Basic Energy Sciences Meeting Looks To The Future

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Publication date: 
26 August 2004

DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) staff and members of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) spent a day and a half this month looking ahead at the future of BES facilities and fields. They discussed how to ensure that new facilities get started off on the right foot and that the office stays on top of trends, changes and advances in science and in the conduct of research. At the August 5-6 meeting, BES Director Pat Dehmer called on the committee to take a broad look at what grand challenges lie ahead for the energy sciences. She described how the BES program earned a major role in supporting the basic research to underpin President Bush's initiative for a hydrogen economy, and she is now turning her attention to how it could play a similar role in exploring the future of solar energy. She also reported that several new BES facilities are underway; construction continues on the Spallation Neutron Source and the Linac Coherent Light Source, and most of the five planned Nanoscale Science Research Centers are now also under construction. A number of speakers described the opportunities posed by these centers, and how creating new models of operation for them might have an impact on other scientific user facilities.

Dehmer began by discussing the role BESAC has played in helping guide the past activities of the BES program. In particular, she cited the impact of a 2002 BESAC report, "Basic Research Needs to Assure a Secure Energy Future" (which can be found on the BES web site at ) and follow-on workshops in ensuring that basic research played an important role in Bush's hydrogen initiative. Dehmer said that even though basic research was not originally envisioned as a significant part of the initiative, BES and BESAC were able to "change minds." She urged the committee to contribute suggestions for a workshop that might address the prospects for solar energy, which she said has "huge potential and huge basic research needs." Such workshops, she said, "tend to have a lot of impact."

In addition to efforts on solar energy, Dehmer asked the committee to consider "What's next?" for BES. She decried the perception, from both within and outside the department, that while high energy physics was "pushing the boundaries of our understanding," the chemical, biological and materials sciences were "looked upon as making incremental improvements." She reminded the committee that BESAC is "almost unique" in the federal advisory system by having such a broad scientific purview. "What's happening in our equally profound," she declared, and "could have equal...impact on the way we think." In chemistry in particular, she said, "we are no longer bounded by what nature has given us."

Dehmer also gave an overview of the FY 2005 appropriations process for BES, noting that the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill would provide $13 million over the President's request for BES, but that the Senate has not yet acted. She is expecting a continuing resolution that would last for some time after the start of the 2005 fiscal year, which she said would be "very hard on our construction projects in particular; some could be very severely impacted."

Several speakers talked about how the nanoscience centers would require new thinking, new definitions of the user community, new models for coupling theory with experiment, and new mechanisms for cooperation within and across facilities. J. Michael Rowe of NIST (retired) discussed a "Committee of Visitors" (CoV) assessment of the new BES Scientific User Facilities Division and the processes for monitoring, reviewing and making decisions on facility operations, construction, and upgrades. In general, he said, the CoV, while urging care in the setting of metrics, found that the facility review process was "fair and was seen to be so." It also found that the new division was "well-launched" and "good for all involved." Rowe pointed out that with more remote users, and researchers spending less time at facilities, users' needs and even the definition of facility users were changing, and the nanoscience centers would accelerate those trends. "We have an opportunity to get a little ahead of the curve" in considering how to set up the centers, he stated. The CoV recommended that the centers involve users in the early stages of the planning process, establish agreements with other laboratory activities and facilities, carefully plan integration with BES science programs, and facilitate coordination between centers to ensure they served as a national, rather than just local, resource.

Bruce Harmon of Iowa State University also referred to the nanoscience centers while addressing the issue of "connecting theory with experiment." Noting that many BES facilities have "little or no associated theory program," he asserted that more strongly coupling the new facilities with theory programs would promote "asking the right questions" and "understanding the answers," thus enhancing the scientific productivity of the facilities. Bill McCurdy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory added that a BESAC subcommittee on theory and computation was "struggling with" developing the right overall model for the nanoscience centers, including how to strengthen the connection between theory and experiment. "Everyone agrees that theory and computation needs to be a part" of the facilities programs, Dehmer said, but as they had not previously been coordinated within the BES program, "no one knows how to do it" yet. Saying that she expected this coupling to eventually "spill over" into all other scientific user facilities, she asked for the subcommittee to come up with "a range of models that might be appropriate."

An overview of the entire Office of Science (SC) was provided by James Decker, SC's Principal Deputy Director. Referring to the FY 2005 budget, he said, "I can't find anybody who knows" how this year's appropriations process will turn out. He reported that SC Director Ray Orbach had committed to producing, by this fall, a document highlighting the department's view of the contributions and future directions of its national laboratories. He said that producing a document that incorporated budget projections would be a difficult task: because the labs would be competing to host facilities proposed in the office's 20-year facilities roadmap, there were "significant uncertainties" in the labs' future budgets. Decker also commented that several different groups, including SC and a panel of the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board, were looking at laboratory management, contracting, performance, and appraisal issues.