Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's release last week of "Facilities for the Future of Science: A Twenty-Year Outlook," seems to signal a change in the perception of the programs of the Office of Science and the role that these programs will play in America's future. As Abraham wrote in his message in this 46-page report, "These additional world-class Office of Science user facilities and upgrades to current facilities will lead to more world-class science, which will lead to further world-class R&D, which will lead to greater technological innovation and many other advances, which will lead to continued U.S. economic competitiveness."
The underlying process, clarity and presentation of this report are noteworthy. In an attempt to answer the often-asked question, what would you do if you had more money?, Office of Science Director Ray Orbach started a process in the fall of 2002 to prioritize future major facilities. This process was much more labor and time intensive than first envisioned. As outlined in four pages of this report, the six Associate Directors were asked to develop a list of desired major facilities or upgrades costing $50 million or more. This process was completed by December 2002, and resulted in 46 facilities being identified. These facilities were then reviewed by the six Office of Science advisory committees whose members are drawn from academia (64%), DOE labs (15%), industry (10%), and other government agencies and institutions. The committees assessed the proposed facilities in terms of scientific importance and construction readiness. By this stage in the process, the list had grown to 53 facilities.
Orbach then prioritized these facilities within a funding envelope. Projecting what the Office of Science's budget will be in two years is difficult; looking ahead 20 years even more so. The decision was made to use the authorization numbers contained in the energy policy authorization bill (which was approved by the House this week.) These figures, originally developed by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL), are through FY 2008. For the years beyond, an annual 4% increase was calculated. Having determined this funding profile, Orbach then narrowed the list to 28 facilities across scientific disciplines "according to his assessment of their scientific promise and their fit within the Department's missions." It is important to note that in working within this funding envelope, the Office of Science's "base research programs and the other responsibilities" costs were first calculated, to which the funding requirements for the contemplated facilities were then added. Twelve of the 28 facilities are identified as near-term (first six years), seven as mid-term, and eight as far-term. Project construction dates and funding levels are not specified. Abraham and another senior DOE official stressed the transparency and interdisciplinary characteristics of the selection process. The report can be accessed at: http://www.sc.doe.gov/Sub/Facilities_for_future/facilities_future.htm
Both the drafting and the release of this report indicate considerable support. It was released in a highly visible public forum at the National Press Club with a major address by Secretary Abraham. Also, as explained in the introduction, the report "benefitted from discussions with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, and members of Congress." This was not a document developed in isolation.
However, this is not a budget document, but as one senior DOE official stated, "an outlook." As an all-important and carefully- worded footnote states, "The Office of Science understands that construction of the facilities listed within the envelopes will depend on many factors, including funding being available as needed with all technology hurdles surmounted as planned." "No one believes we will get all of the machines in twenty years," this official stated. When asked when the facilities will be built, this same official stated, "I wish I could tell you; it will depend on the funding." It is expected that the first funding ramifications of this plan will be evidenced in the FY 2006 budget request, which will be sent to Congress in fourteen months.
When Secretary Abraham was asked about the timing of these facilities, he replied that those decisions are "up to the presidents and Congresses" during the next twenty years. A major factor in determining what decisions are made in Washington, both next year, and in the years to come, will be the amount of vocal and sustained public interest and support that is expressed for the Department of Energy's Office of Science and its programs.