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High Contrast: U.S. Legislators Plot Disparate Courses for Department of Energy Research

4 November 2013 4:15 pm
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Competing ideas. Republicans on the House science committee, led by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), right, are proposing a funding plan for the Department of Energy’s science programs that calls for lower spending than a plan put forwar

House Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Competing ideas. Republicans on the House science committee, led by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), right, are proposing a funding plan for the Department of Energy’s science programs that calls for lower spending than a plan put forward by the panel’s Democrats, led by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), left.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives say they love science, which is seen as engine for innovation and economic growth. But in counting the ways, Republicans and Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology have come up with very different proposed budget numbers for the leading funder of the physical sciences in the United States, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science.

With an annual budget of $4.621 billion, the Office of Science runs 10 national laboratories that house numerous "user facilities" including x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources that support 29,000 researchers annually. The office funds research in basic energy science, such as materials science and chemistry; biological and environmental research, such as the development of advanced biofuels and the study of climate; advanced scientific computing using supercomputers; fusion research, such as the United States' participation in the international project ITER in Cadarache, France; high-energy particle physics; and nuclear physics.

Democrats would like to amp up the science office's budget by 33.7% over 5 years to $6.263 billion. That plan appears in the Democrats' proposed renewal of the America COMPETES Act, which they unveiled last week. The original COMPETES act aimed to double federal investment in the physical sciences through DOE, the National Science Foundation, and other federal research agencies to help the United States meet increasing competition from countries in Europe and Asia. That bipartisan bill passed in 2007, when Republican George W. Bush was president and Democrats controlled the House, and renewed in 2010, when the Democrats still held the House.

Republicans are calling for more modest increases. Instead of crafting a comprehensive proposal to renew COMPETES, Republican lawmakers have split the effort into two bills: one for DOE alone, and another for the rest of the agencies. Details of the DOE bill, known as the Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act, or EINSTEIN America Act, have not been released. But some of the basic elements appeared in the charter for a 30 October hearing of the science committee's Subcommittee on Energy. EINSTEIN specifies budgets only 2 years into the future and would increase the office's budget by 2.7% over that time to $4.747 billion. In contrast, the Democrats' bill would boost spending by 17.1% over the same period.

The funding levels in the Republican draft "essentially amount to harmful cuts because they do not even keep up with the level of inflation for research," Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the senior Democrat on the science committee, said at the hearing. But science committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) affirmed Republicans' support for DOE's science wing. "We may have a slight difference on funding, but I think overall we are all are very encouraged by what the Office of Science of the DOE does," Smith said, "The Department of Energy at its core is a science agency." Both Smith and Johnson said they hoped the two sides could come to an agreement.

So where would Republicans tighten the fiscal belt? Legislators and witnesses at the hearing, who had seen the Republican draft, suggested it would seek savings in part by deemphasizing DOE research on the environment and climate change. John Hemminger, a chemist from the University of California, Irvine, and chair of DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, noted that within biological and environmental research, the Republican bill specifically favors research on biological systems, genomics, and the effects of low-dose radiation. But a molecular-level understanding of pollution and climate change is as important to DOE's overall energy mission, he testified. "I think it's a mistake to try to legislatively prioritize topics within the office," he said in reply to a question.

Even if legislators agree to authorize budget levels higher than those in the Republican draft, there's no guarantee that Congress will come up with the money. The 2010 reauthorization of COMPETES authorized just over $6 billion for the Office of Science in 2013, far more than the amount that Congress ultimately appropriated, noted DOE’s Patricia Dehmer, deputy director for science programs in the Office of Science. She urged legislators to maintain a consistent and predictable funding outlook for the agency, something that hasn't happened in recent years as Congress has failed to agree on funding bills and long-term budget plans. Dehmer recounted that, when she served as director of the office's basic energy sciences program from 1995 to 2007, she used to carry a single page of paper listing the program's projected budgets for the coming 10 years. "We didn't have a huge amount of funding but we knew what's coming," she said. “Today there would be no way could carry a spread sheet like that because things change so much."

House Republicans have not said when they expect to unveil a detailed draft of the EINSTEIN bill. The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, is beginning to think about its own version of a COMPETES reauthorization, which is expected to include DOE. On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is scheduled to hold a hearing to discuss COMPETES and related issues.

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