

When patients with a heat-illness are admitted to the hospital, there are numerous limitations with coordination and response. Diagnostic codes, used for insurance claims, exist for heat-related illness. However, physicians may not recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and instead diagnose and assign other related codes, such as dehydration. Therefore, patients may not be properly diagnosed and treated. This also leads to significant underreporting of the effects of extreme heat on health. 

Quick coordination and response by health care professionals is critical in preventing long-term damage. A nationwide survey by Americares found that less than 20% of staff in clinics feel that their clinics are “very resilient” to extreme weather. During the Northwest Heat Dome in 2021, a lack of coordinated public health preparation led to 229 deaths, more than any other disaster that year. In order to increase preparedness and timely response, it is essential for the public health workforce to be educated on best practices in responding to heat-illnesses. For example, after the Northwest Heat Dome, Seattle has begun to implement new plans for hospitals to meet to review best practices if extreme heat is forecasted, including checking whether centers have ice and body bags available. 

Extreme heat can also have unexpected consequences on public health. For instance, extreme heat creates favorable conditions for infectious disease carriers, such as ticks and fungal spores, to exist in areas of the country where they were historically unable to survive. Transmission of disease is also more likely as people congregate in community hubs, such as cooling centers or beaches. 

As heat waves become more frequent and intense across the nation, it’s critical to create standardized coordination efforts. The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity serves as a resource hub, producing a seasonal Climate and Health Outlook and the new Heat-Related Emergency Medical Services Activation Surveillance Dashboard. Yet, they are not federally funded and are therefore limited in their capacity to coordinate heat and health resilience. In terms of public health preparedness resources, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative can only support nine states, one city, and one county, despite 40 jurisdictions having applied. The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) found increasing funding from $10 million to $110 million is required to support all states, and improve climate surveillance. 

The threat of extreme heat speaks to a critical need for a funded agency or office to take a leadership role in the following three efforts: 1) strengthening holistic natural disaster resiliency and response efforts within the healthcare and public health sectors through interagency collaboration 2) orchestrating and supporting efforts to close information gaps, synthesize data, and identify practical applications of information on natural disasters and climate threats and 3) coordinate efforts to develop communication and education on climate-related health threats. 

Food Security

Extreme heat and its exacerbation of other natural hazards, including droughts, can have a significant impact on our agricultural productivity and food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the impact of large-scale emergencies on our national and global food supply chains and distribution systems. 

Increases in temperature may directly cause a reduction in crop growth and agricultural yields by affecting plants’ growth cycle. Rising temperatures affect livestock, potentially leading to increased mortality and reduced production of certain products, such as milk and eggs. It also impacts the way food can be stored and transported. Changes in food supply can ultimately increase the costs of certain foods and thus may not be affordable for everyone, particularly low-income populations. 

Extreme heat also contributes to the creation of favorable conditions for droughts, increasing the risk for crop failure. For instance, in Texas and the Midwest, extended droughts are causing farmers to be concerned about their agricultural yields and placing too heavy of a reliance on irrigation systems. Over a thousand communities are currently under disaster designation by the USDA this summer because of extended drought exacerbated by extreme heat.

It is critical for resources to be devoted to the research and development of strategies to improve the heat resilience of crops and livestock given the economic unsustainability of evergreen emergency disaster assistance. A report by the Perry World House Center recommended specific strategies including restorative agriculture practices, diversifying crop production, and learning from indigenous agricultural practices. The US Department of Agriculture’s Climate Hubs provide information on climate resilience to inform decision-making by natural resource and agricultural managers – and would benefit from additional appropriations. Additionally, the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities is investing $1 billion into financing pilot projects that use climate-smart practices, yet no projects focus explicitly on extreme heat resiliency. 

Planning and Management

Despite its immense impacts, extreme heat is not considered a hazard that can trigger a federal emergency declaration under the Stafford Act. Many agencies, such as the Department of Interior and Housing and Urban Development, are not able to unlock funds without an emergency declaration and supplemental appropriations from Congress, illustrating the need to create more active resilience measures for these agencies to strategically act on extreme heat. 

