Required Reading: New Report on DOE Science Programs

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Publication date: 
23 October 2003

Rarely has a 25-page report offered so many important findings and recommendations about the conduct of federally-supported science. The just-released final draft report of a task force of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board is must reading for those interested in the importance of the DOE Office of Science and the physical science research it supports. While brief in length, the report provides a clear diagnosis of stagnant funding and management deficiencies and why it is necessary that these problems be corrected. The Advisory Board is now seeking public input on the report.

The October 13 "Final Report of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board's Task Force on the Future of Science Programs at the Department of Energy" was produced by a fourteen member panel chaired by MIT President Charles Vest. The Task Force included university officials, industry and association CEOs, the former president of the Nasdaq Stock Market, and senior policy analysts. Established in May 2002, the entire Task Force met five times, complemented by the meetings of various subgroups. Confidential interviews were also held with individuals in the Administration, Federal agencies, Congress, and the scientific user community.

The report, identified as a final draft, can be divided into four parts. The first, a one-page summary, begins by stating, "The Department of Energy has a paramount responsibility for keeping American science preeminent in the 21st century." The summary briefly outlines the Task Force's six major recommendations, ranging from the appointment of an Under Secretary for Science to the establishment of "critically important and inspirational new scientific programs" in energy, advanced computation, and frontier research facilities.

One of the report's strengths is the clear and convincing case it makes for the importance of physical science research and the Office of Science. Describing the importance of secure, sustainable, clean and affordable energy to the United States, the Task Force declares, "America can be free, secure and economically strong in the 21st century only if we continue to excel in science and advanced technology." The report then states, "America can meet its energy needs if and only if we make a strong and sustained investment in research in physical science, engineering, and applicable areas of life science, and if we translate advancing scientific knowledge into practice."

In the report's second section, the Task Force identified important shortcomings. While concluding that DOE has "an excellent record of scientific accomplishment," it found that "The importance of DOE science and facilities to our national, economic and energy security are not well understood by the American public, Congress, or the Executive Branch." The Task Force did not pull any punches in describing some of its findings about deficiences in process, communication, and interaction in this area. It was unambiguous in describing the "stagnant" federal investment in physical sciences and engineering over 30 years, concluding, "the U.S. is no longer the clear leader in some important areas of science" such as high-energy physics and neutron sources for materials science and biology. "The budgets of DOE science suffer from the Department's historically poor reputation as badly managed, excessively fragmented, and politically unresponsive. DOE science budgets have not received the priority merited by their importance to our Nation's future energy, security, and economy." "Whether this reputation is deserved, this perception exists and need to be addressed."

The third section of the report outlines a series of recommendations. The first is the need for an Under Secretary of Science. This new position would elevate and better organize the conduct of science at DOE. A high-level Science Advisory Board, similar to the National Science Board or the Defense Science Board, should be established. Better communication and interaction with the public, Congress, other federal agencies, and the Executive Office of the President is essential. Strategic planning for the next twenty years should be incorporated into DOE's R&D initiatives. Merit-based competition should be increased, and the optimium balance of national laboratory, university, and industrial performers sought. A significantly better financed plan to renew laboratories, facilities and infrastructure must be instituted. To promote and meet DOE's "mission of leadership in energy, security, and science," three "major, highly visible research initiatives" should be started. Regarding future funding, the Task Force stated, "The Department should strengthen the federal investment in the physical sciences and advanced engineering research." DOE should also "dramatically enhance its role in educating and training future scientists and engineers."

The Task Force report, with instructions on how to offer public comments, can be accessed at:

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