Hearing Highlights Importance of Basic Research to New Energy Technologies

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Publication date: 
5 November 2008

The importance of basic research to advances in new energy technologies and other innovations was highlighted during a hearing of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee earlier this fall.  The news from this hearing was positive, but in some cases, guarded.  All agreed that the DOE Office of Science's Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program has strong and enthusiastic supporters in the academic and industrial sectors, and that the BES program has the world's best scientific user facilities.  But funding for research programs  and facilities falls short of what is needed, and the failure of Congress to appropriate sufficient dollars is discouraging many scientists.

Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX) opened the hearing saying, "There has been a lot of attention in recent years on developing new clean energy technologies, but not enough on strengthening the foundations that will make these future technologies possible. That is what the Basic Energy Sciences program in the Office of Science is all about."  He called the BES program "a critical component in our energy research and development portfolio," a sentiment shared by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) and witnesses from the academic and industrial sectors.

Patricia Dehmer, Deputy Director for Science Programs at the DOE Office of Science, and BES director for twelve years, testified about the wide reach of the BES program.  In FY 2007, the program supported almost 5,000 Ph.D. scientists and 1,500 students in 48 states, and its suite of user facilities hosted more than 9,000 researchers.  BES supports research in condensed matter and materials physics, chemistry, geosciences, and the physical biosciences to, as Dehmer testified, "understand, predict, and ultimately control the material world around us."  BES supports five Nanoscale Science Research Centers, synchrotron radiation light source facilities, neutron scattering facilities, and electron-beam micro characterization centers.  Almost $2 billion in new BES facilities or upgrades were opened on time and within budget in the last ten years.  Dehmer took care to describe ten Basic Research Needs workshops conducted in the last ten years that drew 1,500 academic, industrial, and national laboratory participants. The BES program received $1,269.9 million last year; the Administration requested a 23.5% budget increase for FY 2009 to $1,568.2 million.

The hearing also highlighted difficulties facing the BES program and constraints affecting its users.  Steven Dierker, Associate Laboratory Director for Light Sources, told the subcommittee that "many beamlines are oversubscribed and cannot meet user demand for beamtime," later adding "not all of the beamlines are operating at their full potential."  Ernest Hall of GE Global Research described the research performed at BES facilities as "critical to GE's technology and product development," that addresses "some of the most important national needs."  Nevertheless, "gaining access to sufficient beam time on a timely basis can be challenging."  Professor Thomas Russell of the University of Massachusetts reiterated this message, saying "competition for beam time at these [neutron source] facilities is stiff," and then added there is an "insufficient number" of staff scientists to operate the facilities.

Russell expressed the frustration felt by academic scientists who competed for a research program for which funds were never appropriated, citing a major renewable energy initiative for which BES received more than 300 proposals:

"After a significant delay, a continuing resolution was established for the federal budget with the funds promised to support this initiative, never materializing. The sum and substance of this was a massive waste of time. I assure you that most of the individuals involved in these proposals are under severe time constraints and I can also assure you that there were many     investigators who were less than pleased. Aside from the investigators proposing research, the peer review process itself consumes a significant amount of time on the part of the referees. We can add to that the significant amount of time that was expended by the program managers at BES. It was also not an easy task to turn to the investigators and to the scientific community in general and announce that the funding to support research in the most important problem facing the United States, although promised, was not going to be there. This budget shortfall dumbfounded, surprised, frustrated and irked everyone involved in this effort."

Following the opening testimony, Chairman Lampson asked Dehmer how the Office of Science is coordinating its efforts with those of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).  Dehmer described the dramatic changes there have been during the past three years to coordinate the programs of both offices, citing as an example the BES workshops.  There are  two dozen energy research areas that are ripe for integration.  Lampson also spoke of the decision made by Senate appropriators in their version of the FY 2009 funding bill to move $60 million in solar energy funding from BES to EERE.  "Does this make sense to you?" he asked Dehmer.  Dehmer described how BES has supported the largest U.S. solar research program for decades and how many EERE projects were based on BES-supported basic research.  Both offices, she said, should be "robustly funded."  Russell was  straightforward in his response.  After explaining that much basic research must yet be done, he said of the Senate action, "I think that's a mistake."

The discussion turned to funding, with Rep. Biggert saying that she feared the eventual FY 2009 outcome would provide little new funding. "We certainly aren't out of the woods," she said.  Dehmer spoke of the strain caused by shifting categories of facility money, and cautioned that "a very bad outcome could happen if they don't get increased funding."  Dehmer described the great interest the research community has in developing new energy initiatives, and then said, "I don't want to lose that enthusiasm, I don't want to lose those scientists."

Later in the hearing there was an interesting discussion prompted by several questions from Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD).  Bartlett told Dehmer that there was no "silver bullet" for replacing current liquid transportation fuels, and criticized both corn ethanol and hydrogen.  Dehmer replied that Bartlett was "absolutely right," saying that in the short term only fuel switching with cellulosic ethanol and perhaps oil shale and tar shale might be feasible.  "Corn ethanol is not the answer," said Dehmer.  In coming decades, Dehmer through that biomedically produced ethanol and perhaps electricity might offer a transportation solution.

Other exchanges dealt with industrial and academic access to the "incredibility important tools" supported by BES,  the nature of the proposed Energy Frontier research centers,  which Dehmer said might inadvertently suggest the construction of new buildings or permanency, and funding allocations for existing facilities and new facility construction.  Also discussed was the need to make a more compelling case to the public about the relationship between fundamental research, discovery, innovation and competitiveness.   As succinctly stated earlier in the hearing by Dehmer, "Discovery science is the foundation of innovation and future technologies."

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