DOE Office of Science Director Ray Orbach called January 16 a "very important day for science in the United States" at an all-day workshop on the forthcoming DOE Office of Science Strategic Plan. Scheduled for final release in March, this planning document, with an up to twenty year horizon, "will play a terribly important role in the Office of Science."
This well-attended workshop at a conference center in suburban Washington brought together major stakeholders from many interests. In his opening remarks, Orbach said the plan would chart a course for the Office of Science, and will be utilized by the White House, Congress, and the Office of Management and Budget.
Insight into some of the thinking that will guide the Office of Science is provided by the nine Occasional Papers on future opportunities that were discussed in FYI #8. Papers are to be issued on astrophysics and accelerator design. Noting the "vanishingly small" percentage of university students studying in the physical sciences, many of whom are foreign, Orbach asked "where have the Americans gone?" This lack of attention to the physical sciences results in less-than-desired levels of scientific literacy among the general American population, he said.
Asking "what is it about the Office of Science that makes it special?," Orbach told the workshop participants that it was very important to "get it right" in drafting the Strategic Plan. Pointing to a pie chart that showed 43% of federal support to the physical sciences coming from DOE (with 31% from NASA, 16% from NSF, 6% from DOD, and 4% "other") he asked if DOE's role was appropriate. Balance within DOE's portfolio must be considered, Orbach saying "maybe it's right, maybe it is not," when referring to its support for the laboratories and universities. Allocations for that research directly related to the nation's energy supply and research for the sake of science must also be considered. A third "balance" issue is the allocation of federal dollars for the life sciences and other sciences, Orbach explaining that "in the White House and Congress there is the feeling that it is out of balance."
Bob Vallario of the DOE Office of Planning and Analysis told the workshop participants that the Office of Science Strategic Plan would have a clear intuitive link to the larger Department of Energy plan which is also being developed. It is expected the Office of Science plan will be about twenty pages long, with an expected final release in March. The "critical thinking" on the plan over the past few months has had input from the Office's Advisory Committees, with the plan now one-third to one-half complete, Vallario said. A draft version will be available on the web within one month for public comment.
Vallario raised several other points. Energy and national security issues are "front page," he said. He described "severe" budget pressures, and stated that interest in performance measures continues. Vallario described an aging workforce, the importance of international research collaborations, and numerous future research opportunities that were "across the stove pipes." Looking to the future, he asked the audience, are we missing anything?
In another development, last month Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham appointed MIT President Charles M. Vest to chair a Task Force on the Future of Science Programs at the Department of Energy. This task force will act as a subcommittee to the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. The 13-person task force will report to the board toward the end of this summer. A DOE release explains that the task force "will examine science and technology programs across the department and consider future priorities for scientific research." The task force met once last fall, and then again in a closed session last week. Future hearings on the task force's findings before the entire Board are contemplated.