Scientists usually howl like wounded puppies at the prospect of a flat budget for an important U.S. science agency. But given the budget-cutting mood of the current Congress, scientists supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) say they're greatly relieved at this week's action by a Senate spending panel. At the same time, there will likely be yelps from some members of the pack.
On Wednesday the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $4.843 billion for DOE's Office of Science in 2012. That's the same level as this year, and a slight bump over the $4.8 billion approved in July on a largely partisan vote by the House of Representatives covering the entire department. Although the funding is a far cry from the $5.416 billion that the Obama Administration had requested in February for the next fiscal year, which begins on 1 October, officials at the Office of Science's 10 national labs say they're not complaining. "Even staying flat when a lot of other programs are getting cut is relatively good news," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In budgets, "flat is the new good," quips Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
Although the Senate bill would hold the Office of Science budget flat, it would slightly boost some of the office's six programs and cut others. The winners include basic energy sciences (BES), which supports research in materials science, condensed matter physics, chemistry and allied fields, and runs DOE's x-ray synchrotrons and other user facilities. Its budget would climb by $15 million, or 1%, to $1.693 billion. Similarly, funding for the biological and environmental research (BER) program would rise by $10 million, or 1.6%, to $628 million. BER funds DOE's basic research on climate change and biomass fuels. The advanced scientific computing research (ASCR) program, which supports most of the nation's supercomputing capabilities, would get $442 million, up $20 million (4.7%) from this year. The nuclear physics budget would creep up $10 million, or 2%, to $550 million.
The big loser in the Senate bill would be fusion energy sciences (FES). Its budget would fall by $40 million, or 11%, from this year's level to $335 million. (In contrast, the House approved a $30.5 million increase, to $406 million, a figure that tops even the Administration's request by $6.3 million.) The high-energy physics program would see its budget dip by $15 million, or 2%, to $780 million.