Skeptical Appropriators Question FY 2013 DOE Office of Science Budget Request

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Publication date: 
21 March 2012

Yesterday’s  hearing of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations’ Subcommittee  on the Department of Energy’s FY 2013 request for the Office of Science had a  mixed outcome.  While the subcommittee  has traditionally been a strong supporter of the Office of Science, with  Members reaffirming their support at this hearing, they raised many questions  about the formulation and composition of the budget request.

Questions  about, and at times outright hostility to, an administration’s proposal to  reduce or terminate program funding are to be expected at any congressional  hearing.  Examples this year include NASA’s  requested increase in funding for the James Webb Space Telescope and a  reduction in funding for the Planetary Sciences program.  Similar sentiments were expressed at a hearing  of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee at which Energy Secretary  Steven Chu testified on the FY 2013 DOE budget request.

A  strong undercurrent of skepticism ran through yesterday’s afternoon hearing  before the appropriators.  Subcommittee Chairman  Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) opened the hearing by telling Office of Science  Director William Brinkman that he (Frelinghuysen) was “acutely aware of the  importance of your mission” and how the subcommittee “fought hard” to increase  the Office of Science budget for this fiscal year.  Frelinghuysen spoke of the goal of doubling  the budget, and how “that plan was simply not achievable” because of budget  constraints.  Expressing his appreciation  of DOE’s recognition of this new fiscal reality in its budget request,   Frelinghuysen said the subcommittee had questions about the details of the FY  2013 request.

Ranking  Minority Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) was more reserved in his opening  comments.  He also talked about funding  constraints, his concern that the request for infrastructure spending did not  reflect these constraints, and the possible duplication of effort by ARPA-E, the  Energy Innovation Hubs, and the Energy Frontier Research Centers.

In  his opening testimony, Brinkman assured the subcommittee that “choices were  made with extreme care” in the formulation of the request.  Those choices and future program strategies, rather  than the overall budget request, were the focus of this hearing.

In  his first round of questions, Frelinghuysen asked about specific details of the  request.  He said the requested 6.6  percent increase in the Basic Energy Sciences program appeared to be offset by  proposed funding reductions for facilities such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion  Collider and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.  Brinkman said “the Administration’s highest  priority is clean energy,” and acknowledged that the FY 2013 request for the  Nuclear Physics program was not sufficient.   He said a funding strategy would be formulated in the coming year.  Frelinghuysen wondered why a strategy was not  being developed this year. 

Frelinghuysen  also asked a series of questions about the requested decline in funding for  domestic fusion facilities, and what would be a less than planned contribution  for ITER.  “Fusion sort of comes out as a  loser here,” he commented.  Brinkman  admitted that the Fusion Energy Sciences program would not receive as much  money as desired, again speaking of “very hard decisions” about proposed  funding for various facilities.  Frelinghuysen  wanted to know about the impact of the United States failing to provide all of its  scheduled FY 2013 ITER contribution.  “That’s  a problem we are working right now,” Brinkman replied, adding “we intend to  fulfill our [total] obligation.”  In  concluding his remarks to Frelinghuysen, Brinkman acknowledged “we are taking  some risk here.”

Visclosky  was skeptical about many aspects of the request.  He wanted to know, as did Frelinghuysen later  in the hearing, what specific activities in the FY 2013 Office of Science  request would lead to an eventual support of manufacturing.  Drilling down to different program line  items, he questioned the rationale for a series of “notional” increases (as  described by Brinkman) since they were all around $2 million.  When told that a competition would actually  determine how that money was utilized, Visclosky replied “I find the answer  very unsatisfactory.”    Visclosky and Rep. John Olver (D-MA) asked  about how appropriated funding was being used for infrastructure modernization  at several DOE facilities, with Visclosky questioning why Congress had not been  informed about the cancellation of a project.   Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) inquired about the Office of Science’s support  for exascale computing, which was the subject of questions from other  appropriators.  

In  another round of questions, Olver pressed Brinkman about fusion for clean  energy production.  Olver spoke of how  reduced funding for domestic programs would impact fusion research at General  Atomics, MIT, and Princeton.  “ITER is  going to eat our whole domestic program,” he declared.  Brinkman sought to assure Olver that additional  money would be found in coming years.  In  concluding his remarks, Brinkman predicted the utilization of fusion would not  be realized for 50 years. 

Visclosky  asked about the status of the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment following the  decision that the National Science Foundation will not participate in the  program.  Brinkman praised a report that  the high energy physics community had developed, but said it had “a very high  price.”  “I don’t see us as being able to  do that specific experiment” he testified, saying that the FY 2013 request  would enable DOE to continue pumping water from the Homestake Gold Mine and to  conduct two smaller experiments. 

Toward  the end of the hearing Frelinghuysen predicted that “additional money for any  program is going to be exceedingly difficult to come by.”  His observation, and persistent questions  about how money was allocated in the FY 2013 budget request, characterize the  outcome of yesterday’s hearing as a yellow caution light.

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