Basic Energy Sciences Panel Hears from Ray Orbach

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Publication date: 
6 June 2003

At a recent meeting, the Director of DOE's Office of Science, Ray Orbach, announced that the final 20-year strategic plan for his Office will contain 29 of the 53 facilities projects recommended by the office's advisory committees. At the May 28 meeting of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), Orbach also shared his thoughts on the importance of getting authorizing legislation for his office passed, and on the quality of DOE science.

The 20-year facilities plan is undergoing internal DOE review and should be released soon, Orbach reported. The plan is based on the authorization levels given in the House and Senate energy bills now working their way through Congress. Orbach explained that he first estimated the increases needed to support and operate the base Office of Science programs over the 20-year period. Then he included as many of the facility recommendations as he could fit, using a prioritized list that he developed with the help of his office's Associate Directors, based on the quality of science, the impact to the field, and other factors. "Out of the 53 projects [with a total cost of $50 million or more]...we ended up with 29 that could fit underneath the envelope," he said. While he could not yet reveal the contents of the plan, Orbach told the committee it is "an exciting list," based on responsible budgeting, that will be "a blueprint for maintaining the primacy of U.S. research" in the future. He added that he had taken into account the committee's concerns that university research not be harmed by funding for the facilities projects.

Earlier this year, based on the funding levels recommended in Rep. Judy Biggert's (R-IL) 2002 energy authorization bill (H.R. 5270), Orbach had indicated that he might be able to fit all the recommended projects into the plan (see FYI #29). However, funding levels for the Office of Science in the current House and Senate energy bills are lower than the levels in Biggert's bill, giving Orbach less money to work with. The House has now passed a four-year authorization bill, H.R. 6, while the Senate is still debating its five-year bill, S. 14. Orbach reported that he used the funding levels authorized in H.R. 6 for fiscal years 2004-2007, and the level authorized in S. 14 for FY 2008. He then estimated funding levels for the remainder of the 20-year period using President Bush's estimate that funding for federal programs would generally grow by four percent annually. "That's how we did the exercise," he said; "that's what capped the number of projects we could include."

It is "terribly important" that an energy bill authorizing funding levels for the Office of Science is passed by Congress and signed by the President, Orbach stated. He thought that not having an authorization for 15 years "has hurt" his office; while the President's FY 2004 request reflected "very strong" budgets for some other R&D agencies (above the FY 2003 request), Orbach said his office "didn't have an authorization, and I think we got left out as a consequence of that." He hoped the current authorization process would be completed in early summer, in time to have a "significant" impact on DOE's planning for its FY 2005 budget request, but some reports indicate that debate on S. 14 may continue into September. Orbach did not comment on the provision in the Senate bill to create an Under Secretary for Energy and Science position, and to redefine his position as an Assistant Secretary for Science.

Authorization levels are intended to give guidance to the appropriators, who decide the actual budget for a department or agency. "If the appropriated level is significantly lower" than the authorized level, Orbach said, "some projects will fall off the list." The purpose of prioritizing the list, he noted, was to "deal with the realities of the appropriations process."

Orbach also commented on the importance of explaining to the Administration and Congress the difference between a mission agency, like DOE, and a general science agency, like NSF. While research supported by the Office of Science focuses on areas of relevance to DOE's mission, he noted, there is no difference in the peer review process and the quality of the science. Many policymakers are "confused," he said, and do not appreciate that Office of Science research "is indistinguishable from the very best science supported by the federal government.... It is the very best science supported by the federal government."

Also at the BESAC meeting, Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT, who also chairs the AIP Governing Board, reported on a recent workshop addressing the basic research needed to support a hydrogen economy. As chair of the committee that will produce a report from the workshop, Dresselhaus remarked that there were some "very promising" ideas, and she was more optimistic after the workshop that "some of the potential showstoppers may have solutions." However, she said that solving the problems of hydrogen production, storage, distribution and use "won't be solved by legislating a timetable," and will need long-term support across several Administrations. Progress will require the cooperation of different offices within DOE, and also the involvement of scientists from other countries, she noted, because "the U.S. is not a leader" in hydrogen research. Her committee plans to outline some prioritized research directions to give guidance to program managers.

The committee received an update on construction of the Spallation Neutron Source from Thom Mason of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He reported that, with three years to go, the project was "on track" to be completed in a safe manner, on time (with completion expected in June 2006), and within the approved budget (total project cost: $1.4 billion). Due to technical improvements, he added, the project will deliver higher beam power, better instruments, and more lab and office space than originally planned. Although the SNS was subject to a rescission in the FY 2003 appropriations bill, full funding was restored in a supplemental bill, and Mason anticipated continued full funding in the coming years.