The lack of specific staff within agencies and overarching federal leadership for heat resilience, response, and recovery limits an effective and coordinated response. Communities need agencies to have the tools, guidance, and technical assistance needed for implementation of extreme heat resilience. Lastly, having no federal office with national responsibility for extreme heat presents a major risk as certain parts of the country reach the upper limits of human habitability despite all resilience efforts triggering potentially destabilizing internal climate migrations.

Within local and state governments, there is often no specific agency or officer responsible for heat. Currently, only a handful of local jurisdictions are beginning to experiment with different organizational structures to address heat, such as the appointment of a designated Chief Heat Officer in Miami-Dade, Florida. On the state and local level, there is a lack of research into which organizational structure is most effective and efficient at extreme heat mitigation and response. In addition, there’s no incentive from the federal government for local jurisdictions to create effective heat response personnel. 

Finally, many states and local jurisdictions fail to plan for heat as a part of their Hazard Mitigation Plans, often required by FEMA to unlock disaster preparedness and recovery investments. Yet, there are currently no best practices on how to plan and respond, beyond high-level, non-specific guidance documents from the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency, leaving each city to create their own plans of action.

Data and Indices

While heat blankets entire regions, its impacts are not felt equitably across the population. Urban heat island effects can make parts of cities far hotter – thus worsening the disaster for people residing in these zones. Further, there is a lack of consensus over how to name, categorize, and communicate the severity of extreme heat events. Heat is very context dependent. Temperature is not the only consideration in determining the severity of heat. Levels of humidity are an integral factor in determining the extent to which the human body can control internal temperature. 

Inadequate data collection can result in underestimating the severity of heat, particularly in urban neighborhoods. Localized factors, including neighborhood design and the infrastructure of individual buildings can exacerbate the severity and consequences of heat. Within one city or local jurisdiction, data for heat can vary by multiple degrees. When these temperatures are not accurately accounted for, it can contribute to lack of efficient planning and emergency management. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Center for Disease Control created the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) to provide tools and information on extreme heat. While NIHHIS produces useful information, such as the vulnerability mapping tool and urban heat island mapping campaign with the EPA, there is still a gap in applying this information and connecting localities with useful data and information on which strategies are most effective at combating extreme heat. Since this issue is dependent on context and locality, it’s crucial to have a system that collects nuanced data that tracks all of the impacts of extreme heat. 

Issues in communicating extreme heat’s severity arise because different heat indices use different standards and ultimately communicate output at varying levels of severity. This contributes to confusion surrounding what temperatures should constitute extreme heat. For instance, heat index calculations are a common measurement that take humidity into account. However, the formula assumes that people are resting in the shade. On the other hand, Wet Bulb Globe temperature calculations use direct sunshine measurements and assume people are active. Both of these measurements assume people are healthy. Not only does this create confusion about which index to rely on, it also excludes and may underestimate the severity of heat in certain populations. Naming heat waves is one solution that’s been explored in Spain to make it easier to explain the severity of extreme heat to the public.

Extreme heat presents multiple challenges to our planning, response, and management systems. While the consequences of extreme heat can be deadly, they can be avoided with a coordinated and comprehensive federal response. If you’re feeling inspired to act, submit an idea to our Open Call for Extreme Heat Policy Ideas here.

FY24 NDAA AI Tracker

As both the House and Senate gear up to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), FAS is launching this live blog post to track all proposals around artificial intelligence (AI) that have been included in the NDAA. In this rapidly evolving field, these provisions indicate how AI now plays a pivotal role in our defense strategies and national security framework. This tracker will be updated following major updates.

Senate NDAA. This table summarizes the provisions related to AI from the version of the Senate NDAA that advanced out of committee on July 11. Links to the section of the bill describing these provisions can be found in the “section” column. Provisions that have been added in the manager’s package are in red font. Updates from Senate Appropriations committee and the House NDAA are in blue.

