Last Wednesday was both a busy and important day on Capitol Hill for Ray Orbach, Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science. At 10:00 a.m., Orbach testified at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water. Later that day he appeared on the other side of Capitol Hill at the Senate's counterpart subcommittee.
Orbach was joined at these hearings by David Garman, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and William Magwood, Director of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology. The House hearing was attended by most of the subcommittee's members and dealt quite extensively with science policy issues while the afternoon hearing had, because of scheduling conflicts, only a few senators in attendance.
House subcommittee chairman David Hobson (R-OH) opened the hearing by declaring that the $23.4 billion request for the entire Department of Energy was "pretty healthy" and should be sufficient, but then added that "the 3.8% [proposed] reduction for the Office of Science is most troubling for me." It appeared, he said, that short-term tradeoffs for other programs were being made at the expense of the Office of Science. "The committee has yet to decide if it agrees" with this funding reduction, Hobson declared.
One of the first paragraphs in Orbach's written testimony summarizes well how the Office of Science's budget was prepared: "The Office of Science, within a period of budget stringency, has chosen its priorities so that the U.S. will continue its world primacy in science. We have made the hard decisions that will enable our scientists to work on the finest machines whose scale and magnitude will give them opportunities not found elsewhere. As a consequence, we have made difficult choices. But these have been taken with one end in mind: the Office of Science will support a world-class program in science and energy security research with this budget." This need for priority-setting was mentioned several times during the hearings.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) was the first member to pose questions to Orbach, and his questions centered on the budget for fusion energy sciences. Frelinghuysen called the overall budget "pretty healthy," characterized himself a supporter of ITER, but then raised a series of questions about proposed cuts in domestic facilities' operating times. How can such cuts be justified, he asked, when no site had even been selected for ITER? Orbach responded that "we are committed to maintaining domestic strength" in fusion energy sciences, but the budget reallocation was an example of making necessary tradeoffs and priority-setting in crafting the FY 2006 request. While Frelinghuysen acknowledged that need, he responded "I get the feeling everyone is bowing to ITER. It doesn't make me happy." Frelinghuysen agreed with a remark Hobson quietly made about when ITER will be operational, with Frelinghuysen saying "I don't want to hold my breath." While again expressing his support for ITER, Frelinghuysen repeated his concern about maintaining a strong domestic fusion energy sciences program, and said that the fusion budget would be one of the questions the committee would be "wrestling with."
Rep. Zach Wamp's questions to Orbach were about U.S. leadership-class computing. Saying that appropriators had increased funding for this program in recent years, he complained that the Administration's request for FY 2006 "falls back below where we need to be." Wamp described the contribution of computing power to research in materials, fusion, computational biology, and climate, and said DOE's FY 2006 program would fall short. Orbach explained the rationale behind the request, but Wamp seemed less than completely convinced, saying "I'll just assume you want to put more money in the budget and just can't say so."
Concerns about U.S. scientific leadership in areas such as computing were the focus of the questions by Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT). Saying that the United States became great because of its investment in education and research, he said that many programs are being underfunded. Orbach replied that "our science and technology is still the world's leader," but cautioned that European and Asian nations are making strong investments in S&T (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/032.html for further information on this topic.)
Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) asked Orbach a series of questions about the impact of the proposed $100 million cut in grant money for universities and DOE lab research, especially on students. "We had to make tradeoffs in this budget climate" between core research and opening and operating facilities such as the Spallation Neutron Source and nanoscience centers, Orbach responded.
There were far fewer questions asked about Office of Science programs at the afternoon Senate hearing. Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) opened the hearing by remarking that deficit reduction is a major priority of the Bush Administration, and "things are very tight," mentioning the proposed reduction in the Office of Science budget. Domenici praised Orbach for keeping the Spallation Neutron Source and the nanoscience centers on track. Like Frelinghuysen, Domenici said that the fusion budget "comes up short," and questioned moving money from the domestic program to ITER. The proposed funding increase for hydrogen energy research was "a big winner . . . a bright spot," Domenici commented. Later in the hearing Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) also expressed support for the hydrogen program. Domenici's questions to Orbach focused on the status of an ongoing low-dose radiology study.
These two hearings conclude the public phase of the appropriations process for the Office of Science, although other authorizations hearings can be anticipated. The work the appropriators now face is similar to that confronting the Administration earlier this year: making tradeoffs and setting priorities in a very constrained fiscal environment.