DOE "Future of Science Programs" Report Goes to Secretary

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Publication date: 
19 December 2003

Last week, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (see was briefed on the "Final Report of the Task Force on the Future of Science Programs at the Department of Energy." The Board has now formally sent this report, prepared under the direction of Task Force chairman Charles Vest, to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

The December 10 plenary meeting started with remarks by Secretary Abraham. He had high praise for the Task Force report (see /fyi/2003/135.html), saying it would play an important role in shaping DOE during this century.

Board Chairman Peter McPherson opened the discussion on the report by describing it as "an extremely thorough job." Since Vest was unable to attend this meeting, William Martin, former deputy secretary at DOE, briefed the Board. He explained that Vest personally wrote this much-lauded report. Martin complimented Ray Orbach and Jim Decker for their work at DOE, and praised the speech by Abraham at the National Press Club on the 20-year facilities plan (see /fyi/2003/150.html).

Martin identified a key problem: "Nobody knows that DOE does science." Despite major scientific accomplishments, including Nobel prize-winning research, "nobody recognizes that," Martin said. Expanding his remarks, Martin was critical of the title of "Director" for the head of the DOE Office of Science, saying that it "sounds like a mid-level bureaucrat." "In this particular town, science seems to be devalued," he said, calling for an elevation of this position to "Undersecretary of Science." Martin was quick to explain that his remarks were not a critique of the current administration, which he thought was supportive of science, but rather an expression of concern about the five to ten year future.

"How to get science up there?," Martin asked. He reinforced the need for elevating the position of the director of the Office of Science. Martin also called for providing sustained levels of support for DOE research, and discussed the decaying infrastructure at many DOE facilities. He described the Task Force's call for a landmark project, and the construction of new large machines. "Let's go for it," he said.

Public comments were received during the Board's afternoon session on the report. Steve Pierson, Head of Government Relations for the American Physical Society, provided comments for ASTRA, the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America. APS and the American Institute of Physics belong to ASTRA. Pierson explained that ASTRA endorses the Task Force report, and stated, "ASTRA shares the Task Force's deep concern for the decades of stagnant federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering, and the resulting decay and deferred maintenance at the national laboratories. . . ." Pierson's comments highlighted ASTRA's support for strengthening DOE's investment in physical sciences and advanced engineering research, and elevation of the position of the director of the Office of Science. "The first step will be to provide the funding in FY 05 for a robust start of the Administration's 20-year facility plan," he concluded. Other comments were offered by a representative of the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Earlier, the Energy Sciences Coalition, to which AIP and APS also belong, sent a letter to Secretary Abraham about the report. Expressing "strong support for the excellent work" by the Task Force, the letter stated that the report "delivers a frank assessment of the future of science programs at the Department of Energy." The letter continued, "To help reverse these [decades-long stagnant] funding trends that threaten the U.S. scientific enterprise, we agree with the report's recommendation that the Department should be more aggressive in managing the nation's physical science and engineering programs." "If the Office of Science is to lead the Department toward achieving its national, economic, and energy security goals, the steps outlined by the SEAB report must be taken," this letter concluded, signed by the coalition's chair, Kathryn Bannan.

APS President Myriam Sarachik also commented on the task force report on behalf of the American Physical Society. In a December 8 letter to Abraham, she wrote, "The recommendations are insightful and constructive, with two standing out. We applaud the recommendations that the Department should 'strengthen the federal investment in the physical sciences and advanced engineering research' and should 'have an Under Secretary for Science.' Strong and sustained increases in the budget for the Office of Science are vital for achieving the Department's missions. An Under Secretary for Science will help to realize the budget increases, while raising DOE science to the status it deserves and ensuring proper management of DOE's invaluable civilian research."

Visible and vocal support is building for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The release of the Task Force report, the 20-year facilities report, and congressional agreement on substantially higher science program authorization levels in the stalled energy policy bill indicate a recognition of the importance of the science research supported by DOE, and the need to reverse the decades-long stagnant funding profile for this program. The next and very crucial step in this process is the release of President's Bush FY 2005 budget request for the Office of Science. This budget is in the very final stages of being prepared, with it being scheduled to go to Congress the first week of February.

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