Two of the most important congressional hearings for the Department of Energy's Office of Science were held this week. On Wednesday, Office of Science Director Ray Orbach appeared before the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The next day, Robert Card, who is the Under Secretary of Energy, Science and Environment, testified before the counterpart House subcommittee. Both hearings were rather short, and neither provided clear indications about the outlook for FY 2004 Office of Science funding.
Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) is the longtime chairman of the Senate subcommittee, and a well-known supporter of the Department of Energy. Domenici's low-key hearing lasted about one hour, with few senators in attendance. Sharing the witness table with Orbach were two other officials heading up major DOE program offices. Most of the hearing, as was true of Thursday's House hearing, revolved around energy issues outside of the Office of Science. Regarding the Science request, Domenici said "It's only a little better than flat." He added that he "remained concerned about the tremendous imbalance" in federal research funding for the physical and life sciences.
Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) centered most of his comments and questions on DOE's nuclear energy research program. Craig told Orbach that the Office of Science was supporting very important work, and the senator explained that he had introduced, with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), an authorization bill for fusion research (S. 600).
Orbach's oral testimony ran about five minutes. He began saying that he was starting his second year in office, and provided some impressive statistics about the number of researchers and university students that are supported by the Office of Science. Orbach touched on a number of items: ITER (the U.S. is "pleased to take our place"), DOE's approach on high performance computing, the Spallation Neutron Source ("on track and on budget"), and the new nanotechnology centers. Orbach also mentioned the genomics program and a new teacher education initiative.
Chairman Domenici's initial questions to Orbach revolved around ongoing research to improve the understanding of how low levels of radiation affects human health. Orbach replied that 53 projects are investigating this relationship. Domenici also wanted to know about the status of the "very exciting nanoscience centers." Five centers, all being managed by the Basic Energy Sciences program, are in various stages of development or construction.
Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) expressed concern about the distribution of grants made by the Office of Science to various states. Orbach agreed, saying "if we're not careful, we will leave states behind," explaining that the EPSCoR program and partnerships can help.
Domenici concluded the hearing by saying that he was very pleased with the way in which DOE was growing, but added that he wants to see more research on nuclear energy.
The House hearing the next day was about ninety minutes long, and had quite a few members in attendance. The same DOE programs were discussed, with many of the questions again on energy research. Rep. David Hobson (R-O) is the new subcommittee chairman. He made several comments regarding the Office of Science, touching on the "enormous impact" that nanoscience could have, insufficient funding for advanced computation, and fusion research. Hobson asked for a description of how the Office of Science selects its different funding priorities, and expressed concern about the long-term funding implications of major projects. He was somewhat critical of the predominant role that the national laboratories play in conducting research, saying that he did not want them to become an "exclusive playground." Research opportunities should be shared with universities, he said.
In his opening remarks, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) asked about the Department of Energy's nuclear energy research laboratory in Idaho. Rodney Frelinghuysen (D-NJ) asked Card about the importance of basic research and how it relates to the development of alternative energy. That gave Card, and Orbach, who was also at the witness table, an opportunity to discuss ITER. Orbach described the FY 2004 fusion request as very modest, explaining it by saying that the costs for ITER in FY 2006 will increase significantly. Orbach also said that it was important to provide strong support for the domestic fusion program. Later in the hearing, Orbach told the committee that DOE would play a very active and aggressive role in fusion research.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) asked about DOE's programs in hydrogen, wind, and other alternative energy sources. John Doolittle (R-CA) began by describing how the NIH budget has almost doubled, and proposed that energy and its direct relationship to the state of the nation's economy merited a similar percentage increase. Zach Wamp (R-TN) asked about the budget for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then said that "I was disappointed" in the DOE request for advanced computing. What will you do, he said to Orbach, to increase the request in FY 2005? Orbach replied that the Office of Science was looking at various ways to regain international leadership. Chairman Hobson said that it was "outrageous" that the U.S. has lost this leadership, and signaling his intentions, said that "assistance" was coming. In a subsequent round of questions, Frelinghuysen also asked about advanced computing.
Ranking Minority Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) held his questions until the end of the hearing. He began by complimenting Orbach on how responsive the Office of Science had been to an earlier inquiry made by Visclosky. Touching on a point Visclosky has made in previous hearings, he said that he felt "very, very strongly" about increasing university competition for research funding. He had similar questions about how the locations for the nanotechnology centers were determined. Visclosky also told Orbach that he is interested in utilizing DOE's facilities to their maximum, and asked how much additional funding would be required. Orbach replied that an additional $60 million would be required on top of the $1.25 billion request. While this amount was not very large, priority decisions had to be made, Orbach said.
Hobson ended the hearing by asking about the status of the Spallation Neutron Source, and was told that while it "will be tight," that there should be no additional cost above that which is planned. Chairman Hobson then concluded by challenging the DOE officials to select one or two areas to target that would represent a "quantum leap forward." Hobson said that he did not care where the resulting research would be conducted, or even what it was, "if it is the right thing to do."