ITER is Focus of Fusion Advisory Committee Meeting

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Publication date: 
11 August 2003

"ITER is more than just fusion energy sciences; it may well be the path forward for all of large-scale truly international science collaboration. So we have a lot at stake in this process." - DOE Office of Science Director Ray Orbach

The multi-national collaboration to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and the project's impact on the domestic fusion program, was a main topic of discussion at a July 31 - August 1 meeting of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee. As at a recent High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) meeting (see FYI #102), other major topics included the need to develop program performance measures and the need for a consistent set of criteria, spanning all fields of science, for building large-scale facilities.

N. Anne Davies, the director of DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) program, described the current status of the FY 2004 appropriations process and her efforts to develop a financial plan for the year in the absence of a final appropriations bill. Using the lower of the House and Senate appropriators' recommendations ($257.3 million, equal to the request), Davies warned, "We will not be able to do all of what Congress told us to do." Her guiding principles for the FY 2004 financial plan include supporting ITER transitional arrangements; partially restoring cuts to other international collaborations; increasing the level of facility operations over FY 2003; and minimizing personnel disruptions (although she acknowledged that "there will be some"). Davies said that the budget request for FES was premised on emphasizing the activities necessary to support ITER participation, while delaying or postponing longer-term efforts. However, she noted that both the House and Senate appropriations committee reports raised concerns about the imbalance between ITER and the domestic fusion program (see FYI #95 for text of the report language).

Davies mentioned that a draft version of a National Research Council report laying out a strategy for the magnetic fusion program should be available in October, and at the meeting, FESAC was charged with developing an assessment of the status of inertial confinement fusion (both Office of Science and defense programs). The committee was also charged with providing input on the fusion program's performance measures, and with assessing whether the current system of educating scientists and engineers is adequate to ensure that future FES workforce needs are met.

DOE's Office of Science Director Ray Orbach told the committee that the promise of fusion "has made an impression on the Secretary of Energy and the White House.... There is momentum here," he declared. The ITER negotiations are "more important than just ITER," Orbach remarked. They are "setting the framework" for future collaborations and, "as a consequence, if something goes wrong...if we are unable to bring it to will have ramifications far beyond fusion." For example, he said, in early discussions about constructing an international Linear Collider, "people are looking to the ITER framework to define a path forward." Regarding the need to develop performance measures, Orbach said that "the government is in the business of spending taxpayer dollars. It has lots of ways of spending those dollars, and it wants to make sure that the funds are spent in the most effective fashion, and in science, that's comparing one science program with another."

Across the U.S. scientific enterprise, "we have tremendous numbers of facilities that exist, and more that are being proposed," said Patrick Looney, OSTP's Assistant Director for Physical Sciences and Engineering. Expanding on remarks he made at the HEPAP meeting, Looney said that "at OSTP, we're do we start to make sense of this bigger picture? It's overwhelming, to be honest with you." Looney described a "wide disparity in the quantity and quality of information used to justify" facility investments and commented that a panel of the National Science and Technology Council is working to develop criteria for investing in scientific facilities across all fields. Looney offered his own personal suggestions for investment criteria, including whether the facility addresses important scientific questions; how it impacts other efforts in the field and other fields of science; whether there is coordination and collaboration both domestically and internationally; whether the planning is realistic; and how the program is performing with current funds. "My feeling," he said, "is that we are in danger of saturating our available budgets with low-priority, redundant, and uncoordinated activities."

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