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JCAP's home base: The Earle M. Jorgensen Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

U.S. House budget bill would nix Steven Chu's brainchild

Staff Writer

Fifteen months after Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Chu stepped down as secretary of energy, budgetmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have moved to kill the project perhaps most emblematic of Chu's vision for reshaping research in the Department of Energy (DOE). In their version of the proposed DOE budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins 1 October, House appropriators zero out funding for the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), which seeks to develop a technology to convert sunlight to a fuel such as hydrogen gas. The White House's proposed budget, released earlier this year, had requested $24 million for JCAP, which is based at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

JCAP was one of five energy innovation hubs that Chu envisioned as miniature versions of the storied Bell Labs. The hubs, Chu argued, would make DOE research more nimble and responsive to the nation's energy needs. And JCAP was arguably the hub closest to Chu’s heart: He had strongly promoted research into artificial photosynthesis during his tenure as director of Berkeley Lab, from 2004 to 2008.

Launched in July 2010, JCAP aims to develop an efficient, cheap, and durable system for producing fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide as inputs. As with the DOE’s other hubs, it was originally funded for a total of $122 million over 5 years, with the possibility of having its funding renewed for a second 5 years. That means JCAP has already received the last of its initial funding and DOE officials must decide whether to renew the center. But they haven't done that. Instead, the White House's budget asks for one extra year of funding and said that DOE officials would make a decision on whether to continue the project by the end of fiscal year 2015. House appropriators apparently felt no need to indulge such dithering, zeroing out money for JCAP next year in the report accompanying the budget bill. "The committee notes that the Department has made no decision for continued funding for the hub beyond the initial term," explains the report, rolled out Wednesday.

The episode is just the latest of many examples in which DOE has failed to communicate effectively with Congress, says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. "Given what the Administration has said, I don't think you can blame appropriators for saying, 'Look, we don't know what you want to do,' " he says. The absence of a permanent director for DOE’s Office of Science may also have played a role, he adds; the U.S. Senate has not yet acted on the nomination of Marc Kastner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Others have suggested that the current secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, may be considering tweaking the hubs concept.

Carl Koval, director of JCAP, did not respond to requests for comment. And JCAP is far from dead. The Senate Appropriations Committee must still reveal the specifics of its version of the budget. And Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–CA) heads the subcommittee in charge of DOE's budget, a California connection that could redound to JCAP's favor.

Overall, the House budget bill would hold spending in DOE's Office of Science at its current level of $5.071 billion. The White House had requested $5.111 billion. But the House bill would shift spending levels among the offices six research programs. For example, it would slash spending on biological and environmental research, including DOE's research on climate change, by 11.5% to $540 million—in contrast with the 3% increase proposed by the Obama administration. On the other hand, the House bill would boost spending on fusion energy science by 6.7% to $540 million—as opposed to the 17.8% cut called for by the White House.

The House bill also calls for spending on DOE's advanced scientific computing research to climb 12.9% to $600 million, the same as in the White House request. Nuclear physics would see its budget climb 5.3% to $600, slightly more than the requested 4.2% boost. Basic energy sciences, which runs DOE's big x-ray synchrotrons, neutron sources, and nanotech centers, would get a 0.6% haircut to $1.702 billion, instead of a requested 5.4% boost. And high-energy physics would take a cut to of 2.9% to $775 million, instead of the requested 6.7% cut.

House appropriators would also hold the budget of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, at its current $280 million. The Obama administration had requested $325 million for ARPA-E, another of Chu's brainchildren that aims to quickly take the best ideas from basic research and develop them enough so that private industry can take them over and turn them into technologies.

*Correction, 24 June, 8 a.m.: The date by which DOE officials have said they will make a decision on JCAP's future has been corrected.

Posted in Funding Budget 2015