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Energy Science: Obama's Darling, Congress's Target

14 February 2011 6:50 pm
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It's a comforting idea for many scientists but may prove to be only a fantasy: The Obama Administration has requested a healthy increase for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, the single largest funder of the physical sciences in the United States and steward of 10 national laboratories. This despite a proposed freeze in overall nondefense discretionary spending for 5 years. For fiscal year 2012, the Administration would increase the DOE science office's budget by $452 million, or 9% over current spending levels, to $5.4 billion. "In context, it's a very strong budget" that underscores the Administration's commitment to energy research and innovation, says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Researchers aren't dancing in the street, however. Last Friday, the appropriations committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives proposed cutting the Office of Science budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, which started 1 October, 18% from 2010 levels of $4.9 billion to $4.0 billion. The cut is part of the committee's proposed continuing resolution to fund the federal government through the current year. So instead of celebrating the proposed increase, directors at DOE's labs are busy trying to prepare for the prospect of laying off thousands of workers.

There are winners and losers among the six research programs the office supports. The biggest program, basic energy sciences, would receive the biggest increase, a 24% boost up to $1.98 billion, to support research in condensed matter physics, chemistry, and material sciences and to run the program's x-ray synchrotrons, neutron source, and other user facilities. Biological and environmental research (BER) would receive a 22% bump to $718 million, and advanced scientific computing would also get a 22% increase to $466 million. DOE's nuclear physics program would get a 16% boost to $605 million, including an increase of $46 million for the ongoing upgrade of the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, and an increase of $18 million in the construction budget for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, an accelerator in the works at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

In contrast, DOE's high-energy physics program would receive a much smaller increase of 1% increase, to $797 million. But the budget proposal contains a silver lining for particle physicists. In it, the high-energy physics and nuclear physics programs would pony up $15 million to keep alive a project to turn an abandoned gold mine in South Dakota into a vast Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL.) That was supposed to be a National Science Foundation (NSF) project until the National Science Board, which sets policy for the agency, turned down a request for additional funding for design work. The NSF budget request for 2012 explicitly zeros out funding for DUSEL. DOE's fusion energy sciences program would see funding cut by 4% to $400 million.

Of course, all of this is contingent on the DOE Office of Science avoiding the House Republicans' budget ax in the remainder of fiscal year 2011. Because the cuts would kick in after half the fiscal year has already passed with labs spending at 2010 levels, the impact would effectively double to 36%. The House plan specifically cuts the budget of BER, which funds much of DOE's climate research, by 49% to $302 million, essentially zeroing out the program for the remainder of the fiscal year. Beyond that, it's unclear exactly what would get cut, but officials at national labs say that an 18% across-the-board cut would be devastating.

For example, Oak Ridge employs roughly 5000 workers and has an annual budget of $1.6 billion. If the proposed House cuts to the Office of Science and other DOE programs go through, then Oak Ridge would have to lay off 1000 of those employees, Mason says. Even so, it would be hard to cut expenses enough to meet the House target in 6 months, he says. "You have to give [laid-off employees] 2 months' notice and then you have to give them [on average] 4 months' severance pay, so you aren't saving any money" in fiscal year 2011, he says.

So despite the encouraging numbers in the president's budget, officials associated with the DOE labs are bracing for the worst. "The hard part is going to be figuring out what happens now," says William Madia, vice president for SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, which runs the neighboring lab. "What actually happens in the House and the Senate? From what I've heard, it's not looking like it's going to be pretty."

See our complete coverage of Budget 2012.

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