Energy Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach received a friendly reception when he testified before the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee on March 13. Despite this reception, it appears that the FY 2009 Office of Science request is facing significant challenges, not so much as a result of how high it is, but more because of how low, in Chairman Peter Visclosky's (D-IN) eyes, other DOE program requests are.
Visclosky's opening statement (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2008/036.html) summarized the good new/bad news from this hearing. He told Orbach, "Your office is something of an anomaly in the Department of Energy: you do your best to deliver on promises made to this Committee and to follow the law of the land - a philosophy that other programs within DOE should adopt. Without your competent management, I would dismiss out of hand the 19% increase for Science, given that the President's request savages the other energy and water programs under the Subcommittee's jurisdiction." Visclosky later said, "I am not a logician and therefore when looking toward fiscal year 2009 I fail to comprehend the President's logic in requesting a huge increase for Science while cutting funding for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy programs by $467 million. I fail to comprehend the reason behind requesting a huge increase in Science while decimating the DOE environmental clean-up and the water programs under our jurisdiction by more than $1 billion."
Ranking Member David Hobson (R-OH) spoke of the trust Orbach had earned on both sides of the aisle in the six years he has appeared before the subcommittee. Hobson blamed "politics" between the White House and Congress as the reason for the disappointing FY 2008 outcome. Echoing Visclosky, Hobson said this lower-than-expected funding was not a reflection on the Office of Science.
Orbach highlighted the proposal for Energy Frontier Research Centers in his brief oral testimony, and then turned to two areas that had been hard-hit in the FY 2008 appropriations: ITER and High Energy Physics. The FY 2009 requests for both fields would get them back on track, he told the subcommittee.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) spoke of how most Members of Congress do not realize the awkward position the United States is in because ITER received no funding this year. He hoped that President Bush would "allow a special title" in the upcoming supplemental funding bill to provide this money, saying it would benefit U.S. universities and industry, and DOE laboratories. "This is a big deal," he said, calling for all parties to come together. "The Executive Branch needs to do its part," he added. In response to a question from Wamp, Orbach said that ITER was his number one priority.
During his first set of questions, Visclosky commented that it was unwise to make operating decisions before a budget was approved. Orbach explained that while the 19% requested increase for the Office of Science appears to be large, it follows the trajectories in the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES law. It "looks large because of past history," Orbach added, referring to this year's budget outcome.
Visclosky asked if the United States was the leader in all of the fields the Office of Science supports. Orbach replied affirmatively, but when questioned further, said he is worried that U.S. leadership will be tested when the Large Hadron Collider and ITER commence operations. Maintaining this U.S. leadership will be "tricky," Orbach said, adding that he did not want to see this happen in other fields.
Rep. Steven Israel (D-NY) asked Orbach about Brookhaven National Laboratory's National Synchrotron Light Source. Orbach said it was "coming along quite well" and would maintain U.S. leadership for at least a decade. He explained that other nations are building similar facilities. Israel asked about the impacts of a widely-expected three-to-six months or more continuing resolution to provide stopgap funding after October 1, the start of FY 2009. Orbach said that construction would continue at a slower pace, resulting in an inevitably higher project cost. Somewhat echoing Visclosky, Rep. John Olver (D-MA) spoke of being "very pleased" with the request for the Office of Science, but expressed concern about the Administration's proposed 27.1 percent budget cut to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) returned to a discussion of ITER. Why, he asked, does the U.S. need to participate in this project? Orbach responded that ITER offers the best hope for large-scale energy production that will have a minimal environmental impact. Success is not assured, Orbach said, but if it succeeds and the United States was not part of the effort, the consequences would be significant. Calvert, who is an ITER supporter, said "we made a deal" to participate in ITER, and asked what would happen if the United States failed to honor its commitment. Orbach responded that the U.S. would lose all credibility, with "tragic" consequences for future involvement in other projects. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR) also asked about ITER, with Orbach saying that he would keep the U.S. project office open "one way or another."
When the questioning returned to Chairman Visclosky he asked about the $100 million request for the proposed Energy Frontier Research Centers. Orbach said he envisioned twenty to thirty centers would receive funding. Each center would have around five or six scientists that would receive annual grants of $2 to $5 million for five years, with no matching requirement. Open competition would be used to select the centers, which are open to any sector. Visclosky said he "really appreciates this initiative." Visclosky also asked Orbach if he believed that there was sufficient funding for applied research in energy programs. Orbach replied "I do," citing the coordination that is taking place between basic and applied research programs.
The discussion returned to ITER when Olver asked if DOE had adequately considered all types of fusion energy. Orbach replied affirmatively, explained the thinking behind ITER. Simpson wanted to know if President Bush would seek supplemental FY 2008 ITER funding; Orbach responded "we do not have information" if a White House request would be forthcoming. In the final round of questions from Members there were discussions about current and future Office of Science programs in bioenergy, the conversion of scientific results into commercial applications, medical isotope production, and research on mitigating climate change effects.
Toward the end of the hearing, Chairman Visclosky asked Orbach what would be the consequences if ITER received no funding in FY 2009. Orbach replied that it would be a "dreadful setback," adding if ITER works, a nonparticipating U.S. would find it very difficult to build a fusion demonstration power plant. Just as the United States is buying oil now, it could find itself buying electricity in the future, Orbach predicted.
Visclosky ended the hearing by saying that the subcommittee would send the Office of Science many additional questions for the record. "We wish you well," he told Orbach.