Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren was responding to a question about the FY 2013 request for the High Energy Physics Program at the DOE Office of Science, but his reply could answer many questions about the Obama Administration’s request for various science and technology programs. Said Holdren at the February 17 hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee when asked by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) about funding for the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE):
“I have to say this is really painful. Painful for me, and painful for my colleagues to have had to engage in making these very tough choices. We are interested in keeping LBNE alive. It is, as you pointed out, just limping along in this budget. I wish we could do better. But to do a lot better we would have to take the money from someplace else. And our judgment was that the places we are putting it have at this point a higher potential on the margin.
“I cannot tell you how much I sympathize with the view that important scientific projects in which we have invested in the past and would like to continue to invest in the future simply cannot be afforded under the current fiscal restraints. We are constantly finding ourselves in this position where our friends in the Congress reiterate the dilemma that we already know we have. It is that everybody wants to see the deficit shrunk and the overall budget smaller and everybody at the same time wants to see the projects and programs for which they are most familiar and they know are valuable continued and expanded. And those views simply can’t be completely reconciled.”
When asked about the proposed reduction in funding for the High Energy Physics Program, a significant budget increase for the Basic Energy Sciences Program, and smaller increases for other Office of Science programs, and whether it was equitable, Holdren responded:
“The concept of equitable is a difficult one to apply in making tough choices among competing scientific priorities. Again, we have gotten tremendous benefit out of Fermilab. We have gotten tremendous benefit out of the Tevatron. But I think in terms of the Tevatron there are now other machines in which we participate that are more at the cutting edge and that are yielding more cutting edge results than we can now get from the Tevatron. We could still get some good stuff from the Tevatron, and in better times we would have more funding for it. But we made, as I said, some tough choices here. The Fermilab is a national asset. I want to see it maintained. I want to see it healthy. But I would simply reiterate in this very demanding environment we have tried to make judgments about where the greatest value at the margin was for an additional dollar that could be added one place or another. And since we had to stay flat overall, dollars added one place had to be taken away in another.”
Holdren spoke many times of “tough choices” that the Administration faced when developing the request since spending in FY 2013 is limited to the FY 2011 level. When asked by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) about the 2.4 percent requested increase for the Office of Science and the doubling of its budget, which would take approximately thirty years to accomplish at this rate, Holdren replied:
“We are committed, we remain committed to keeping the NSF, DOE Office of Science and the NIST laboratories on a rising trajectory. Clearly the budget constraints under which we now operate have made the goal of doubling more difficult, and unfortunately your arithmetic is correct. At that growth rate in the Office of Science it would take a long time for it to double. And we have made tough choices across NSF, DOE Office of Science, NIST laboratories trying to look for the most promising opportunities to increase things.”
When committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) asked about the decision to cancel NASA’s participation in two contemplated missions to Mars, Holdren again cited funding constraints while defending exploration of the planet. He explained “we do not have the budget to go forward with the 2016 and 2018 joint missions with the European Space Agency. We retain the most rigorous and forward leaning Mars exploration program that there has ever been, the most forward leaning in the world.” Holdren mentioned the Mars Rover still at work, the Mars Science Laboratory that is on its way to the planet, two satellites now orbiting Mars, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) that will be launched in 2013. “We are in no way retreating from our commitment of having a vigorous program of Mars exploration including laying the groundwork for human exploration” Holdren told the committee. Commenting on Holdren’s response, Hall said the economy “would dictate” when human exploration of Mars will be possible. Holdren agreed, adding that while “the economy obviously has to remain priority one in this budget and going forward,” President Obama will not neglect federal support for science and technology.
Funding constraints will also affect the U.S. contribution to the ITER project. When Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) asked about a requested 0.7 percent decline in the FY 2013 budget for the Fusion Energy Sciences Program by, Holdren responded:
“Part of the reduction in fusion is that we are not going to be able to increase the US contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor at the rate that was programmed in the ITER agreement. And we have already spoken to our partner countries about that so this is some hit on the fusion side, the magnetic fusion side there.”
Other issues raised during this hearing included funding for climate change research, NASA’s Space Launch System and crew capsule, NOAA research, federal K-12 STEM education, nuclear energy R&D, scientific prize competitions, measuring the benefits of basic research, gas and oil extraction, collaboration with China, the status of the National Ignition Facility, energy efficiency, support of green technologies, the national laboratories, and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program of the National Institute of Science and Technology. A common theme running through much of this discussion was the cap on discretionary spending and the effect it would have on these programs in FY 2013.