Senate Panel Preserves Energy Science, Boosts ARPA-E

Staff Writer

If, as scientists joke, "flat" is the new "up" in federal research budgets, then things are looking up for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) research portfolio.

Today, a Senate spending panel voted to raise funding for DOE's Office of Science, which is the United States' single largest funder of the physical sciences, by 0.7% from current spending levels, to $4.909 billion. That figure is $83 million short of what the White House requested for fiscal year 2013, which begins 1 October. But it's $85 million more than a House spending panel specified last week.

DOE's fledging Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) does even better in the Senate bill, receiving a boost of 13%, to $312 million. (Energy Secretary Steven Chu has requested $350 million.) ARPA-E aims to quickly develop new technologies based on the best ideas in energy-related basic research. Fans of the agency are hoping that support prevails in any eventual showdown with budget-makers in the House, which has proposed slashing ARPA-E's $275 million budget by 27%, to $200 million.

The Senate and House numbers underscore the ideological differences between the two bodies over the role of the federal government in developing new technologies. While presenting the Senate bill, energy appropriations subcommittee chair Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) praised ARPA-E for drawing private investment to energy-related ideas. "As an early sign of success, and this is good news, 11 projects that received $40 million from ARPA-E have since received more than $200 million in outside private capital investment to further develop these technologies," she said. In contrast, House Republicans have argued that ARPA-E spends money on work private industry should pay for itself.

It's not yet known how Senate appropriators have divvied up the money among the Office of Science's six research programs: basic energy science, high-energy physics, biological and environmental research, nuclear physics, advanced scientific computing research, and fusion energy sciences. As did House appropriators, Feinstein noted that her spending priorities would favor materials research (which is part of basic energy sciences), advanced computing, and biological research. Conspicuously absent was any mention of fusion research. The White House has proposed cutting domestic fusion research by 16% to help pay for the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment, ITER, under construction in Cadarache, France. House appropriators said their spending bill would reverse those cuts.

Details of both the House and Senate bills should be available later this week after the bills are taken up by the full appropriations committee in each body.

Posted in Funding Budget_2013, Energy_Science, DOE