GAO Assesses the Research Prioritization Process at the Department of Energy Office of Science

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Publication date: 
9 April 2012
Number: 
47

Frank Rusco, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at  the Government Accountability Office (GAO), recently drafted a report on the  Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science’s (SC) use of a multilayered  process for prioritizing research.  This  February 2012 report, prepared for Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ranking  Member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the Senate  Appropriations Committee, reviewed SC’s research priorities, explained how  those priorities were established, and offered a description of the  coordination between SC and other federal agencies used to identify areas of  potential duplication of research efforts.

The report concluded that while the federal budget process  provides an annual opportunity for agencies to formalize priorities, SC “develops priorities on an ongoing basis  through the continuous evaluation of evolving scientific knowledge and other contextual  factors.”

This report provided a background summary of the four goals  underpinning DOE’s mission and listed SC’s support of fundamental research  through six core interdisciplinary research programs: Advanced Scientific Computing  Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion  Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, and Nuclear Physics. 

“The office  establishes priorities by having its associate directors and the Director of  the Office make trade-off decisions during the annual budgeting process.  These trade-off decisions are informed  through assessing areas of evolving scientific knowledge and other contextual  factors,” the report explained. 

The report addressed how SC is managing budgeting issues in light  of the current economic situation:

“The Deputy Director  said that Science remains committed to all six of its research programs and  that, in the case of stable or declining budgets, Science does not intend to  limit funding reductions to certain programs.   Additionally, the Deputy Director noted that advancements in one  research program enable research in other programs.”

Details of the budget formulation process were laid out in  this report:

“The associate  directors of the six research programs annually make proposals to the Science  Director, Deputy Directors, and Science Budget Office about which research  projects should receive increased, decreased, and maintained levels of  funding.  An overall target budget  allocation, determined by the Science Director and the DOE’s Chief Financial  Advisor, constrains these program proposals.”

Regarding the role of the Science Budget Office and the  associate directors, the report stated:

“The Science Budget  Office, in alignment with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] guidance and  requirements, asks associate directors to submit a budget for a target scenario  and may also request budgets for various other scenarios for specific  levels of funding above or below the target.   These scenarios allow the Director, Deputy Directors, and Science Budget  Director to see the potential effects of various budget decisions at the  project level.  Additionally associate  directors make lists of specific projects recommended for funding increases in  case funding is available and decreases in case funding is short.  Associate directors are also required to  submit narratives that describe the strategy behind any proposed increases or  decreases in project funding.”

The SC director “reconciles  priorities across programs annually by aggregating program proposals into a  Science-wide budget request.  The  Science-wide budget request is considered in the context of other DOE  priorities and incorporated into the DOE budget request.”

Senior SC management gather information to determine  priorities through a variety of means, including: recent guidance from federal  advisory committees, current findings from the National Academy of Sciences,  participation in interagency working groups and other partnerships, the current  priorities of Congress and the administration, a consideration of the long time  frames associated with basic research, the capabilities of facilities to meet  research needs, as well as past and current project performance. 

While the report discussed SC’s coordination efforts with  program officials, the scope of the request for the report “did not involve evaluating the extend to which Science’s tools for  coordination are effective in identifying or mitigating duplication, overlap or  fragmentation.”

In a response to the report, Deputy Director for Science  Programs at the DOE’s Office of Science, Patricia Dehmer, indicated that the  Office of Science had no additional recommended edits or comments. 

The full report can be read here.

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