Energy Under Secretary Orbach Discusses Impacts of Funding Shortfalls

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Publication date: 
26 February 2008

Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach spoke in unambiguous terms at  recent meetings of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel and the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee.  Describing the FY 2008 budget outcome for the high energy physics program as a "slap across the face" for the field and for all of science, and telling the fusion committee that "we are really in trouble," Orbach warned that the large FY 2009 budget request for the Office of Science is a "sitting duck."               

Orbach spoke to the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel on February 14, with most of his remarks centering on the FY 2008 budget and the FY 2009 outlook.  This year (FY 2008), the program is $93 million short of the Administration's request, and $43 million less than what the program received in FY 2007.  Orbach characterized the funding outcome as "a grave setback" and as an "attack" on high energy physics (HEP) that was the result of deliberate action and not by accident.  Describing the essential role of HEP as outlined in the National Academy EPP 2010 report (see ) as "a message that was not heard," Orbach said that "Congress picked apart the unity of science" by the under funding of the field.  This is, he said, "a major point in the time for the High Energy Physics community."

Orbach called the FY 2009 Office of Science budget request  "magnificent" (see, but warned that it could again be a "donor" to short-term demonstration projects in other areas of the DOE budget.  "The consequences are extreme if this [HEP] budget is not adopted," he told the committee.  The community must change the way it makes it case, Orbach saying that the "entitlement attitude" of scientists that research was "the right thing to do" was one that other interest groups have made in support of other programs, and that it was a failed attitude.

Orbach's February 19 remarks to the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee were of a similar nature.  He called the FY 2008 budget outcome as "almost a warning shot," adding "it is the fate of fusion we are talking about in the United States."

The Consolidated Appropriations Act cut funding for the program by more than 10 percent, and  zeroed-out money for the U.S. contribution to ITER.  "We are in a mess," Orbach said, and spoke of letters that DOE has received from other nations questioning the reliability of the United States as an international partner.  An exhibit entitled "ITER" that  Orbach displayed at this meeting stated "DOE is exploring other options, none of them easy, to restore partial funding for the remainder of FY 2008.  We have funding to keep the US ITER Project Office open until around September – the FY 2009 budget may not be passed for some months beyond that.  We cannot withdraw from ITER during the construction phase (ten years), but we may have to go into arrears."

Orbach described the FY 2009 Office of Science request as "unprecedented" and an indicator of President Bush's confidence in the program.  Less certain was the attitude of the American people and their representatives in Congress toward fusion, with Orbach saying that it was an open question if the U.S. could plan ahead far enough for eight years of ITER construction, a projected ten years of experimentation, and what is likely to be 30-35 years from now before a demonstration plant is built.  Despite these long lead times, Orbach maintains that fusion offers the only opportunity to provide the large-scale energy the world will need that is capable of being produced in an environmentally benign manner.  It is "up to us to make the case that the President's confidence is warranted," he said.  "This is it."

At each meeting, Orbach displayed a concluding exhibit: "Compounding the danger is the widespread attitude that the proposed increases for the physical sciences under the ACI [American Competitiveness Initiative] and America's COMPETES act are 'a done deal.'"  The exhibit continued, "If we are to avoid this [flat-to-declining budget] scenario we need to actively and publicly make the case for LONG-TERM basic research rather than short-term applied research.  It is now up to us to make the case."