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Commitments, Ideology Clash Over DOE Research Spending

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Science  11 Nov 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6057, pp. 754-755
DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6057.754

Despite congressional support for science office, U.S. payments to the international fusion experiment, ITER, could lead to severe cuts.

Scientists funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) find themselves at the center of two conflicts. One is an ideological battle between the Obama Administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over the type of research that should be funded. The other, more practical, tussle involves making allocations within DOE's $4.8 billion Office of Science. The ideological struggle may garner more attention, but the practical one may cause DOE-funded researchers greater heartache.

On the ideological front, President Barack Obama's call for greater investments in new, greener energy technologies is reflected in a push by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to increase spending by the Office of Science on basic research that's more directly related to energy. Chu also champions the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy (ARPA-E) as a way to develop the most promising technologies. Its budget is currently $180 million.

Congress, however, has less appetite for “clean tech” and ARPA-E. In markups of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, which began 1 October, House and Senate appropriators allotted ARPA-E $180 million and $250 million, respectively, far short of the requested $550 million. Writing last month to the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology argued that ARPA-E has “emphasize[d] late-stage technology development more appropriately performed by the private sector.”

“So far we haven't canceled any major projects, but we're stringing them out.”

—WILLIAM BRINKMAN, DOE OFFICE OF SCIENCE

CREDIT (PHOTO): DOE

House Republicans would prefer that DOE invest in basic research through the Office of Science, the single biggest funder of the physical sciences in the United States. In their letter to the deficit panel, Republicans said that the Office of Science “should be the top funding priority among DOE R&D programs and be protected from cuts.” “It's the right role for government and it does excellent work,” says one Republican staffer about the Office of Science. Both House and Senate appropriators signaled their support for the Office of Science by proposing to maintain its current budget in 2012.

Observers expect the Obama Administration to stick to its clean-energy agenda, which includes robust funding for ARPA-E. “My own view is that we're just going to have this same argument over and over again,” says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. But with Congress holding the purse strings, observers predict that funding for ARPA-E will fall far short of Chu's goal of $1 billion and that Congress will try to sustain the Office of Science's budget.

Even so, the Office of Science still faces a colossal budget crunch caused by its commitment to the $23 billion international fusion experiment, ITER, being built in Cadarache, France. The United States signed on to the project, which aims to demonstrate the potential of nuclear fusion as an energy source, when George W. Bush was president and has pledged to put in 9%—$2.2 billion—by building components for the giant reactor. To meet that goal, DOE's spending on ITER will balloon from $108 million in 2011 to more than $250 million per year within 2 years. In a flat budget, that money must come from cutting other programs and projects. “ITER will eat something,” says one Democratic House staffer. “It will have to.”

According to congressional staffers, DOE officials also suffer from unduly rosy expectations. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the staffers say, agency officials have been assuming that their budget will increase by 3% per year over the next 5 years, allowing for ITER and more. But the staffers aren't counting on any increment. “That's not part of my reality,” says one Democratic Senate aide.

William Brinkman, director of the Office of Science, declined to comment on whether DOE is projecting such growth, citing the traditional gag on discussing the president's budget before its release to Congress in February. But if, as seems all but certain, there is no increase, DOE officials will have to shrink, delay, or kill some activities closer to home. “So far we haven't canceled any major projects, but we're stringing them out,” Brinkman says.

The brakes may not be applied evenly, however. For example, Brinkman says that a $400 million expansion of an x-ray laser facility known as the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, is “our highest priority.” In contrast, he says that plans to build the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $615 million accelerator at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is “one of the big challenges for us.”

With a fixed or shrinking pot, the Office of Science may also have to rebalance priorities among its six research programs. The agency's 2012 budget request signaled that its priorities were advanced materials, advanced biofuels, and advanced scientific computing, the Senate staffer says. So highenergy physics, nuclear physics, and the domestic fusion program would likely see cuts first, the staffer says. “Does that mean Congress is going to eviscerate the programs? No,” the staffer says. “But it means that the scope for new projects will be limited, and they will have to do them one at a time instead of developing them in parallel.”

ITER or.

Several new projects could be delayed or canceled to free up money for DOE's contributions to the international fusion experiment, ITER.

CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): ITER; DOE

That one-by-one approach could hamstring Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. The sole U.S. high-energy physics lab shut down its Tevatron atom smasher this fall and is planning a suite of new experiments. “You need a vitality at a lab; you need a series of projects that people can work on,” says Melvyn Shochet of the University of Chicago in Illinois, who chairs DOE's high-energy physics advisory panel. For his part, Brinkman says that the highenergy physics program has some “real issues” to address because, outside of Fermilab, the community does not have a clear plan of what it wants to do.

DOE's approach to choosing winners and losers is another matter of concern. The Office of Science does a good job of setting priorities within each of its six programs, observers say, in large measure because each program has its own advisory panel. But the agency has no advisory panel to compare projects across different programs. “It's up to the director of the Office of Science,” Lubell says. “There is no other mechanism.”

That could change. Senate appropriators have told DOE this year to create a new advisory panel specifically to help it set cross-programmatic priorities. The idea of such a panel has been around for a long time, but Brinkman questions its value. Given that such decisions are made in negotiations between DOE, Congress, and the White House Office of Management and Budget, rather than within DOE, Brinkman says, “I'm not sure another advisory panel would help.”

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