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Interview: Raymond Orbach Responds to DOE Budget Crisis

15 January 2008 (All day)
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DOE

Tough times.
Raymond Orbach is dealing with a difficult budget at DOE.

These have been trying times for Raymond Orbach, the undersecretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)--and for the U.S. physical scientists who depend on funding from his department.

Two weeks ago, Congress slashed $400 million in proposed increases for the 2008 budget of DOE's Office of Science, the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States (ScienceNOW, 18 December 2007). The cuts wreaked havoc on DOE's programs in fusion and particle physics and took a big bite out of its efforts in "basic energy sciences" such as chemistry and materials sciences. Funding was zeroed for the U.S. contribution this year to the multibillion-dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) (ScienceNOW, 21 December 2007), and U.S. participation in the proposed International Linear Collider (ILC) particle physics experiment was also effectively stopped, jeopardizing the project's existence. The rollbacks are also forcing hundreds of layoffs at two of the Office of Science's national labs (Science, 11 January, p. 142) and have led to deep cuts in running time at x-ray sources and other user facilities at the other eight.

As DOE officials were sorting through the wreckage, Orbach sat down with Science's Adrian Cho and Eli Kintisch last week to discuss the state of U.S. physical science in the wake of the 2008 budget. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

ITER

Science: Let's begin with the question many people are asking: Will DOE meet the U.S.'s commitment to ITER in 2008?

R.O.: Obviously we can't. Look, can I give you a bigger picture rather than deal with one item at a time? The '08 budget is the '08 budget. ... And my position on it is that it's the will of Congress and the people, and the president has signed it. We're going to do the very best we can to follow congressional direction. Obviously, it's going to be very difficult for us. It represents a substantial departure from the president's request. It also took place 3 months into the fiscal year, ... so we were spending at the level of '07. Where you see a cut from '07 in the '08 budget, we've got a real problem, because we just don't have the money. Some of the actions that we've had to take, we would not have had to take had we had the budget on October 1. …

What we're doing is following the will of the Congress while, at the same time, maintaining, from our perspective, U.S. leadership in science as best we can. Now, I can't tell you, obviously, the details of the president's budget for '09, but I can tell you that it will be a wonderful budget request. And because '08 has been difficult for us, the gap between '08 and '09 will be large.

Science: Some researchers have suggested that DOE might go to Congress and ask to reprogram money from outside the fusion energy science program. Will DOE be asking to reprogram some money for ITER?

R.O.: ... I honestly don't know the answer. We've looked around the Office of Science at where we might reprogram [money], and we're hurting in almost every area. And remember that a reprogramming requires approval from both the subcommittees on appropriations and the authorization committees. And I meant what I said when we started--namely, Congress has spoken. They've told us where they want us to spend the money, and it would be very difficult to have a reprogramming of any kind of magnitude at all to change the directions that Congress has given us. So I don't think reprogramming--one can put much hope in that.

Science: Then will DOE ask Congress for a supplemental budget?

R.O.: I don't know the answer to that, either. ... We're not the only program in the complexity of the federal budget that feels that it has problems, ... and my assumption is that the last thing that Congress or the president wants is a decorated supplemental. Because, you come in for the Office of Science, and there will be somebody else coming in, and before you know it, the thing will be enormous. ... My guess is that it would be very hard to single out a particular program for a supplemental.

Science: Assuming that things don't change and there is no U.S. funding for ITER this year, is the U.S. effectively pulling out of the project?

R.O.: No. And I can say that unequivocally. ... Our position will be that we will go into the arrears, but we will not drop our membership in ITER. ... What we're going to do is to keep the ITER project office [at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee] alive as best we can between now and the '09 appropriation and to do the best we can to maintain our position within the international organization. We will have problems because we have six other parties who are beginning to invest in ITER construction, and we will not have those funds. But we will be there at the table, and we will do the best we can under the circumstances.

Science: The U.S. has been in and out of ITER before and now faces a year where it's not going to be making its contribution. Given the uncertainties in the budget every year, can the U.S. participate meaningfully in these huge international collaborations?

R.O.: I believe so. In the middle of the ITER negotiations this was brought up and thrown in our faces a number of times. ... But you notice Congress did not say "Pull out of ITER." What they simply said was that we will not provide funding in FY '08, and that's why FY '09 is so important. My belief is that we are good partners. We're a little strange in the way we appropriate funds. But we will do our part. When you're in the arrears, you've got to pay the price. Our cost will go up because construction is delayed. But I hope our presence at the table and our keeping the project office alive will be evidence that we fully intend to meet our commitments.

Trouble in High-Energy Physics

Science: The ILC is effectively stalled because researchers have no money to spend the rest of the year. Is DOE still committed to trying to build the ILC in the U.S.?

R.O.: We are committed to high-energy physics. ... We have no intention of moving away from the basic R&D in the ILC, but it will have to be delayed. ...

Science: In the fall, you went to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory [Fermilab] in Batavia, Illinois, and made a point of telling researchers that the ILC had not yet reached CD0 [the first of five "critical decision" reviews that any major DOE project must pass and the one that determines whether the project is necessary for DOE's mission]. Congress cited that fact when they cut ILC's funding for R&D from $60 million to $15 million this year, and a number of physicists believe that it may have been one of the key factors that caused the British to pull out of the ILC (Science, 21 December 2007, p. 1851). What did you intend when you made the statement that the ILC had not reached CD0, and has it been misinterpreted?