Senate NDAA Provisions
ProvisionSummarySection
Generative AI Detection and Watermark CompetitionDirects Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to create a competition for technology that detects and watermarks the use of generative artificial intelligence.218
DoD Prize Competitions for Business Systems ModernizationAuthorizes competitions to improve military business systems, emphasizing the integration of AI where possible.221
Broad review and update of DoD AI StrategyDirects the Secretary of Defense to perform a periodic review and update of its 2018 AI strategy, and to develop and issue new guidance on a broad range of AI issues, including adoption of AI within DoD, ethical principles for AI, mitigation of bias in AI, cybersecurity of generative AI, and more.222
Strategy and assessment on use of automation and AI for shipyard optimizationDevelopment of a strategy on the use of AI for Navy shipyard logistics332
Strategy for talent development and management of DoD Computer Programming WorkforceEstablishes a policy for “appropriate” talent development and management policies, including for AI skills.1081
Sense of the Senate Resolution in Support of NATOOffers support for NATO and NATO’s DIANA program as critical to AI and other strategic priorities1238 | 1239
Enhancing defense partnership with IndiaDirects DoD to enhance defense partnership with India, including collaboration on AI as one potential priority area.1251
Specification of Duties for Electronic Warfare Executive CommitteeAmends US code to specify the duties of the Electronic Warfare Executive Committee, including an assessment of the need for automated, AI/ML-based electronic warfare capabilities1541
Next Generation Cyber Red TeamsDirects the DoD and NSA to submit a plan to modernize cyber red-teaming capabilities, ensuring the ability to emulate possible threats, including from AI1604
Management of Data Assets by Chief Digital OfficerOutlines responsibilities for CDAO to provide data analytics capabilities needed for “global cyber-social domain.”1605
Developing Digital Content Provenance CourseDirects Director of Defense Media Activity to develop a course on digital content provenance, including digital forgeries developed with AI systems, e.g. AI-generated “deepfakes,”1622

Report on Artificial Intelligence Regulation in Financial Services Industry

Directs regulators of the financial services industry to produce reports analyzing how AI is and ought to be used by the industry and by regulators6096

AI Bug Bounty Programs

Directs CDAO to develop a bug bounty program for AI foundation models that are being integrated in DOD operations6097

Vulnerability analysis study for AI-enabled military applications

Directs CDAO to complete a study analyzing vulnerabilities to the privacy, security, and accuracy of AI-enabled military applications, as well as R&D needs for such applications, including foundation models.6098

Report on Data Sharing and Coordination

Directs SecDef to to submit a report on ways to improve data sharing across DoD6099

Establishment of Chief AI Officer of the Department of State

Establishes within the Department of State a Chief AI Officer, who may also serve as Chief Data Officer to oversee adoption of AI in the Department and to advise the Secretary of State on the use of AI in conducting data-informed diplomacy.6303

House NDAA. This table summarizes the provisions related to AI from the version of the House NDAA that advanced out of committee. Links to the section of the bill describing these provisions can be found in the “section” column.

House NDAA Provisions
ProvisionSummarySection
Process to ensure the responsible development and use of artificial intelligenceDirects CDAO to develop a process for assessing whether AI technology used by DoD is functioning responsibly, including through the development of clear standards, and to amend AI technology as needed220
Intellectual property strategyDirects DoD to develop an intellectual property strategy to enhance capabilities in procurement of emerging technologies and capabilities263
Study on establishment of centralized platform for development and testing of autonomy softwareDirects SecDef and CDAO to conduct a study, assessing the feasibility and advisability of developing a centralized platform to develop and test autonomous software.264
Congressional notification of changes to Department of Defense policy on autonomy in weapon systemsRequires that Congress be notified of changes to DoD Directive 3000.09 (on autonomy in weapons systems) within 30 days of any changes266
Sense of Congress on dual use innovative technology for the robotic combat vehicle of the ArmyThis offers support for the Army’s acquisition strategy for the Robot Combat Vehicle program, and recommends that the Army consider a similar framework for future similar programs.267
Pilot program on optimization of aerial refueling and fuel management in contested logistics environments through use of artificial intelligenceDirects CDAO, USD(A&S), and Air Force to develop a pilot program to optimize the logistics of aerial refueling and to consider the use of AI technology to help with this mission.266
Modification to acquisition authority of the senior official with principal responsibility for artificial intelligence and machine learningIncreases annual acquisition authority for CDAO from $75M to $125M, and extends this authority from 2025 to 2029.827
Framework for classification of autonomous capabilitiesDirects CDAO and others within DoD to establish a department-wide classification framework for autonomous capabilities to enable easier use of autonomous systems in the department.930

Funding Comparison. The following tables compare the funding requested in the President’s budget to funds that are authorized in current House and Senate versions of the NDAA. All amounts are in thousands of dollars.

