Office of Science Director Ray Orbach testified on Wednesday before the Subcommittee on Energy of the House Committee on Science. The hearing, chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL), was called to review the Department of Energy's research priorities in FY 2006. Orbach was joined at the witness table by four senior officials from other DOE energy research programs.
With the price of oil now more than $50 per barrel, it should not come as a surprise that the questions asked by subcommittee members during this roughly two-hour hearing centered on energy-related issues and programs, with minimal discussion of the basic research programs supported by the Office of Science. While there were few questions to Orbach, the subcommittee is clearly concerned about the Office of Science's budget request. The hearing charter, a 15-page document prepared by subcommittee staff for the Members, discussed issues such as whether the proposed FY 2006 budget strikes "the appropriate balance between the physical sciences and the life sciences," whether the budget request makes disproportionate reductions in research grants as compared to facility funding, if "current trends imply closure of major Office of Science facilities or even an entire National Laboratory," and "how does DOE make tradeoffs between operation of existing facilities and construction of new ones?" This hearing charter provides a good summary of key issues concerning the Office of Science and can be read at http://www.house.gov/science/hearings/energy05/apr27/Charter.pdf ; see pages 6-7, and 13.
Biggert's opening remarks discussed the Office of Science as follows:
"It is no secret that we are operating in the most constrained budget environment in many years. In such an environment, it is especially important for Congress to scrutinize the plans and question the priorities of any and all departments when it comes to spending limited resources. The Department of Energy is no exception.
"I'm as fiscally conservative as they come. And while I agree that we should be able to find savings in just about every corner of the federal budget, I do not believe we should be cutting corners when it comes to our search for energy solutions and the science behind them.
"As the nation pays unprecedented prices for oil and natural gas and struggles to contain the resulting inflationary pressure, it seems counterintuitive to reduce funding for applied energy research and development programs that could help ease our demand for energy or lead to alternative sources of it -- namely, our energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.
"The same can be said for the basic science programs funded by the Department of Energy. As the nation emerges from an economic slowdown, and confronts global competition on a variety of fronts, it seems counterintuitive to cut - by almost 4% - the basic, fundamental research that is the foundation of American innovation and competitiveness."
She later said:
"As for the other basic research supported by the DOE, this subcommittee has noticed a trend. Three years ago, Office of Science funding for facilities equaled that for research grants. Today, funding for research grants is less than that for facilities. Considering that DOE's user facilities are oversubscribed - by a factor of three in the case of the Basic Energy Sciences program within the Office of Science - this may have been a prudent decision in light of fiscal constraints. However, I do not believe this is sustainable, especially considering that DOE's research grants help fund the education and training of approximately 23,500 graduate students, technicians, post docs, and faculty.
"Finally, when it comes to new facilities, I am very concerned about the significant amount of our limited resources that this budget has allocated to the international fusion experiment known as ITER, which doesn't even have a home yet. And considering that the patience of this committee is growing thin, as we continue to wait for the DOE to respond to our written questions from a full committee hearing on the President's budget held over two months ago, I must again express skepticism and concern about the ‘moving target' that is the U.S. contribution to the ITER project. I certainly hope this is something we can nail down, and soon. I would hate for this lingering question to erode support for this project."
The subcommittee's Ranking Democratic Member is Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA). In his prepared opening remarks he stated:
"It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I am disappointed by the 5% decline in the Department of Energy's non-defense R&D budget. I'm hearing from the Administration witnesses about ‘times of tight budgets' and the need to make tough choices, but I continue to believe that we do not really need to be in this budget situation; rather that it was created by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans."
"The President's own Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has decried prior under-funding of physical sciences, and the DOE Office of Science in particular. Without additional funds, our national labs will be forced to continue to defer maintenance and deteriorate, our best and brightest students will choose not to pursue careers in math, science, and engineering, and innovation at our companies will suffer."
Orbach's written testimony was 23-pages long. In describing how the budget request was determined, he stated: "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." Orbach later added: "The priorities the Office of Science has set within the overall Federal R&D effort and in support of DOE's mission are clear: Through the FY 2006 Budget, we will fully support Presidential initiatives in fusion and hydrogen; we will continue strong support for other Administration priorities such as nanotechnology and information technology; we will complete - on time and within budget - unique scientific facilities that will maintain and enhance research in areas we believe offer the greatest potential for broad advances in future energy technologies. These scientific facilities were prioritized in our 20-year facilities outlook, announced in November 2003."
Toward the end of the hearing, Biggert asked Orbach about the status of the ITER project, its impact on funding for the domestic fusion program, and the siting of the facility. Orbach replied that "a strong domestic program is critical to the success of ITER and to the success of the United States in [its] participation. In the [FY] 06 budget, we have had to reduce somewhat the domestic program, but I would like to look at that in terms of a reorientation of the domestic program rather than a reduction. . . . We believe that the intellectual opportunities there are enormous." When Biggert expressed concern that a site had not yet been selected, Orbach reassured her that a decision whether to build ITER in France or Japan would be made "by July." Biggert also asked about the status of the Rare Isotope Accelerator, describing it as an important project for nuclear physics and for the nation, and asked if it was still a priority for DOE and the Office of Science. Orbach replied, "The Answer is yes," noting that Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has called it a "very important program both for nuclear physics and national security. Our problem, of course, is that currently we do not have a funding structure for it, and so we have withheld the request for proposals."