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FYI Number 20: February 28, 2001

DOE Advisory Panels Meet

Two Department of Energy advisory panels were briefed this week by Associate Directors from DOE's Office of Science. Each gave a fairly upbeat assessment on the current Washington outlook for science programs at DOE.

At Monday's opening session of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, Patricia Dehmer, Associate Director of Science for BES, said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was "a very strong supporter of science," "right from the beginning." Many of the top science-related positions at DOE have not been filled, and Dehmer thought it could be up to eight months before a new director for the Office of Science is on the job.

The FY 2002 DOE budget request is apt to be "flat-ish," a condition likely to be true of all science budgets except for that of the National Institutes of Health, Dehmer said. The odds are against a final FY 2002 appropriation for the DOE science budget that would put it on a doubling path. Committee members were shown a graph based on AAAS statistics that showed the physical science budget, after adjusting for inflation, had remained flat, or even lost ground, for nearly two decades.

Dehmer encouraged the committee members to relate the importance of the BES program in a "compelling, succinct way." "Public attitudes really do determine funding," she said. New personnel at DOE have been extremely supportive of science, she reported, and eager to learn about its programs.

The discussion turned to an examination of various science indicators. There has been a 20% decline in buying power for programs supported by BES in recent decades. This is reflected in the condition of the infrastructure, one exhibit on infrastructure stating "DOE labs range from downright ugly...and worse." Another indicator is scientific leadership, as measured by awards. In this regard, Dehmer said, "all of the programs in the Office of Science are doing well." Yet, U.S. submissions to American Physical Society journals are declining, Dehmer cautioned. Public support of science remains high, although understanding of it is much less so. The result of this, Dehmer told committee members, is that public support is tenuous. Surveys have found there has been little change in the public's understanding of science in the last 25 years.

Returning to budgetary matters, Dehmer said there had been "extremely good" congressional support for DOE science programs last year. Additional effort is needed to explain the scope of BES programs to policy makers, such as the large number of life science research projects conducted at BES facilities.

Regarding the Spallation Neutron Source, Dehmer said it was "on schedule and within budget." And finally, looking ahead at the Bush Administration's budget for the Basic Energy Sciences program, Dehmer predicted that the program would manage appropriately.

Yesterday, Anne Davies, Associate Director of Science for Fusion Energy Sciences, was the lead speaker at the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee Meeting. "It has been a most unusual [budget] year," Davies told the committee, explaining that it was only about three and one-half days ago that senior Office of Science personnel were given any information about the Bush Administration's likely request for the Department of Energy. While the overall DOE budget will be reduced, Davies thought that the Office of Science budget will be okay.

Davies explained that the Office of Science budget was prepared without direct participation of the "rank and file," and without Office of Management and Budget hearings. Nevertheless, if the initial indications hold, Davies said of the Fusion Energy Sciences budget: "It is a very good budget in this budget year."

Committee members were briefed on the status of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. The cost of the current design has been reduced by a factor of two, which is what the U.S. was seeking, Davies told the committee. Remaining ITER partners are meeting in Canada this week, with discussion about possible sites. Repeated interest is expressed in "what would it take to get the U.S. back?" Davies said. "I do not see us getting back in until it is more real," she told the committee members.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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