Funding Comparison
ProgramRequestedAuthorized in HouseAuthorized in SenateNEW! Passed in Senate Approps 7/27NEW! Passed in full House 9/28
Other Procurement, Army–Engineer (non-construction) equipment: Robotics and Applique Systems68,89368,89368,893

65,118 (-8,775 for “Effort previously funded,” +5,000 for “Soldier borne sensor”)

73,893 (+5,000 for “Soldier borne sensor”)

AI/ML Basic Research, Army10,70810,70810,708

10,708

10,708

AI/ML Technologies, Army24,14224,14224,142

27,142 (+3,000 for “Automated battle damage assessment and adjust fire”)

24

AI/ML Advanced Technologies, Army13,18715,687
(+ 2,500 for “Autonomous Long Range Resupply”)
18,187
(+ 5,000 for “Tactical AI & ML”)

24,687 (+11,500 for “Cognitive computing architecture
for military systems”)

13,187

AI Decision Aids for Army Missile Defense Systems Integration06,0000

0

0

Robotics Development, Army3,0243,0243,024

3,024

3,024

Ground Robotics, Army35,31935,31935,319

17,337 (-17,982 for “SMET Inc II early to need”)

45,319 (+10,000 for “common robotic controller”)

Applied Research, Navy: Long endurance mobile autonomous passive acoustic sensing research02,5000

0

0

Advanced Components, Navy: Autonomous surface and underwater dual-modality vehicles05,0000

3,000

0

Air Force University Affiliated Research Center (UARC)—Tactical Autonomy8,0188,0188,018

8,018

8,018

Air Force Applied Research: Secure Interference Avoiding Connectivity of Autonomous AI Machines03,0005,000

0

0

Air Force Advanced Technology Development: Semiautonomous adversary air platform0010,000

0

0

Advanced Technology Development, Air Force: High accuracy robotics02,5000

0

0

Air Force Autonomous Collaborative Platforms118,826176,013
(+ 75,000 for Project 647123: Air-Air Refueling TMRR,
-17,813 for Technical realignment )
101,013
(- 17,813 for DAF requested realignment of funds)

101,013

101,013

Space Force: Machine Learning Techniques for Radio Frequency (RF) Signal Monitoring and Interference Detection010,0000

0

0

Defense-wide: Autonomous resupply for contested logistics02,5000

0

0

Military Construction–Pennsylvania Navy Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia: AI Machinery Control Development Center088,20088,200

0

0

Intelligent Autonomous Systems for Seabed Warfare007,000

5,000

0

Funding for Office of Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer
ProgramRequestedAuthorized in HouseAuthorized in SenateNEW! Passed in Senate AppropsNEW! Passed in full House
Advanced Component Development and Prototypes34,35034,35034,350

34,350

34,350

System Development and Demonstration615,245570,246
(-40,000 for “insufficient justification,” -5,000 for “program decrease.”)
615,246

246,003 (-369,243, mostly for functional transfers to JADC2 and Alpha-1)

704,527 (+89,281, mostly for “management innovation pilot” and transfers from other programs for “enterprise digital alignment”)

Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation17,24717,24717,247

6,882 (-10,365, “Functional transfer to line 130B for ALPHA-1″)

13,447 (-3,800 for “excess growth”)

Senior Leadership Training Courses02,7500

0

0

ALPHA-1000

222,723

0


On Senate Approps Provisions

The Senate Appropriations Committee generally provided what was requested in the White House’s budget regarding artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), or exceeded it. AI was one of the top-line takeaways from the Committee’s summary of the defense appropriations bill. Particular attention has been paid to initiatives that cut across the Department of Defense, especially the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO) and a new initiative called Alpha-1. The Committee is supportive of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) integration and the recommendations of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI).

