Science has emerged a winner in this year's struggle over the Department of Energy's (DOE's) budget, erasing fears earlier this summer of severe cuts in several high-profile programs. Congressional conferees last week gave the agency's civilian science programs a 13% boost, to $3.2 billion, slightly more than the Administration had requested. The $24 billion bill also includes the extra cash needed to keep the world's largest laser project on track. Even a threatened veto by President Clinton after final Senate action this week is not expected to alter the research numbers.
Such an upbeat result seemed unlikely just a month ago, after both the House and Senate approved budgets that would have punched major holes in research programs at DOE, the federal government's third-largest funder of basic research. The House, for instance, had severely cut funding for the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), a $1.2 billion materials science accelerator that DOE is building at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The Senate, in turn, fully funded the Administration's $279 million request for SNS, but only by cutting the budgets for high-energy and nuclear physics. The shortfalls prompted an all-out lobbying push by a coalition of university presidents and scientific societies.
That campaign, along with projections of a growing federal budget surplus, convinced legislators to match or exceed the Administration's request in nearly every field. The spallation source received its full request. Even the troubled National Ignition Facility (NIF), a $3.8 billion laser under construction at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, escaped the ax. Responding to revelations of mismanagement and massive cost overruns, the Senate had voted earlier to deny the Administration's request for a $135 million increase this year for the megaproject, which will allow researchers to study nuclear weapons without testing them and explore the feasibility of fusion energy (Science, 18 August, p. 1126). But the final bill gives NIF $200 million, just short of the $210 million request. Congress did attach some major strings, however, including a directive to commission the National Academy of Sciences to review the project, a requirement that Livermore pay for some of the overrun out of its own operating budget, and a DOE study of scaling back the project. Livermore chief Bruce Tarter said he was "very pleased" that the laser had survived.