On March 24, Rep. Judy Biggert's (R-IL) energy subcommittee of the House Science Committee reviewed the FY 2005 budget plans for R&D programs within the Department of Energy. Biggert voiced her displeasure with the FY 2005 request for the Office of Science, saying that Congress had clearly indicated its support for stronger funding by authorizing substantially higher amounts in both the House- and Senate-passed versions of the energy bill and by providing more than the President requested in FY 2004. However, she warned that this year Congress was "operating in the most constrained budget environment in many years," and much of her questioning reflected the possibility that, in spite of the best intentions of many Members of Congress, the office might face cuts in FY 2005. Other committee members called for studies on the economic benefits of DOE basic research, and raised questions about the loss of high-tech jobs, the future demand for S&T workers, and the role of science, technology and innovation in job creation.
The Administration's FY 2005 request for the Office of Science is $3.4 billion, a 2.0 percent decrease from FY 2004. Office of Science Principal Deputy Director James Decker testified that the proposed funding would allow the office to maintain research in critical areas of science, increase scientific user facility operations from 92 percent to 95 percent of optimal use, and support continued construction of the Spallation Neutron Source and construction of four nanoscience research centers. It would also enable the office to contribute to the President's hydrogen initiative and begin preparations for some new projects identified in the facilities roadmap, including the Rare Isotope Accelerator, the LINAC coherent light source, high-end computing facilities, the genomes to life program and, with NASA, a joint dark energy mission. Balancing the construction of new, cutting edge facilities against ongoing operations for existing facilities and support for research and researchers at those facilities, Decker said, is "a continuing problem that we have every year." When asked how the additional money would be spent if Congress provided a more than the budget request, he declared that one of the top priorities was operating the user facilities at their full capacity. Other high priorities, he said, included ITER and high-end computation.
NASA seemed to have "a lack of enthusiasm" for the dark energy mission, Biggert commented, pointing out that the project is not included in the space agency's FY 2005 budget or its five-year planning horizon. Decker said DOE and NASA were holding discussions to address the issue, but he could not say what DOE would do if the NASA funding was not restored.
Both Biggert and Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) expressed interest in the Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA) project. Decker reported that DOE was preparing a mission needs statement for the RIA, but had not yet made the decision to move forward with construction. When asked which new facilities project was least likely to suffer from a delay in funding, Decker admitted that, "if we have real budget problems," the RIA, as the only project in the billion-dollar range, would likely be the one delayed. Ehlers indicated that he might "seek to supplement" funding for the project in the FY 2005 budget.
Ranking Minority Member John Larson (D-CT) raised questions about how R&D can create new jobs for the country, and how R&D activities impact local industry and economies. While some general studies and a lot of anecdotal evidence point to the economic benefits of R&D, Decker said, "we need to develop that story better." Larson and Biggert encouraged more comprehensive studies of this issue, with Larson saying, "it would be nice to prove that the science community is a value-added community." Larson also had many questions about President Bush's hydrogen initiative and called for incentives or mandates forcing government vehicle fleets to use fuel cell technology in order to create a market for it. David Garman, the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, agreed that the government and the military were "very important first customers," but argued that it was too early for such steps; "a lot of groundwork needs to be laid for this hydrogen economy."
To a question about DOE's need for a scientific workforce, Decker remarked that he had recently been "surprised to learn" that the number of undergraduate physics students had actually increased, after years of decline. (According to the latest Enrollments and Degrees report from AIP's Statistical Research Center, undergraduate physics degree production increased in the classes of 2000 and 2001 after declining for a decade; the report can be found at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/ed/edhigh.htm.) However, Decker and Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology Director William Magwood agreed that an adequate supply of U.S. citizens entering science and engineering was still an issue for DOE and other federal agencies, especially those involved in national security and defense. Biggert ended the hearing with what she called a "plug" for her recently-introduced bill, H.R. 3828, which would authorize funding for DOE to support university nuclear science, engineering, and health physics programs.