On House final bill provisions

Like the Senate Appropriations bill, the House of Representatives’ final bill generally provided or exceeded what was requested in the White House budget regarding AI and ML. However, in contract to the Senate Appropriations bill, AI was not a particularly high-priority takeaway in the House’s summary. The only note about AI in the House Appropriations Committee’s summary of the bill was in the context of digital transformation of business practices. Program increases were spread throughout the branches’ Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation budgets, with a particular concentration of increased funding for the Defense Innovation Unit’s AI-related budget.

Six Policy Ideas for the National AI Strategy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has sought public input for the Biden administration’s National AI Strategy, acknowledging the potential benefits and risks of advanced AI. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was happy to recommend specific actions for federal agencies to safeguard Americans’ rights and safety. With U.S. companies creating powerful frontier AI models, the federal government must guide this technology’s growth toward public benefit and risk mitigation.

Recommendation 1: OSTP should work with a suitable agency to develop and implement a pre-deployment risk assessment protocol that applies to any frontier AI model.

Before launching a frontier AI system, developers must ensure safety, trustworthiness, and reliability through pre-deployment risk assessment. This protocol aims to thoroughly analyze potential risks and vulnerabilities in AI models before deployment. 

We advocate for increased funding towards the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to enhance its risk measurement capacity and develop robust benchmarks for AI model risk assessment. Building upon NIST’s AI Risk Management Framework (RMF) will standardize metrics for evaluation incorporating various cases such as open-source models, academic research, and fine-tuning of models which differ from larger labs like OpenAI’s GPT-4.

We propose the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under Section 5 of the FTC Act, implement and enforce this pre-deployment risk assessment strategy. The FTC’s role to prevent unfair or deceptive practices in commerce is aligned with mitigating potential risks from AI systems.

Recommendation 2: Adherence to the appropriate risk management framework should be compulsory for any AI-related project that receives federal funding.

The U.S. government, as a significant funder of AI through contracts and grants, has both a responsibility and opportunity. Responsibility: to ensure that its AI applications meet a high bar for risk management.  Opportunity: to enhance a culture of safety in AI development more broadly. Adherence to a risk management framework should be a prerequisite for AI projects seeking federal funds.

Currently, voluntary guidelines such as NIST’s AI RMF exist, but we propose making these compulsory. Agencies should require contractors to document and verify the risk management practices in place for the contract. For agencies that do not have their own guidelines, the NIST AI RMF should be used. And the NSF should require documentation of the grantee’s compliance with the NIST AI RMF in grant applications for AI projects. This approach will ensure all federally funded AI initiatives maintain a high bar for risk management.

Recommendation 3: NSF should increase its funding for “trustworthy AI” R&D.

Trustworthy AI” refers to AI systems that are reliable, safe, transparent, privacy-enhanced, and unbiased. While NSF is a key non-military funder of AI R&D in the U.S., our rough estimates indicate that its investment in fields promoting trustworthiness has remained relatively static, accounting for only 10-15% of all AI grants. Given its $800 million annual AI-related budget, we recommend that NSF direct a larger share of grants towards research in trustworthy AI.

To enable this shift, NSF could stimulate trustworthy AI research through specific solicitations; launch targeted programs in this area; and incorporate a “trustworthy AI” section in funding applications, prompting researchers to outline the trustworthiness of their projects. This would help evaluate AI project impacts and promote proposals with significant potential in trustworthy AI. Lastly, researchers could be requested or mandated to apply the NIST AI RMF during their studies.

Recommendation 4: FedRAMP should be broadened to cover AI applications contracted for by the federal government.

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a government-wide initiative that standardizes security protocols for cloud services. Given the rising utilization of AI services in federal operations, a similar system of security standards should apply to these services, since they are responsible for managing highly sensitive data related to national security and individual privacy.

Expanding FedRAMP’s mandate to include AI services is a logical next step in ensuring the secure integration of advanced technologies into federal operations. Applying a framework like FedRAMP to AI services would involve establishing robust security standards specific to AI, such as secure data handling, model transparency, and robustness against adversarial attacks. The expanded FedRAMP program would streamline AI integration into federal operations and avoid repetitive security assessments.

