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FYI Number 69: June 6, 2001

Supportive Hearing for DOE's Office of Science

On May 17, Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and a PhD scientist, led a far-ranging, comprehensive and supportive hearing exploring the contributions of DOE's civilian Office of Science to the federal research enterprise. In addition to hearing from advisory committee chairs about the six main Office of Science programs, Bartlett led the discussion into issues of the balance of support between physical and biomedical research, the role the physical sciences play in underpinning the health and energy fields, the opportunities missed and facilities underutilized in many areas due to lack of funding, and the difficulties in articulating the value of basic research and maintaining public and congressional support for long-term research. Bartlett spoke fervently about how basic research was underappreciated in this country, and, pointing to the many empty committee seats, remarked on "the problem we face in attracting attention" to the accomplishments of the Office of Science.

Worries about adequate funding to pursue promising areas of research, and to repair and fully utilize DOE facilities, were related by the chairs of all six Office of Science independent advisory committees. Geraldine Richmond, chair of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), spoke about the possibilities to improve energy technologies and efficiency. The most difficult part of being BESAC chair, she said, was "seeing many phenomenal new ideas shelved or stalled because of lack of funding." The chairs of the Nuclear Science (NSAC) and Fusion Energy Sciences (FESAC) Advisory Committees testified that facilities in their fields were being underutilized - in many cases, run at less than half capacity. "Increased funding is essential" to capitalize on investments already made, said NSAC chair James Symons. FESAC chair Richard Hazeltine reported " serious concerns about whether the [fusion energy sciences] enterprise can be sustained" at current funding levels. Keith Hodgson, who chaired the Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee, stressed the importance of support for the physical sciences to advances in biological and biomedical sciences.

A second panel of witnesses addressed management of DOE's Office of Science. Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, chairman of the American Physical Society's Physics Policy Committee, testified that the Office of Science does an enormously successful job of building and operating large user facilities " of importance to all areas of science," and oversees a system of national labs with capabilities " not easily matched elsewhere." However, he said, a decade of declines in spending power, and perceptions of security and management problems throughout DOE, have led to a situation that has " reached crisis proportions." Citing the recommendations of a report released in December by a blue-ribbon panel of experts (see FYI #5), he urged that the achievements of the Office of Science be given greater visibility and recognition, either by elevating the office's Director to the position of Under Secretary of Science and Energy within the department, or by incorporating the activities of the Office of Science with NIST, NOAA, and possibly USGS into a "National Institutes of Science and Advanced Technology" within the Commerce Department. The Office of Science is " bursting" with research opportunities and cutting edge science, added Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Charles Shank, but the aging of DOE's research facilities " is a cloud on the future of world class science at these facilities." This, he said, will " compel us to address the imbalance of support" for the physical sciences. Bartlett agreed that if DOE's physical sciences are not adequately supported, " we're going to be limited in what we can do in biomedical research in the future, because that all begins where you leave off." " We're limited right now," Richardson responded; " The name of the game in [genomics] is imaging," and progress will not be made without the support of physical scientists and instrument designers. Bartlett also raised the role of the physical sciences in advancing energy technologies. As an argument for greater funding for fusion, he asked the witnesses for help in articulating to the public and the Administration " the dimensions of the energy problems we face as a nation."

James Matheson (D-UT) asked about past allegations of DOE management problems in the construction of major facilities. While there have been problems, they have been dealt with, Richardson indicated. He said DOE had a " superb record" of management of major scientific facilities, and " the biggest problem is the funding to keep them going."

Bartlett expressed his views that private industry should be funding more R&D, but that the federal government has an essential role in supporting long-term basic research. He was critical of the government for spending a smaller percentage of its GDP on basic research than other competing nations. Richardson pointed out that industry is not willing to support research with a long time horizon and to nurture " off-the-wall ideas," and its intellectual property interests will not let it support open research at universities as the government does. Bartlett noted that Congress can often be " arbitrary and capricious" in the funding of research. " Putting the sustainability of these [long-term basic research] projects at the mercy of Congress puts them at enormous risk," he stated. By the end of the hearing he had left no doubt that he is an advocate of greater funding for basic research in the physical sciences, and a supporter of DOE's Office of Science.

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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