R.O.: Well, I can't speak for those who interpreted it. I can tell you precisely what I said. And that was that we have to bring the ILC into [DOE Order] 413.3, which is the way we construct major projects within the Department of Energy. And that means that you have to have a CD0, [which shows] mission need, and then CD1, CD2, CD3, and so on. It's time to start thinking about bringing the ILC into this framework. ... There was never--never--a suggestion in my comments or my actions that we were somehow moving away from the ILC. In fact, just the opposite. I was trying to include it under the rubric that we [use for] all of our construction projects.

Science: Fermilab was looking at getting a bigger-than-inflation bump and ended up taking an absolute cut of about 17% from the '08 request and about 10% from the '07 budget. The lab is now preparing to lay off 200 of its 1900 employees. What would you say to the people who will lose their jobs about the effectiveness of the Office of Science in stewarding their lab?

R.O.: I'm not sure you can blame that entirely on the stewardship of the Office of Science. I think you can say to them, first of all, that we preserved the Tevatron [collider] run. And in order to do that, the B-factory [collider] had to be shut down early at SLAC [Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, California]. That said something about planning for the future and our desire to use the Tevatron, in which we have made a very heavy investment, to hopefully discover new physics that will change the way we look at nature. ... In terms of the [zeroing of funds for the] NOvA [neutrino experiment] and the reduction in the ILC--that's what I meant by priorities.

I think now the high-energy physics community understands how Congress feels and has a job on its hands to explain why it should be supported at the level of the president's request. You don't have to convince me. You don't have to convince the president. It's there. Now we're talking about the American people. And so that's their job and my job, too. And we'll make every effort to do it. …

Science: One leading particle physicist has said that Fermilab is in "deep, deep, deep" trouble. Do you agree with that?

R.O.: No. ... I think the high-energy physics community needs to help us in determining a set of priorities within reasonable budgetary limits. ... There will be a charge to HEPAP [High Energy Physics Advisory Panel] to and to P5 [Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel] to examine the priorities for high-energy physics [as a field] within different budget outlines. ... It will be up to the community to decide what the priorities are. In terms of Fermilab itself, there is no issue. Fermilab is the high-physics experimental laboratory for the United States. There's never been any move away from that, either by Congress or by us. ... What we need now is for the high-energy physics community to give us its recommendations. We'll make the decisions, but we need their recommendations for different budget projections as to what they would do and what they wouldn't do. ...

Overall funding for basic and applied research

Science: For two straight years now, the funding subcommittees have given you guys just what you've asked for, and more, for the basic research [which is supported by the Office of Science] and applied research [which is funded through other parts of DOE]. And in the end game, the Office of Science has not done as well as other areas of DOE. What confidence can the community have that this year is going to be any different?

R.O.: ... I believe that Congress represents the views of the American public. And I believe that the numbers that we received are telling us something. Therefore, if we are to actually achieve ... an appropriation of the magnitude of the president's request, we've got to make our case to the American public. So I will be attending each of the [six] advisory committee's meetings in the coming year and urging them to recognize that Congress has taken these actions, [that] they represent the public, ... and [that] it's up to the community to make its case as to why the science and long-term investment in basic research is of sufficient priority that the president's request be honored by Congress.

Science: Do you think the physics community got somewhat cocky or overconfident, given all the positive developments on the authorization side [such as the America COMPETES act passed in August, which calls for increased funding for the Office of Science (ScienceNOW, 3 August 2007)?

R.O.: I think that's a little unfair. I think if you looked at the trajectory, it looked like the Office of Science was just fine. That was true in '07 as well. I think people worked very hard, and I think what we have to do is work harder. ... I believe we have a very strong case. [The] Rising Above the Gathering Storm report [and] the America COMPETES bill [that] was signed by the president this past August indicated support for investment in long-term basic research. But in the end of a budget cycle, you have a number of competing forces, and it's a question of priorities. I would hope that the communities that are involved in science would make the case that would bring the priority of investment in basic research to a successful conclusion.

Science: Regarding making the case for investment in basic research to the American people, what efforts have you made personally to introduce the Office of Science to the new Democratic lawmakers who are now in control of the budget?

R.O.: Well, first of all, I have never regarded this as a partisan operation. I have talked to both sides of the House since the day I got here. And the Democratic leadership that is in control now is the same Democratic leadership that I've talked to for the last 5 1/2 years. ... So I don't think it's an issue of Democrat versus Republican.

Science: When you were named undersecretary for science a year and a half ago, you spoke of the importance of having crosscutting research and discussion [between the Office of Science and other parts of DOE.] Do we see the fruits of that?

R.O.: I was sworn in on 1 June [2006], and the [2008] budget was essentially final then. ... But now I have had a year. I can't tell you the details, because obviously it's part of the president's budget [request]. But you will see. ... I think the integration of basic and applied [research], with all of the difficulties of crosscutting of stovepiped programs, has actually happened. I have another year as undersecretary. I'm very much hoping to make that an integral part of the functions of the of department so that we are working very closely between basic and applied, each doing what we do well. ... I'm actually very, very pleased. I hope the community will be, too.

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