Good Days on Capitol Hill for Ray Orbach

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Publication date: 
4 April 2006

Ray Orbach has completed testifying before House and Senate appropriators about the 14.1% requested budget increase for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. During two morning hearings last week before House and Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee appropriators, Director Orbach heard much praise and little or no criticism about the FY 2007 request. While these hearings are not money in the bank, they are positive signs about the receptivity of appropriators to the request.

House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) began his hearing, which was devoted exclusively to the Office of Science, by saying "In general, I'm a strong supporter of basic research and I give [Energy] Secretary [Samuel] Bodman and Dr. Orbach credit for bringing about this healthy increase in the science budget." Hobson continued, "The Secretary deserves recognition for making some hard choices within an overall budget for the Department of Energy. It remains essentially flat for ‘07. I know that others may not be happy with the other programs that the Secretary chose to cut in order to provide for the Office of Science increase, but I respect the Secretary's willingness to make such tradeoffs. . . . I also want to give Dr. Orbach credit for instituting a long range planning process that lends credibility to the proposed science budget for ‘07. Starting with a twenty-year outlook for DOE science facilities, the Office of Science went on to prepare business plans for each of its ten science laboratories and then used all that information to prepare a five-year budget plan for the Office of Science." And then, of note, Hobson declared, "This is how I envisioned the long range planning budget working and I appreciate that Dr. Orbach and his staff took this very seriously. I only wish that other programs' officers in DOE took it as seriously. Maybe they will eventually make the connection between having a credible long range planning process and having a credible budget request, or maybe not. There will always be some winners and some losers in the competition for a limited appropriation."

Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) expressed support for a "long overdue" increase in the Office of Science budget, although he pointed out that it came at the expense of other DOE programs. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who has raised concerns about fusion funding in previous hearings, stated, "The 2007 budget request of $319 million for fusion energy research looks pretty healthy as it allows you to invest in ITER while maintaining domestic fusion research activities in operating U.S. fusion facilities at optimal levels." Frelinghuysen did express concern about a 25% proposed cut in high energy density physics at the OMEGA facility and the National Compact Stellarator Experiment (NCSX). Frelinghuysen seemed generally satisfied with Orbach's explanation of how the National Nuclear Security Administration would be supporting some of this work as the Office of Science focuses on ITER, and that NCSX funding was on target, with future funding support for OMEGA through a different channel. At the end of the hearing, Visclosky asked Orbach, "Under the five-year plan, will other domestic fusion work for Office of Science programs be reduced in the out years to pay for the U.S. share of ITER?" Orbach replied, "No. We intend to continue the domestic program with at least an inflationary increase over the next five years."

Visclosky asked Orbach about the decision to defer construction of the Rare Isotope Accelerator. Visclosky seemed to accept Orbach's explanation that projected exotic beam funding would not support construction of the facility, with future decisions awaiting a National Academies' report due this fall. DOE has scheduled project engineering and design to commence in FY 2011 on such a facility. Visclosky also asked Orbach about differences in median starting salaries for new PhDs in physics, citing an article in the March issue of "Physics Today" that summarized a study conducted by AIP's Statistical Research Center (see .)

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) represents the district in which the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source is nearing completion. Wamp praised Orbach in keeping the SNS on schedule and budget, and then said of the Republican and Democratic leaders of the subcommittee, "the Hobson-Visclosky partnership will have changed its unique situation for an appropriation subcommittee to have this kind of impact on authorization, but they will have changed the paradigm of nuclear weapons and they will have made a huge change in investments for science, for physical sciences, for supercomputing, for programs that are going to change the next generation and I think it's remarkable and I think we need to highlight it."

Several representatives asked Orbach about future cellulosic ethanol research programs. Orbach responded by summarizing an announcement that had been made just the day before, saying the Office of Science is "reorienting our Genomics -- GTL Program toward biofuels, and bio-energy is the title we gave it, and we're very interested in using genomics to structure microbes to transform cellulose into ultimately ethanol to avoid having to go through the current process, to use enzymes to get sugars and then you have to ferment the sugars." Orbach said a competition will be announced this summer for two vertically-structured bio-energy research centers. He said they will be cooperative agreements for which anyone can compete. Around six months will be given for a response to the RFP, with awards expected about one year from now if the budget request is enacted. He admitted that this was high-risk, but enormously high pay off research, with results to be expected after five or six years.

Other topics raised during this hearing included competition for management contracts for the national laboratories, DOE's K-12 education efforts, the department's high-end computation program, and future workforce diversity.

As expected at this early point in the appropriations cycle, Chairman Hobson made no predictions about what his subcommittee would recommend for the FY 2007 Office of Science budget. He did ask Orbach about budget planning scenarios, saying "but you may not get it all . . . you know, there may be some things that we have to do."

Senate appropriations subcommittee chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and his colleagues gave Orbach another warm reception the next day. Ranking Member Harry Reid (D-NV) said he was "delighted to see" the Office of Science budget request. But he noted that major cuts had been made in congressional priorities that would be restored by reducing funding in what he called "significant initiatives" without elaboration. Domenici predicted that Orbach's nomination to be Under Secretary for Science would soon pass the Senate floor. Commenting on President Bush's initiatives, Domenici said that physical sciences funding is "of the utmost importance" for the U.S. to retain its leadership edge. Listing major energy research programs with large price tags, Domenici declared that there were tough fiscal decisions to be made. While the questions at this hearing that also had David Garman, Under Secretary for Energy and Environment, primarily focused on energy-related issues, there were only positive words about the Office of Science at this hearing. How this high regard will translate into hard dollars will be evident when both subcommittees release their versions of the FY 2007 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bills in coming months.