Recommendation 5: The Department of Homeland Security should establish an AI incidents database.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to create a centralized AI Incidents Database, detailing AI-related breaches, failures and misuse across industries. Its existing authorization under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 makes DHS capable of this role. This database would increase understanding, mitigate risks, and build trust in AI systems’ safety and security.

Voluntary reporting from AI stakeholders should be encouraged while preserving data confidentiality. For effectiveness, anonymized or aggregated data should be shared with AI developers, researchers, and policymakers to better understand AI risks. DHS could use existing databases such as the one maintained by the Partnership on AI and Center for Security and Emerging Technologies, as well as adapt reporting methods from global initiatives like the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

Recommendation 6: OSTP should work with agencies to streamline the process of granting Interested Agency Waivers to AI researchers on J-1 visas.

The ongoing global competition in AI necessitates attracting and retaining a diverse, highly skilled talent pool. The US J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, often used by visiting researchers, requires some participants to return home for two years before applying for permanent residence.

Federal agencies can waive this requirement for certain individuals via an “Interested Government Agency” (IGA) request. Agencies should establish a transparent, predictable process for AI researchers to apply for such waivers. The OSTP should collaborate with agencies to streamline this process. Taking cues from the Department of Defense’s structured application process, including a dedicated webpage, application checklist, and sample sponsor letter, could prove highly beneficial for improving the transition of AI talent to permanent residency in the US.
Review the details of these proposals in our public comment.

Advanced Research Priorities in Transportation

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has identified several domains in the transportation and infrastructure space that retain a plethora of unsolved opportunities ripe for breakthrough innovation.

Transportation is not traditionally viewed as a research- and development-led field, with less than 0.7% of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) annual budget dedicated to R&D activities. The majority of DOT’s R&D funds are disbursed by modal operating administrators mandated to execute on distinct funding priorities rather than a collective, integrated vision of transforming the nation’s infrastructure across 50 states and localities. 

Historically, a small percentage of these R&D funds have supported and developed promising, cross-cutting initiatives, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research programs deploying artificial intelligence to better understand driver behavior and applying novel data integration techniques to enhance freight logistics. Yet, the scope of these programs has not been designed to scale discoveries into broad deployment, limiting the impact of innovation and technology in transforming transportation and infrastructure in the United States. 

As a result, transportation and infrastructure retain a plethora of unaddressed opportunities – from reducing the 40,000 annual vehicle-related fatalities, to improving freight logistics through ports, highways, and rail, to achieving a net zero carbon transportation system, to building infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change and severe weather. The reasons for these persistent challenges are numerous: low levels of federal R&D spending, fragmentation across state and local government, risk-averse procurement practices, sluggish commercial markets, and more. When innovations do emerge in this field, they suffer from two valleys of death: one to bring new ideas out of the lab into commercialization, and the second to bring successful deployments of those technologies to scale.

The United States needs a concerted national innovation pipeline designed to fill this gap, exploring early-stage, moonshot research while nurturing  breakthroughs from concept to deployment. An Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure would deliver on this mission. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I) will operate nimbly and with rigorous program management and deep technical expertise to tackle the biggest infrastructure  challenges and overcome entrenched market failures. Solutions would cut across traditional transportation modes (e.g. highways, rail, aviation, maritime, pipelines etc) and would include innovative new infrastructure technologies, materials, systems, capabilities, or processes. 

The list of domain areas below reflects priorities for DOT as well as areas where there is significant opportunity for breakthrough innovation:

Key Domain Areas

Metropolitan Safety

Despite progress made since 1975, dramatic reductions in roadway fatalities remain a core, persistent challenge. In 2021, an estimated 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, with an estimated 31,785 people killed in the first nine months of 2022. The magnitude of this challenge is articulated in DOT’s most recent National Roadway Safety Strategy, a document that begins with a statement from Secretary Buttigieg: “The status quo is unacceptable, and it is preventable… Zero is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.” 

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: urban roadway safety; advanced vehicle driver assistance systems; driver alcohol detection systems; vehicle design; street design; speeding and speed limits; and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communications and networking technology.

