Orbach Sees Promising Future for Science at the Department of Energy

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Publication date: 
7 August 2006

"Both the Senate and the House have expressed their confidence in you, the scientific community,"Under Secretary for Science Ray Orbach told the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee on August 3. Orbach made a number of important points during his 45-minute presentation about the FY 2007 appropriations outlook, his new position, how basic and applied research programs at the Department will improve their communications and coordination in the future, and ITER.

Orbach was very pleased with how the House and Senate appropriations committees have fully funded the 14.1% requested increase for the Office of Science (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/088.html.) Of particular note was how the committees added additional money for congressionally-earmarked projects above the President's request, something that Orbach had not seen in the last five budget cycles. These recommended increases demonstrate the confidence and commitment that Congress has in the Office of Science, he said, adding that the consequences of a doubling of the Office's budget over ten years would be "phenomenal."

When the Congress will finish work on the FY 2007 funding bill is uncertain, with it looking "increasingly likely," Orbach told the committee, that the legislation will not be finished until after the November election, at least a full month into the new budget year. "We don't know" what the consequences of that delay would be on DOE's science programs, he added. If stop-gap funding continued at the current level it "would really hurt the new initiatives" the department wants to start.

The Energy Policy Act, now one year old, established the position of Under Secretary for Science. For the remainder of this Administration, Orbach will "dual hat" this position and that of the Director of the Office of Science (Orbach explained that future Energy Secretaries will have to decide how to staff these positions.) On July 3, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman sent Orbach a memorandum stating: "the primary responsibility of the Under Secretary for Science is to advance the science portfolio at the Department of Energy and to strengthen the contributions of science to all of the Department's activities in collaboration with the Under Secretary and the Under Secretary for Nuclear Security." In addition, the memo stated, "to work collaboratively with the Under Secretary and Under Secretary for Nuclear Security to review all applied research programs in the Department to better coordinate these programs with the Department's basic research programs. . . ."

This memo, Orbach explained, gives him the mandate to work with the Department's applied research programs. It is his goal to develop better communications between basic and applied research programs at the Department, while maintaining the integrity of the Office of Science. He quickly added that he does not want to "fuzz" the boundaries between Office of Science programs and applied research programs. Reaction within the Department to increasing communications has been "very positive," he said.

Orbach gave a number of examples of what he envisions. The National Ignition Facility is scheduled to come on line in 2010. Operation of this facility will provide unanticipated "surprises," and Orbach wants basic research scientists to be involved. He said it is not clear where stockpile stewardship ends and science begins when the NIF achieves ignition. Other examples of areas requiring collaboration and coordination between basic and applied research programs are advanced nuclear energy systems, alternative energy, hydrogen, materials, high-performance computing, and carbon sequestration. "We can learn a lot" at the interface, he told the committee.

In response to a question, Orbach said the department is still in the process of responding to the Senate Appropriations Committee report language calling for the establishment of a new Office of High Energy Density Physics (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/088.html.) He explained that the federal government has not dealt effectively with research in this area, adding that a task force report on the opportunities in this field is due in December.

Regarding ITER, Orbach said the agreement has now been sent to Congress for its review. He anticipated there will be a formal signing of the document in mid to late November of this year.

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