House Science Subcommittee Hearing on New DOE Office of Science Bill

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Publication date: 
26 November 2013
Number: 
156

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.