Key Questions for Consideration:

Rural Safety

Rural communities possess their own unique safety challenges stemming from road design and signage, speed limits, and other factors; and data from the Federal Highway Administration shows that “while only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 43% of all roadway fatalities occur on rural roads, and the fatality rate on rural roads is almost 2 times higher than on urban roads.”

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: improved information collection and management systems; design and evaluation tools for two-lane highways and other geometric design decisions; augmented visibility; mitigating or anti-rollover crash solutions; and enhanced emergency response. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

Resilient & Climate Prepared Infrastructure

Modern roads, bridges, and transportation are designed to withstand storms that, at the time of their construction, had a probability of occurring once in 100 years; today, climate change has made extreme weather events commonplace. In 2020 alone, the U.S. suffered 22 high-impact weather disasters that each cost over $1 billion in damages. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and New Jersey subways with a 14-foot storm surge, millions were left without their primary mode of transportation for a week. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are likely to impact both marine and air transportation, as 13 of the 47 largest U.S. airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of the current sea level. Additionally, the persistent presence of wildfires–which are burning an average of 7 million acres annually across the United States, more than double the average in the 1990s–dramatically reshapes the transportation network in acute ways and causes downstream damage through landslides, flooding, and other natural events.

These trends are likely to continue as climate change exacerbates the intensity and scope of these events. The Department of Transportation is well-positioned to introduce systems-level improvements to the resilience of our nation’s infrastructure.

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: High-performance long-life, advanced materials that increase resiliency and reduce maintenance and reconstruction needs, especially materials for roads, rail, and ports; nature-based protective strategies such as constructed marshes; novel designs for multi-modal hubs or other logistics/supply chain redundancy; efficient and dynamic mechanisms to optimize the relocation of transportation assets; intensive maintenance, preservation, prediction, and degradation analysis methods; and intelligent disaster-resilient infrastructure countermeasures. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

Digital Infrastructure

Advancing the systems, tools, and capabilities for digital infrastructure to reflect and manage the built environment has the power to enable improved asset maintenance and operations across all levels of government, at scale. Advancements in this field would make using our infrastructure more seamless for transit, freight, pedestrians, and more. Increased data collection from or about vehicle movements, for example, enables user-friendly and demand-responsive traffic management, dynamic curb management for personal vehicles, transit and delivery transportation modes, congestion pricing, safety mapping and targeted interventions, and rail and port logistics. When data is accessible by local departments of transportation and municipalities, it can be harnessed to improve transportation operations and public safety through crash detection as well as to develop Smart Cities and Communities that utilize user-focused mobility services; connected and automated vehicles; electrification across transportation modes, and intelligent, sensor-based infrastructure to measure and manage age-old problems like potholes, air pollution, traffic, parking, and safety.

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: traffic management; curb management; congestion pricing; accessibility; mapping for safety; rail management; port logistics; and transportation system/electric grid coordination.

Key Questions for Consideration:

Expediting and Upgrading Construction Methods

Infrastructure projects are fraught with expensive delays and overrun budgets. In the United States, fewer than 1 in 3 contractors report finishing projects on time and within budgets, with 70% citing coordination at the site of construction as the primary reason. In the words of one industry executive, “all [of the nation’s] major projects have cost and schedule issues … the truth is these are very high-risk and difficult projects. Conditions change. It is impossible to estimate it accurately.” But can process improvements and other innovations make construction cheaper, better, faster, and easier?

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: augmented forecasting and modeling techniques; prefabricated or advanced robotic fabrication, modular, and adaptable structures and systems such as bridge sub- and superstructures; real-time quality control and assurance technologies for accelerated construction, materials innovation; new pavement technologies; bioretention; tunneling; underground infrastructure mapping; novel methods for bridge engineering, building information modeling (BIM), coastal, wind, and offshore engineering; stormwater systems; and computational methods in structural engineering, structural sensing, control, and asset management. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

Logistics

Our national economic strength and quality of life depend on the safe and efficient movement of goods throughout our nation’s borders and beyond. Logistic systems—the interconnected webs of businesses, workers, infrastructure processes, and practices that underlie the sorting, transportation, and distribution of goods must operate with efficiency and resilience. . When logistics systems are disrupted by events such as public health crises, extreme weather, workforce challenges, or cyberattacks, goods are delayed, costs increase, and Americans’ daily lives are affected. The Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14017 calling for a review of the transportation and logistics industrial base. DOT released the Freight and Logistics Supply Chain Assessment in February 2022, spotlighting a range of actions that DOT envisions to support a resilient 21st-century freight and logistics supply chain for America.

