Government-funded researchers are bracing for the pain caused by the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that are now in effect. But today, President Barack Obama managed to turn the sensitive issue into a laugh line during a visit to the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
Obama traveled to the lab to tout his proposal to funnel some $2 billion in revenues from the government's offshore oil leasing program into energy research and technology development over the next 10 years. Shortly after beginning his remarks, Obama noticed that some of the Argonne employees who had crowded into a lab auditorium for his speech were still standing. "Everybody was standing and I thought Argonne—one of the effects of the sequester, you had to—(laughter)—get rid of chairs," Obama said to cheers and appreciative whistles. "That's good, I'm glad we've got some chairs."
Obama soon put a more serious spin on the potential damage that the sequester might do to federal research budgets, which are scheduled to face 5% reductions by the end of the fiscal year on 30 September unless Congress modifies the impact of a law that went into effect on 1 March. "[O]ne of the reasons I was opposed to these cuts is because they don't distinguish between wasteful programs and vital investments," Obama said. "They don't trim the fat; they cut into muscle and into bone—like research and development being done right here that not only gives a great place for young researchers to come and ply their trade, but also ends up creating all kinds of spinoffs that create good jobs and good wages."
Argonne spokesman Matthew Howard told reporters that, so far, the sequester has caused little hardship for the lab and its $794-million budget. "Our main concern is that sequester will hurt us in the long term," he said, according to a White House press pool report. "It will really devastate American science while the rest of this world is racing forward, we will be frozen … excitement about the new projects will be cut off."
White House officials say the Argonne lab, part of a network of multidisciplinary national laboratories run by DOE, was chosen as the backdrop for the speech to highlight how federal spending on basic research has led to the development of new batteries for electric cars and other transportation technologies. In a teleconference yesterday with reporters, a White House official said "in the early '90s, a group of researchers at Argonne started doing intensive research around advanced battery technology. At the time, no single company was able to make that sort of long-term investment to make the technology a reality. So Argonne stepped up and focused on the basic fundamental research that was needed. Fast-forward 20 years, the breakthroughs that Argonne achieved really brought advanced battery technology into the commercialization stage today … so this lab has a strong track record."
Obama echoed that endorsement today, and singled out one Argonne researcher—chemical engineer Michael Thackeray— for his role in leading battery research: "Mike started work on a rechargeable lithium battery for cars. And some folks at the time said the idea wasn't worth the effort. They said that even if you had the technology, the car would cost too much, it wouldn't go far enough. But Mike and his team knew better. They knew you could do better. And America, our government, our federal government made it a priority, and we funded those efforts. And Mike went to work. And when others gave up, the team kept on at it. And when development hit a snag, the team found solutions. And a few years ago, all of this hard work paid off, and scientists here at Argonne helped create a lithium ion battery that costs less, lasts longer than any that had come before."
In recent years, Argonne has spent $30 million to $40 million per year in federal funds on battery and transportation-related research, and last November DOE announced that the lab had won a competition to host a new batteries and energy storage research "hub." DOE officials expect that the new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, the department's fourth energy-related research hub, will receive up to $120 million in federal funds over 5 years.
If Obama gets his way, some of that money could come from his proposed energy research funding plan, dubbed the Energy Security Trust. The idea, White officials say, is to ensure a steady stream of funding for developing technologies aimed at weaning the United States off imported oil. Government revenues from offshore oil leasing, which currently total some $10 billion per year, are forecast to rise over the next decade, they note, so it would make sense to divert some of the windfall into research into other ways to run cars, trucks, and other vehicles.
The plan—first proposed by an independent and bipartisan group of energy and security experts—has drawn bipartisan interest in Congress. But it drew a skeptical reaction today from senior Republicans on the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. "The President's call today for $2 billion in new spending for green energy programs is not the answer to the nation's energy challenges. And it adds billions more to the deficit," said Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the panel's chair, in a statement. "Federal dollars should be focused on research and development, not picking winners and losers, which is a role better left to the private sector."
Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), who heads the science panel's energy subcommittee, said the trust proposal didn't go far enough because it didn't call for opening more public land—especially in Western states—to oil and gas drilling. "It is extremely disappointing that the President's proposal—which clearly recognizes the revenue potential of these vast resources—does not intend to open up any new lands to expanded production."
Before his speech, Obama toured Argonne's research facilities, including a thermal chamber in which a Chevy Volt was being exposed to various temperatures. Obama "was shown a monitor for the thermal test center that tracked fuel efficiency and the scientists told him to run a test himself," according to a press pool report filed by Susan Crabtree of The Washington Times:
While doing it, he joked about 'Jeff' who was the driver in the Chevy Volt he was tracking.
"What's Jeff doing?" Mr. Obama asked. "He doesn't have to steer …"
One scientist responded: "I think Jeff's practiced though … He's spun wheels going nowhere for 10 years now."
Obama gave his speech at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (APS), a giant x-ray source. Crabtree, the pool reporter, noted that APS "is the brightest source of x-rays in the western hemisphere. … While the x-ray is not harmful to humans, the bright, very white lights on the ceiling lights are blinding if you look right at them."
President George W. Bush visited the laboratory in 2002.