Last week’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology had twin objectives. It offered the opportunity for subcommittee members, a senior official of the DOE Office of Science, and two other witnesses to describe the importance of the research that the Office supports. It also gave the Members and witnesses a chance to offer first comments on a draft discussion bill to authorize programs and funding levels for the Office of Science in FY 2014 and FY 2015.
The hearing lasted 90-minutes and avoided the partisan divisions that characterized the House Science Committee’s deliberations on a new NASA authorization bill. While there were disagreements about funding levels, the bill’s two year span, and climate change research, they were low-key in nature and tone.
The bill the subcommittee was reviewing is now in a draft discussion form, and it is likely that it will be several months before it is finalized. It is to serve as follow-on legislation to the America COMPETES Act which is being considered by the committee in the form of two separate bills: one for the DOE Office of Science and the other for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The bill authorizing the DOE Office of Science is called the “Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act” or the EINSTEIN America Act. The bill will provide program direction for basic energy sciences, advanced scientific computing research, high energy physics, biological and environmental research, fusion energy science, and nuclear physics. A section by section analysis prepared by the subcommittee’s staff that is a part of the hearing charter comments on several distinct programs: a Light Source Leadership Initiative, exascale computing, underground science activities, low dose radiation research, a review of the fusion energy sciences program, and isotope production for research purposes. It also has sections on transparency, external regulations, technology transfer, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
A point of disagreement in the program authorization language concerned Biological and Environmental Research. As explained in the staff document, “The program shall prioritize fundamental research on biological systems and genomics sciences.” Subcommittee Member Mark Takano (D-CA) criticized this language for implicitly undercutting environmental and climate change research supported by the Office of Science. Patricia Dehmer, Acting Director of the Office of Science was asked if DOE supported this language. She replied no, saying that this research is “extremely important and we do not want to disadvantage that in the way that the language in the Majority draft has been interpreted.” Another witness, Horst Simon, Deputy Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, concurred with Dehmer, calling this research an “important and integral part of the DOE mission.” John Hemminger, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California, Irvine, and chair of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, agreed, calling it a “mistake to legislatively prioritize” programs. Subcommittee Republicans did not comment on this language during the hearing.
In Hemminger’s opening statement he spoke of the authorization levels in the discussion draft. Authorization levels do not provide actual program funding, but serve as guidelines for the appropriations bills. “The slight increase will not be sufficient” Hemminger told the subcommittee, a point that was by subcommittee Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) in his opening comments. Swalwell criticized the discussion draft’s authorization levels that provide “year-to-year increases of 1 to 1.7 percent, in effect cutting the Office’s budget,” explaining that “the rate of inflation for research is about 3 percent.” Swalwell called the proposed levels “simply unacceptable.”
The staff’s hearing charter notes the following figures for the Office of Science’s past and current budget:
FY 2012: $4,873.6 million FY 2013: $4,621.1 million
The bill authorizes the following levels for FY 2014 and FY 2015:
FY 2014: $4,700 million FY 2015: $4,747 million
The Administration requested $5,152.8 million for FY 2014. The House appropriations bill would provide $4,653.0 million
Swalwell also criticized the bill for authorizing funding levels for only two years, saying that a bill spanning five years would allow for more certainty in planning. Both Simon and Hemminger agreed.
The hearing touched on other interests and programs. House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) spoke of streamlining workplace regulations to reduce “burdensome red tape,” a point also discussed by subcommittee Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) in her opening statement. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) briefly discussed a discussion draft bill she introduced to reauthorize the COMPETES Act, and spoke of shared “common ground in our support of many of the Office’s programs.” In response to several questions by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Dehmer assured him that “Fermilab will be at the forefront” in working at the intensity frontier. She added, “we’re looking forward to a very good future for High Energy Physics and the laboratory.” Hultgren also spoke of the importance of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment.
In a later exchange, Hultgren spoke of what he characterized as delays, increased cost estimates, and poor project management at ITER, as well as the possibility that international partners may be unable to meet their obligations. He asked Dehmer: “Do you have full confidence in the construction and financing of ITER within a reasonable time frame and cost structure?” Dehmer did not answer his question directly, instead saying that DOE was waiting for two reviews and that it “will then take another look at how we are approaching ITER.” Of note, Hultgren asked if the U.S. should consider withdrawal from the project.
As she closed the hearing, Lummis asked the witnesses if they had any final comments. Dehmer spoke of how difficult it was to plan future programs and facilities because of shifting, and often lower than anticipated funding for the Office of Science. Simon discussed the problem of aging infrastructure at the national laboratories, and the need to consider new financing mechanisms to make necessary upgrades. Hemminger warned the subcommittee that the U.S. might experience brain drain in the future without greater funding and stability.
“The discussion draft and today’s hearing serve as a starting point in the legislative process. I look forward to the witnesses’ testimony and to working with Committee Members to improve and advance this draft bill,” said Chairman Smith in his opening statement. FYI will continue to report on the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act as it moves through the House and Senate.