Thinking big. Two senators want to pump up research budgets at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which runs facilities such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Argonne National Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy

Thinking big. Two senators want to pump up research budgets at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which runs facilities such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

U.S. Senate Bill Includes Generous Funding for Energy Science Programs

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

A bipartisan proposal from two U.S. senators calls for boosting the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) science budget by nearly 23% over the next 2 years to $5.4 billion—a more generous raise than either Republicans or Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed.

The draft legislation is intended to become part of larger bill, still under discussion, that would reauthorize the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which expired at the end of September. It would set overall policy and maximum spending levels at several key science agencies, including the National Science Foundation and DOE’s Office of Science, which runs 10 national laboratories and is one of the nation’s major funders of the physical sciences.

The proposal is authored by senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a senior Republican who serves on key committees that oversee DOE and its budget, and Christopher Coons (D-DE), who serves on the appropriations committee. It calls for authorizing DOE science program to spend up to $6.9 billion in 2018, a 49% increase over its current level of $4.6 billion.

A similar proposal released by Democrats on the House science panel would boost the science office's budget by a smaller amount, 33.7% over 5 years to $6.3 billion. Both bills would give DOE more in fiscal year 2014 than the $5.2 billion that President Barack Obama has requested from Congress.

House Republicans envision much more modest increases. Their proposal, available so far only in summary,  would increase DOE science spending by 2.7% over 2 years, to $4.8 billion. In contrast, over that same 2-year period the Senate would boost DOE science spending by 22.9% , and the House Democrats by 17.1%. (Click here for a table comparing the proposals.)

The Senate proposal also includes a funding plan for the Advanced Research Projects-Energy (ARPA-E), which calls for boosting its current $264 million budget by 67% over 5 years, to $440 million. The House Democrats proposal calls for a heftier 75% increase to $461 million over the same period. House Republicans have not proposed funding levels for ARPA-E.

Not surprisingly, the Senate proposal has pleased research groups who advocate for bigger DOE budgets. But the numbers come with some big caveats. One is that these authorized levels, even if approved by Congress, don’t actually commit Congress to provide those sums. Indeed, appropriators rarely meet authorized spending limits. In fiscal year 2013, for instance, DOE’s science programs received $1.4 billion less than the spending target of about $6 billion in the 2010 law.

Another is that it is not clear whether the House and Senate will agree on new authorizing legislation to replace COMPETES. Both bodies are contemplating action, and several bills have been floated in the House. But prospects for finishing the job anytime soon are murky.

Posted in Funding, Policy, Scientific Community COMPETES Act