A Good Hearing Before House Appropriators on FY 2012 DOE Science Programs

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Publication date: 
21 March 2011

“This subcommittee has long been a supporter of the Office of Science,” declared Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.  Frelinghuysen’s opening comments at last Wednesday’s hearing were tempered, for while calling the  research supported by the Office of Science “crucial,” he told Under Secretary of Energy for Science Steven Koonin that “increases are not likely to occur” in the amount of money the subcommittee will have for FY 2012.  The subcommittee must do its part in reducing government spending said Frelinghuysen.

Koonin was well-received by the subcommittee during this 2 ¾ hour hearing.  Both Republican and Democratic members, with long-standing seniority, as well as those recently elected, expressed their appreciation for the work funded by the Office of Science.  While several Members – both new and old – admitted that they were not fully knowledgeable about the intricacies of this research, there was general support for it.

Koonin echoed the remarks of Energy Secretary Steven Chu when he said the FY 2012 request “makes tough choices” in areas such as high energy physics and fusion energy sciences. Research priorities are based on timeliness, relevance, and impact.  He noted the overall request keeps the budget of the Office of Science on a doubling path, and that it was in line with the America COMPETES Act.  Cognizant of congressional attention to how federal taxpayer dollars are spent, Koonin described various DOE metrics to determine the effectiveness of science programs.

Frelinghuysen’s first questions centered on the problems at Japanese reactors.  Koonin reviewed the department’s response and programs, giving him the opportunity to discuss the Energy Innovation Hub for Modeling and Simulation supported by the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy.    Frelinghuysen expressed concern that cutting-edge facilities such as ITER, the Large Hadron Collider, and the world’s fastest supercomputer are now overseas.  Koonin replied that the “rest of the world is growing up.” 

Ranking Member Ed Pastor (D-AZ) questioned Koonin about what the department is doing to keep the U.S. in a leadership position.  Koonin stressed the importance of technology transfer, and his efforts to strengthen coordination between DOE’s basic and applied research programs.  They also discussed the process that lead to the closure decisions regarding the Tevatron and the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) had similar concerns about the transfer of research results into the marketplace, and while expressing his support for basic research he wondered if the Administration was overemphasizing science in its budget request.  He also asked how Congress can determine the value of “appropriating money for things that we do not understand.”  Koonin replied that patents, publications, review panels, and hiring patterns are good measurements, and described the fifteen years of research at Argonne National Laboratory leading to a battery now used in the Chevrolet Volt. 

Fusion energy was one of the topics raised by Rep. John Olver (D-MA) who described the Office of Science’s budget request as “pretty modest.”  Olver wondered if the U.S. would have sufficient access to ITER and its research because of the relatively small contribution America is making to the facility.  Koonin assured him that American researchers would fully benefit.  There was a rather long discussion about the department’s support for magnetic and inertial fusion research, and how long it would be before fusion provided electricity to the grid.  Ranking Member Pastor asked a series of rather specific questions about the National Ignition Facility later in the hearing, centering on when ignition would be achieved.  Koonin described the challenges in the fabrication of its targets, and told Pastor “I am optimistic, but not sure” that we “will see ignition in the next couple of years.”  Simpson also asked about the status of fusion research.

Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS) and Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) are new to the subcommittee.  Nunnelee asked about the role of Office of Science in the Gulf oil spill.  Koonin replied that the problem was more related to engineering than science.  Womack wanted to know what programs would be cut if Congress provided less money than the budget request.  While saying that adjustments would be made as necessary, Koonin stressed the importance of accelerating science and innovation for the well-being of the country.  He pointed to advances that the Chinese have made in supercomputing and declared “we need to keep moving.”  In response to a later question from Olver about how a budget reduction would be managed, Koonin declared that DOE “will not do across the board cuts.”

Womack also asked about the STEM workforce.  Koonin replied that at the highest level “we are doing just fine,” but is worried about the broader workforce.  “It is a cause of great concern,” he said.  Womack, who assumed the chair in Frelinghuysen’s absence, asked Koonin at the conclusion of the hearing to “put yourself in our shoes” to help Members explain to constituents why taxpayer money should be used to support the research sponsored by the Office of Science.  Koonin responded with great skill, explaining that the United States had led the world for the last seventy years.  He cited advances in areas such as telecommunications, medicine, and transportation, saying “all of that is as a result of science and technology,” which has been supported, in part, by the Office of Science.  The U.S. S&T system is good but fragile, he warned, and America is being challenged.  Koonin noted that the United States is about 5 percent of the world’s population, and that America cannot compete on numbers.  The U.S. needs to be smarter, he said.  

Koonin’s remarks seem to have answered Womack’s question.  It is a question that will be asked many times in authorizing and appropriating committees and on the floor of the House and Senate this year, at a time when pressures to reduce federal spending have never been greater.

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