Hill Blocks DOE Plan to Create "Bell Lab-lets"

13 July 2009 11:10 am

Late last week, Congress summarily slapped down the Department of Energy's biggest new research initiative: A plan for eight new research "hubs" aimed at solving the nation's energy problems. DOE had requested a total of $280 million for these interdisciplinary centers in fiscal year 2010. But appropriations committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate made deep cuts in that request.

The House committee approved only $34 million for the plan this year, the amount requested for just one hub. Appropriators in the Senate, meanwhile, endorsed plans for a center dedicated to the modeling and simulation of nuclear reactors, and gave qualified support to two more: A hub to make fuels directly from sunlight and another on energy-efficient buildings. But funding for those centers would come from a complicated budgetary swap, using stimulus funds instead of the 2010 budget to pay for a construction project at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

The congressional actions are a stinging setback for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who championed the new research centers. Chu saw the hubs as miniature Bell Labs in which top scientists from many different disciplines could work together to overcome specific energy-related challenges. Plans for most of them are now on hold at least for another year.

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