Topical areas include but are not limited to: freight infrastructure, including ports, roads, airports, and railroads; data and research; rules and regulations; coordination across public and private sectors; and supply chain electrification and intersections with resilient infrastructure. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

Suggestions about Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Recycling Policy Based on U.S. Concerns

To date, Japan’s peaceful nuclear energy use has taken the form of a nuclear fuel recycling policy that reprocesses spent fuel and effectively utilizes the plutonium retrieved in light water reactors (LWRs) and fast reactors (FRs). With the aim to complete recycling domestically, Japan has introduced key technology from abroad and has further developed its own technology and industry. However, Japan presently seems to have issues regarding its recycling policy and plutonium management.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Because of recent increasing risks of terrorism and nuclear proliferation in the world, the international community seeks much more secure use of nuclear energy. All of the countries that store plutonium (which can be used for making nuclear weapons) must make the best efforts possible to decrease it. Taking this into account, concerns about Japan’s problem of plutonium management have been growing in the international community and Japan’s accountability for its recycling policy is essential.

In this paper, Yusei Nagata, an FAS Research Fellow from MEXT, Japan, analyzes U.S. experts’ opinions and concerns about Japan’s problem and considers what Japan can (and should) do to solve it.

Read the full report here.

Advancing U.S. Leadership in Nonproliferation and Nuclear Energy through Effective Partnerships

Although the United States still has the largest number of nuclear power plants in the world, it does not dominate global nuclear power. While the United States was the leading nuclear power supplying nation more than thirty years ago—at least for states outside of the Soviet sphere of influence—the reality today is clearly that the U.S. nuclear industry is only one of several major suppliers. The United States can no longer build a large nuclear power plant on its own. Foreign nuclear companies own major U.S. nuclear power companies.

In addition, the United States no longer supplies the majority of the world’s enriched uranium for nuclear fuel; instead, the United States Enrichment Corporation has shut down its enrichment plants based on gaseous diffusion and has been struggling to commercialize the American Centrifuge Project partly due to reduced global demand for enriched uranium and also due to competition from established enrichment companies.

Nonetheless, the United States continues to have great influence on the nuclear market because many of the major supplying nations have built their nuclear power programs on the basis of U.S. technology. In a new issue brief, FAS President Dr. Charles Ferguson takes a look at options for the United States to gain back leadership via a cooperative approach. The brief analyzes what nations could be effective partners for the United States in furthering nonproliferation while providing for the continued use of peaceful nuclear energy. The nuclear industry is increasingly globalized and the United States needs to partner with allies and other nations to advance nonproliferation objectives.

View Full Brief

Examining Global Biosecurity Engagement Programs

Global biosecurity engagement programs are designed to prevent the harmful use of biological agents and pathogens. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of these programs in improving biosecurity given that there have been relatively few attempts to misuse the life sciences. Metrics that focus on outputs (what was done) as opposed to outcomes (the impact of what was done) have not been helpful in determining how these efforts might be improved in the future. As a result, the goals of the programs have traditionally been more quantitative in nature – for example, increasing the number of agents secured and number of scientists engaged. Broadening the scope of biosecurity engagement metrics can help align program goals with a more qualitative approach that prioritizes the international partners’ global health security.

To understand how biosecurity engagement is conducted and evaluated, Michelle Rozo, Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University, interviewed more than 35 individuals in the United States and abroad (including government officials and their non-governmental partners) regarding current and future programs that can be used to create a cohesive, global health system approach to biosecurity. The results from the interviews are complied in an issue brief which also provides a strategy for policymakers to focus more on qualitative public health outcomes instead of quantitative security outputs. With this strategy, programs will cost less and be more effective in reducing global threats.

View Full Brief