DOE User Facilities Praised at House Science Committee Hearing

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Publication date: 
12 July 2012

A  June 21 hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on  Energy and Environment demonstrated strong support for the Department of  Energy’s user facilities on both sides of the witness table and both ends of the  dais.  Republicans and Democrats were alike  in their praise for the facilities, with the clearest policy differences between  them centering on the federal government’s role in supporting applied research.

The  subcommittee met for about ninety minutes, hearing from three senior user  facility officials and two top officials from corporations.  Similar to the day-to-day cooperative arrangements  that the witnesses described at these facilities, there was little or no  dissention among the witnesses, a somewhat uncommon occurrence.

subcommittee briefing document   explained that the DOE Office of Science requested $4.9 billion for FY  2013.  Of that, 47 percent was for the  “selection and management of research,” 38 percent for “operation of  world-class, state-of-the-art scientific facilities,” and 14 percent for new  facilities’ construction.  The Office’s  six programs support 31 user facilities, and it is estimated that 26,500  academic, national laboratory, industrial, and international researchers will  use these facilities in FY 2013.

Of  note at a time when federal agencies are often criticized about construction management,  the subcommittee briefing document prepared by the majority staff stated:

“The  Office of Science is generally well regarded for its effectiveness in planning,  developing, and constructing user facilities on time and on budget. This record  is considered successful in part due to a rigorous planning and budget control  process known as the Critical Decision, or CD, process. The CD process . . . requires  a series of high level reviews and decision-making as a facility project  advances.”

Also  important was the inclusion of a finding from an Office of Science advisory  committee in the briefing document:

“A  2010 report by DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), ‘Science  for Energy Technology: Strengthening the Link Between Basic Research and  Industry,’ examined challenges and opportunities associated with realizing the  technological and economic potential of scientific user facilities. The report  noted that these user facilities allow researchers to ‘peer deep inside objects  and probe surfaces in ever increasing detail, enabling an understanding of  complex materials and chemistry with resolution and sensitivity that is not  achievable by any other means. Facilities of this type are well beyond the  resources of individual research institutions or companies.’”

Statements  from the subcommittee’s top Republican and Democratic Members stressed the  importance of the user facilities.  Subcommittee  Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) said the science at these facilities has a:

“direct  and significant impact on innovation, driving discoveries with potential to  advance and transform applications from medicine to materials to computing to  semiconductors.”

His  counterpart, Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) was effusive in his praise when  speaking of the user facilities, stating:

“We  get scientific capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in the private  sector or academia. Academic and industry researchers are able to break new  scientific ground, as well as accelerate the process for translating scientific  discovery into marketable products.  At  user facilities federal funds support more efficient cars and trucks; more effective  drugs; lighter and stronger metals; cheaper and more durable batteries; cleaner  power plants; reduced reliance on foreign energy; a clearer picture of our  changing climate; and even a better understanding of the origins of the  universe and the nature of space and time.   Perhaps most important, we get the talent and technologies that provide  for stronger and more competitive high-tech and manufacturing sectors in the  U.S.  We get jobs.”

The  importance of DOE’s user facilities was a common theme running through this  hearing, with witnesses from Ely Lilly and Company, and GE Global Research,  outlining the ways in which Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon  Source and Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source  have been instrumental in product development.   As examples, they described ten experimental pharmaceutical compounds in  clinical trials, and a sodium battery that will be produced at a new $100  million plant that will eventually create 350 manufacturing jobs.

Witnesses  from the National User Facility Organization, SLAC National Accelerator  Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory described the transformational research  being performed at these facilities, with one telling the subcommittee “the biggest  scientific surprises are yet to come.”   They stressed, as did the corporate officials, that these user  facilities are too expensive for any single company or university to build and  operate.  While there was discussion  about upgrading aging equipment, adequate funding, cost reimbursement, peer  review to select users, and the advantages of making the facilities accessible  to international researchers, there was little or no criticism of how the facilities  are managed.  This hearing was a good  news story for DOE’s Office of Science and its facilities.

The  only real controversy was about the role of the federal government in  supporting basic and applied research.   Most Republicans want taxpayer dollars to target basic research, while  Democrats take a broader view.  In  commenting on these two categories, the witness from GE Global Research said “in  my world, that is not a distinction we use very much.”

A  release from Chairman Harris’s subcommittee describing this hearing notably ended  with a quotation from the Eli Lilly representative, which aptly summarizes the  testimony and the positions of the subcommittee members:  “In creating the user facilities the  government has provided a great service to the nation.”