Reversals of Fortune in House Version of DOE Research Budget

Staff Writer

If the House of Representatives gets its way, next year will see a reversal of trends within the six research programs funded by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, the single biggest supporter of the physical sciences in the United States. Programs that have languished over the course of the Obama administration, such as fusion and high-energy physics, would get bumped up, while the one program that has grown the most over the past decade—basic energy science—would receive a cut.

Passed by the House Committee on Appropriations today, the bill would cut the overall Office of Science budget by 0.2% to $4.653 billion, a whopping $500 million less than the White House requested in April. "It's a pretty dire budget," says William Madia of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. "There are some serious hits."

Although there have been ups and downs along the way, the trends over the past 4 years have been clear. The Obama administration favors research with immediate connections to energy problems and has set as its priorities research in advanced materials for energy applications, advanced biofuels, and high-performance computing. Accordingly, budgets have generally climbed for basic energy science, which supports materials science and related fields; biological and environmental research, which supports biofuels research; and advanced scientific computing research. In contrast, budgets for high-energy physics and fusion energy science have fallen significantly, and nuclear physics has realized a modest gain.

But in its version of the bill that would fund DOE for fiscal year 2014, which begins on 1 October, the Republican-controlled House would buck those trends. In spite of the tight budget ceiling, the fusion program would get an enormous boost of 32% to $506 million. That much of that increase would be used to reverse cuts to fusion experiments at home that the administration would make in order to fund the international fusion project, ITER, in Cadarache, France. Specifically, the bill would keep open the smaller fusion experiment called Alcator C-Mod at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The boost would also enable DOE to spend $217 million on ITER, just shy of the $225 million that the administration requests.

Similarly, the high-energy physics program, which has seen its budget cut by 3% since 2009, would get about a 2% percent boost to $773 million. That's still $4 million less than the administration had requested. The House budget also does not contain money to begin construction of the billion-dollar Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. The House budget would also bump up the nuclear physics budget by 5% to $551 million. That would be enough both to run the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and to start construction on a new $615 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University in East Lansing, at least delaying an either-or choice.

On the flip side, the basic energy science program, which runs DOE's x-ray synchrotrons, neutron sources, and other user facilities, would see its budget fall to $1.583 billion. The House bill would fix the amount that DOE can spend on running those user facilities, which support tens of thousands of researchers at current levels—a freeze that could lead to reductions in running time and services. The administration had requested $1.862 billion for the program. The biological and environmental research program would take an even bigger cut, 15% to $494 million. Significantly, House appropriators expressed support for the biological systems science side of the program, which supports work on biofuels—a possible signal that the cuts will come primarily out of the climate and environmental sciences side of the house.

The advanced scientific computing program would receive a boost of nearly 3% to $432 million. That's $33 million short of the administration's request, but enough to support DOE's exascale computing effort, which would aim to increase the speed of supercomputers a thousandfold.

On the balance, House appropriators seem to have favored the programs that the White House has not. However, Madia warns against reading too much into the numbers. It's not so much that fusion, high-energy physics, and nuclear physics are enjoying renewed prosperity, but rather that austerity is closing in on the other programs, he says. Given that prospect, basic energy sciences officials may have to start thinking about making cuts of their own, Madia says. "My reading is that it's a signal [to DOE]," he says. "Show us what you're not going to do, show us your hard choices."

Of course, the House version of the budget isn't a done deal. Yesterday, the Senate introduced a version of the bill that would provide the full $5.153 billion for the Office of Science that the administration requested. But if the House and Senate agree on a budget—and that's a big if—then, Madia says, the number may well come out closer to the House level.

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