Praise, Support Expressed for DOE's Office of Science

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Publication date: 
20 August 2003

"The nation must have a balanced investment to maintain the overall health of science and technology research.... Recent funding increases in NIH and NSF cannot compensate for the declines in funding at federal agencies such as the Department of Energy." - Senator Lamar Alexander

DOE's Office of Science received a publicity boost on July 29. Calling the office "arguably the brightest star in the Department of Energy," Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) chaired a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy that highlighted the past achievements and future promise of research funded by the office, while noting that it has been overlooked in congressional efforts to increase the federal investment in science. As Alexander pointed out, the Office of Science is the country's largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences, funding about 70 percent of physics basic research and a significant portion of research in materials, mathematics and computing. Yet the office has experienced essentially flat budgets for the past decade. The FY 2004 budget request for the office is $3.3 billion. Alexander praised the Senate version of the energy policy bill (S. 14), saying it "corrects the recent trend towards flat-lining funding for the basic sciences." The bill would authorize $3.79 billion in FY 2004, as would the companion bill in the House. (Senate appropriators have recommended $3.36 billion for FY 2004, while appropriators in the House would provide $3.48 billion.)

Alexander and his first witness, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, framed the issue as one of jobs, economic prosperity, national security, and quality of life. "I don't think there is full appreciation," Abraham said, for how achievements in public health, telecommunications, supercomputing, and many other fields "are dependent upon progress in the physical sciences." In particular, he cited the role of DOE in advances such as artificial retinas, the map of the human genome, microbes to absorb carbon dioxide and create hydrogen, and "virtually every aspect" of energy resources, production, waste and storage. He described how investments today in such fields as fusion, hydrogen, supercomputers and nanomaterials might lead to benefits several decades in the future.

The remaining witnesses added their voices to the concern over funding trends for the Office of Science. "I'm most concerned... about funding long-term, high-risk research - research that we can, on any one day, postpone," said Argonne National Laboratory Director Hermann Grunder. Commenting that "it's easy to spend money [but] harder to spend it well," Burton Richter, former Director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, declared that Office of Science funds "are being spent well." He cited "world-class facilities" that are used by more than 18,000 researchers from universities, industry, and the national labs, and the "prodigious" scientific output that has led to numerous papers and Nobel prizes. He also pointed out that, as the manufacture of current technologies moves offshore, U.S. industry relies on federal R&D in order to develop the next generation of cutting edge technologies.

Several witnesses said that Members of Congress may think they are "taking care of the physical sciences" by increasing the NSF budget, but as Richter noted, "they are not." Grunder stated that the adequacy of support can be assessed by whether "the best and brightest young people are choosing careers" in the physical sciences. Georgia Institute of Technology President G. Wayne Clough, who chaired a PCAST panel that called for increasing federal funding for the physical sciences, reported that the panel had found "too few U.S. students going into those fields" and "declining interest" among foreign students. Richter added that DOE can only fund about 10 percent of the grant proposals it receives from university researchers, while NIH and NSF are able to fund about 30 percent.

The witnesses' testimony, Alexander said, would help the committee in "trying to correct the imbalance we have in funding" for the physical sciences. "Perhaps the most important thing we can do," he added, is to "present a compelling vision of where we hope to be" in the future, and "help the taxpayers and...Members of Congress understand" how advances in many fields are dependent upon the physical sciences. "Over the last 10 or 12 years," he said, "we've lost sight of that fact."

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