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Shovel-Ready Science Drives DOE Decisions

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Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1177-1178
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5957.1177

The Recovery Act enhanced the ability of the Department of Energy's national laboratories to tackle big problems and got the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy off to a fast start.

In the beginning were the lists.

Candidate Barack Obama had talked about a massive government-spending program to revive the ailing economy, and after the election his transition team moved quickly to flesh out the idea. Sensing an opportunity, a handful of prominent physicists and science lobbyists compiled a list for Congress and the new Administration of all the “shovel-ready” research infrastructure projects at the Department of Energy (DOE)—those approved and ready to go out for bids.

A similar exercise was taking place within DOE itself. Patricia Dehmer, then acting head of the DOE Office of Science, asked the office's six associate directors to give her a list of projects that satisfied two mandates that would appear in the enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: to create jobs, and to provide the scientific and technological base needed for long-term economic recovery. Dehmer added two related criteria. “It had to be high-priority research and construction that was shovel-ready so we could move quickly,” explains Dehmer, now back as deputy director since the appointment of William Brinkman to head the science office. “And no, or few, out-year mortgages. I didn't want to reach a cliff in 4 or 5 years.”

Two years of tight DOE science budgets had created quite a backlog of approved but unfunded buildings, large instruments, and other research improvements at DOE's 10 national laboratories and various user facilities. The staff-driven list carried a price tag of $5 billion. The community's list, which included projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, totaled twice that amount.

An energy boost.

Stimulus funding is accelerating projects in DOE's science pipeline and supporting two rounds of awards at a new research agency.


Both were put to good use. Congress used the community's list as a guide in deciding to give DOE's science programs $1.6 billion in the final bill. Another $400 million went to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a new research entity housed within the secretary's office. ARPA-E is a favorite of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who sees it as a way for the country “to hit a few home runs” as it tries to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and transition to a low-carbon economy. Even before President Obama signed the legislation on 17 February, however, Dehmer had whittled down her list to fit the expected funding level and obtained approval from Chu, who had been in office for only a few weeks. “We talked through them, and he accepted the recommendations I made,” she says.

About three-quarters of the spending was unveiled in March. (Dehmer says a second round of projects, announced in August, needed more time to work its way through the White House approval process. But the belated announcement had nothing to do with the merits of the projects themselves.) Most of the money went to facilities, buildings, and instruments at the various labs, with the expectation that it would be spent before 30 September 2010.

The use of the recovery money to speed up projects already in the agency's queue is expected to pay both scientific and fiscal dividends. Of the $90 million received by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, for example, $33.6 million went to help outfit its newly opened Linac Coherent Light Source (Science, 9 October, p. 221). “The LCLS is the future of this lab,” says Director Persis Drell. “And having to wait for the instruments to come would have been very frustrating, because we want to get the science going as quickly as possible.”

More than managing.

As acting head of science, Patricia Dehmer drew up the funding list and made sure the money got out the door.


The $65 million that Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee received for its new chemical and materials sciences building means that hundreds of scientists will be able to move into their new digs sooner, says Associate Laboratory Director Thomas Mason. By going out for bids in a slow economy and with the money in hand, he says, Oak Ridge managed to get an extra 1850 square meters of laboratory space at no additional cost.

Not all of the recovery money is going into infrastructure. And there are even exceptions to Dehmer's rules about spending the money quickly and avoiding mortgages. The biggest involves a program launched in 2008 by Dehmer's former boss, Raymond Orbach, called Energy Frontier Research Centers. Designed to encourage multidisciplinary work on the country's toughest energy challenges, the program was budgeted at $777 million over 5 years. But the Office of Science's 2009 budget was so tight that it could scrape together only $100 million to seed the 46 centers. To accelerate their progress, $277 million in recovery money is being used to fully fund 16 of the university-based centers. The rest will be funded out of DOE's annual budgets for 2010 and beyond. And Dehmer says the Basic Energy Sciences program will have to find money from its budget to pay for any centers it wants to continue after their initial 5-year run.

DOE is also wading into graduate education for the first time. “We wanted to begin a program in which graduate education was a part of what we did, and we felt that graduate fellowships would attract young people to our portfolio,” says Dehmer about the first-time, $12.5 million competition. “But we just didn't have the money to do any more.”

Another $85 million of the Recovery Act funds has been earmarked to support early-career scientists at universities and at DOE's own national labs. The new DOE program is modeled after NSF's CAREER awards, with each program office supporting its own cadre of young scientists. “When you have a gold standard, you try to emulate it,” says Dehmer. She says DOE hopes that both the graduate fellowships and CAREER awards will reach a “steady-state level” of 400 scientists.

Building boon.

The Recovery Act has meant a $65 million head start for this $95 million chemical and materials sciences facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.


Although DOE's process of allocating its Recovery Act money was opaque to outside scientists, the community seems very satisfied with the results. “I don't know what happened within DOE,” says Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., which coordinated the community effort. Once the lists had been compiled, he says, “it was out of our hands. But my sense is that everything that was urgent and that was ready to go got funded. At least I haven't heard anybody complain.”

Indeed, directors of several labs that benefited from the recovery money are applauding loudly. “They knew where they wanted their scientific program to be going,” says SLAC's Drell. “They do an extremely good job of looking ahead.”

Chu knows that Congress is not likely to be as kind to DOE's budget as it was during his first year in office. But armed with the president's promise to double the Office of Science's budget by 2016, he's optimistic that DOE research will not suffer as the Administration attempts to trim overall federal spending.

“It's a flat overall budget,” Chu says of rumors already circulating about the president's 2011 budget request. “But [research] is where the federal dollars can go the furthest. And that's why the president is calling for a 10-year doubling of the science budgets despite the fact that, if the DOE budget is flat and you're doubling the Office of Science budget, then you'll have to take it from someplace else [within DOE]. And I'm supportive of that.”

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