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House Panel Tells Energy Department to Cull Underperforming Research Grants
16 June 2011 5:24 pm
First, the silver lining for scientists: When the spending panel for the House of Representatives sliced $6 billion from the $30.7 billion budget requested for 2012 by the Department of Energy (DOE), it largely spared the agency's science arm. The Office of Science would get $4.8 billion, $42 million less than it now receives, under the bill approved yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee.
Now, the worrisome cloud: Legislators want officials in the Office of Science's largest research program to save $25 million by canceling the projects that aren't meeting their research goals.
Appropriators say that the exercise will make DOE's $1.7 billion basic energy science program more accountable and transparent. But some observers say it may discourage the very risk-taking that is essential to basic research. "I've never seen Congress micromanage in this way," says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. Ironically, the requirement seems to stem from appropriators' desire to apply the ethos of DOE's new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to DOE's established research portfolio. The 2-year-old ARPA-E is a darling of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who envisions the agency as a nimble outfit that can quickly ferry promising ideas from the last stages of basic research to development for applications.
The Office of Science's budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins 1 October, would be a whopping $616 million below the amount requested by the Obama Administration under the House spending bill. Given the budget-cutting fervor in Washington, however, that total looks relatively good, Lubell says. "What the House [appropriations committee] has done essentially is say that it's willing to support the Office of Science by giving it only a small cut," he says. Of course, that's only one step in the budget process: The bill now goes to the full House, and then onto the Senate, where the Office of Science must vie with other programs within a shrinking budget for overall domestic spending.
Within the Office of Science's six research programs, Fusion Energy Sciences would get $406 million, a bump of $31 million from its current budget. Nuclear Physics would get $552 million, $12 million more than this year. High Energy Physics would get $797 million, the same as this year. Advanced Scientific Computing Research would get $427 million, a cut of $5 million from current spending levels, and Biological and Environmental Research would get clipped $65 million from its current level of $612 million. Basic Energy Science, which supports DOE's x-ray synchrotrons and most of its other user facilities, would see its budget inch up $10 million, to $1.688 billion.
Perhaps more important, the report says that "more than 80 percent of the $854,699,000 in research in the budget request for Basic Energy Sciences lacks transparency to the public and to the Congress." (The total does not include the funding awarded competitively for Energy Frontier Research Centers and the Energy Innovation Hubs, two DOE programs that make large awards to groups of researchers, often at several institutions.) So the report directs DOE to "create a performance ranking of ongoing multi-year research projects across Basic Energy Sciences" and to "terminate the lowest-ranking awards within Basic Energy Sciences in the amount of $25,000,000." The report specifically sites ARPA-E as an example of a program that quickly pulls the plug on poorly performing grants.
But insisting that results immediately match expectations isn't necessarily appropriate in basic research, in which scientists don't always know what they'll find, says Laura Greene, a physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "I need to spend a fraction of my time on projects that are very, very risky," says Greene, who works on exotic superconductors and participates in DOE's multi-institution Center for Emergent Superconductivity. "If you don't take risks, you don't make progress." Geraldine Richmond, a physical chemist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, says "BES does an incredible job already of cutting its lowest performers."
The proposed requirement seems to be linked in legislators' minds to Chu's push for ARPA-E, which Congress would fund at $100 million. That's $80 million less than it received this year and $450 million below the $550 million request for 2012. But even that smaller number reflects an apparent desire to apply ARPA-E's approach to targeted, short-term research projects—to fail quickly and move on, as Chu has described it—to Basic Energy Sciences's portfolio of longer-term, open-ended basic research. Lubell says that congressional staffers sometimes even conflate the budgets of the two programs. "From the get-go, the DOE was not sufficiently clear on the distinction between the two programs," Lubell says, "and this [requirement] is the consequence."